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photoStaying Cool Under Fire

Only once in my life have I ever wanted to be a flight attendant.  The date escapes me, but the event is seared firmly in my memory.

It was an early morning flight from Minneapolis to New York, and the plane was packed to the gills.  With the last bag stowed and all of us wedged tightly into our seats, the only thing left was the hopelessly cheery invitation to “sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight.”  Who can remember when the last of those flights left the terminal?

Then it happened.  Just as the door was set to close, one last desperate passenger rushed on and bulldozed his way down the narrow aisle to 14D.  Then he became another person.  There, in 14D, sat someone else; and our new friend just lost it.  He proceeded to explode in rage at the poor soul who had the misfortune to be sitting in his seat.  Only it wasn’t his seat, because a quick check of tickets revealed that it was their seat.  But as everyone who flies knows, no airline would assign two people to the same seat, unless they could figure out a way to do it legally.

photoWhat followed was a river of blue language.  You could scarcely hear a peep from the rest of us, and all eyes were fixed on the volcano of rage standing in the aisle.  He was no happy camper, and this was not a good day to be working for Northwest Airlines.  Frankly, we all wished we were somewhere else.  Watching people go berserk on a plane is nobody’s idea of entertainment.

This is the sort of situation that every flight attendant must dread.  Had I been on duty that morning, I know I would have taken immediate sick leave and slipped out the back.  But to her credit, our flight attendant was no shirker.  She marched deliberately down the aisle, and as she approached, she became the target of a barrage of invective.  It was all her fault, of course, along with the incompetence of the airline, shouted our friend.  Those weren’t his exact words, of course.  But they were calculated to get everyone’s attention as he bared his righteous indignation for all to see.  As for the rest of us, we were a captive audience, and this was not going to be pretty.

photoOur angry friend shoved his boarding pass into the face of the attendant, almost daring her to buckle under and grovel for mercy.  He was in no mood to compromise; but she brought her own share of determination.  In fact, she was as cool as a cucumber, and in the finest “Minnesota nice” she asked “What seems to be the problem here?”  The tension was thick as she eyed his boarding pass, and we all dreaded the next move.  Then came her soothing words. “Yes, Mr. Smith.  14D is definitely your seat.  And I have some good news.  It says here that your flight is tomorrow.  So if you stick around the boarding area, you’ll have plenty of time to make your flight, and then some.”

photoLaughter filled the plane.  Then came the applause.  Our friend disappeared down the aisle, and our heroine returned to the galley.  That was the moment when I would have enjoyed trading places.

All of us learned an important lesson about anger that day.  Anger is not pretty.  Anger does not make us look more attractive, nor does it make us a lot of friends.  Anger won’t win an argument for us.  More often than not, anger brings no advantage,  because it is irrational.  Anger is the train of our emotions steaming out of the station, leaving behind our common sense, standing on the platform.

There are anger management courses, but I’ve never heard of an anger eradication course.  Anger then is a part of our lives,  and we can let it overwhelm us or we can learn to deal with it.  Saint John Cassian described it as a frequent intruder into our thoughts, and it strikes me as a good thing to ask a few questions whenever it shows up.  Why has it come calling on me?  And what does it intend to do with me?  In the end, it may even  be a good idea to ask anger politely to leave.  After all, do I want to turn myself over to anger, look stupid, and alienate the people around me?  On most days, that’s not a good plan.

photoSeldom does anger accomplish much of anything, but that morning it seemed to get a lot done for a change.  For one thing, the irate passenger got everything he demanded, and more.  He got the flight attendant to cave in and admit that 14D was his seat, and his alone.  And, he got a free day he had not counted on.  He had to be absolutely delighted with that outcome.

But it was the flight attendant who won my real admiration.  She had kept her cool under fire.  She had maintained decorum as she defused a nasty situation.  And to her credit, she did it all without gloating.  But I swear I saw a trace of a smile on her otherwise stoic face as she walked back to the galley.

photoI also learned something about myself.  I do not have the stuff of which good flight attendants are made.  Had it been me in her place, it would have ended quite differently.  I too would have demolished that passenger.  I too would have restored order in the cabin.  But then I would have stared out at one and all, and asked rhetorically: “All right, who’s next?”  Then I would have issued my own version of the usual invitation.  “And now it’s time to sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight.  And I don’t want to hear another peep out of anybody.”

On second thought, I probably would leave off that last part.  Why go looking for trouble?

photoNotes

+On May 20-21 I took part in the annual retreat and meeting of the Trustees of Saint John’s University.

+On May 22nd I gave a talk on The Saint John’s Bible to the Friends of Saint Agnes Hospital, in Fresno, CA.

+On May 23rd I presided at the Eucharist at Saint John’s Abbey.

+On May 24th we celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for our confrere, Fr. George Wolf.  At 97 years of age, Fr. George was the oldest monk in our community, and for 62 years he served faithfully and energetically at our Priory in Nassau in the Bahama Islands.  Not so many weeks before his passing, he was still taking his daily walk, and in so many ways he was an inspiration to us all.  Unfortunately, he did not get the benefit of Yogi Berra’s famous dictum that “if you don’t go to their funeral, then they won’t go to yours.”  In his day he went to a lot of funerals, but few of his friends attended his.  Happily, most of his friends were already waiting for  him when he passed into the next life.

photo+Spring has finally come to Collegeville, and not a moment too soon.  While the leaves have not fully budded, many of the flowering trees have blossomed and a few flowers have bloomed.  It is also the time for monks to get back into the garden, as the picture at right illustrates.  Years ago individual monks were allowed to tend individual plots, and in the process we discovered why communism does not seem to work well when it comes to farming.  These smaller plots seem to produce so much more.

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