I was boarding a plane. The flight was full. I was one of those in the last group to be called to board. I took one of the available middle seats and nodded politely with a half smile to the two men I’d be sitting between for the next couple of hours.
The man in the window seat very slowly pulled out a pad of paper and pen from a small bag he had with him. From my peripheral vision it appeared that he was making a list. I continued to read my book. When the flight attendant came by to take drink orders I noticed that there was something unique about this man. His response to her was a, “No, thank you,” that sounded like a recorded track played back at a slower speed. He spoke softly so I repeated his statement to the attendant. He thanked me in the same slow, quiet manner, and I introduced myself. Patiently, I listened as he quietly and slowly introduced himself.
It was at that point that I realized his list was of each state in the U.S. For some reason, I couldn’t help but comment on such an odd list. “So, you’re writing out each state, huh?” He slowly turned to look at me and said, “Yyyyyyehhhhhhhhhssssss.” Slowly, quietly he told me that sometimes he liked to make a list of all the states and provinces. “Wow!” I said, trying to be polite. “You must have a good memory.” We slowly and quietly exchanged a few pleasantries about where we were headed and I went back to my book.
His list seemed a bit curious, but I thought little of it. I took my eyes away from my book at one point as I stretched and looked down at his list again. Whatever he was writing at that moment wasn’t a state in the U.S. It was the start of sentence. Maybe his memory wasn’t so great after all. But this didn’t really matter to me. I was reading a good book. I had been nice to him, patient with how slowly he spoke. I didn’t need to pay any further attention.
During the last half of our flight, my row partner made a silent, subtle motion that appeared to be an attempt to get my attention. He apologized for interrupting me from reading, but said that he had something for me. With his slow but accurate pen, he had made a list of all 50 states, along with the provinces of the U.S. in order of region.
But that wasn’t all.
There were several pages that followed this list of states and provinces, also with lists. The first was a list of state and province capitals in the exact order of the state list. Followed by another list of the state and provincial mottos for each in the same corresponding order. All Latin and Spanish translated … so I could understand them.
I was seated right next to the man the whole time and knew he had not once looked at the other sheets to ensure he kept the order straight. It was flawlessly, perfectly penned from memory. The last page had a little note at the end:
“To my new friend, Mr. Jason.”
There’s a scene early in the film Fight Club where the protagonist is on a plane and says to the person in the seat next to him, “Tyler, you are by far the most interesting single-serving friend I’ve ever met.” It’s intended to be humorous—intended to poke fun at the shallow, half-ass pleasantries most of us exchange in the last few moments on a flight with the person sitting next to us. But in the film, the character means it. And I had that same feeling. This man had touched me. It’s unlikely that I will ever meet him again. Nonetheless, the gift he gave me was deeply meaningful.
In that moment I realized how much of a jerk I had been. In my haughtiness, I had thought I was such a kind, Christian person. My nominal kindness was returned with this miraculous list … a gift! My first internal response was one of humiliation for how awesome I thought I was just a moment ago. The second emotion was of deep gratitude. I raked my mind to consider if there was anything I could give him in exchange for his gift. What I quickly realized was that I had nothing to offer him … but my thankfulness.
The man sitting on my other side must’ve thought it odd that my new window seat friend and I kept thanking each other. Several times I thanked him and in response he would slowly thank me for thanking him. It reminded me of the first time I sold a musical CD I had recorded or the first piece of art I sold—they were grateful for the creative work; I was grateful that someone wanted what I had created.
What I received as a gift from this fellow traveler is, I imagine, most often observed as a disability. The beauty of what this man had done was to take this unique capacity and literally turn it into a gift he could offer to anyone. His is a reflection of the kind of narrative we find in the Bible. In Scriptural story after story, it is that person—or group of people—that popular opinion believes has little to offer that ends up giving the most. In our commodified culture, we often turn gift giving into a commercial exchange. You give me something, I owe you something. But I wonder if sometimes what we ought to give back to the gift giver is simply gratitude. I wonder if this alone has the capacity to give the giver the dignity that we often fail to extend.
Photo (Flickr CC) by Kevin Gong