Flying High: From Disappointment to Service

Have you ever noticed how a disappointment can really be a blessing in disguise? We had an experience of this recently while returning home from our three week work trip in Europe. We had just left Assisi, Italy, where we had led a retreat with our musician friend Charley Thweatt. During the week, besides the normal workshop activities, we walked in the footsteps of St. Francis as we visited various very sacred places where he had been. St. Francis was a master of letting go of plans and looking for ways to be of service to people, animals and the earth. I wanted to be more like him and felt so inspired leaving Assisi.

I admit, I have a big thing about seats on the airplane. We cannot afford to travel first or business class. Sitting next to Barry is the most important thing for me because together we make the trip go by in a pleasurable way. Second to that, I also like to have an aisle seat. Sometimes we are lucky and Barry gets the window seat and we have an empty seat between us. Otherwise Barry takes the middle seat. On this particular flight from Frankfurt, Germany to San Francisco, we needed to call Lufthansa two days before to obtain our seats. It was very difficult because at that time we were staying at a very small town outside of Assisi, with no cell phone signal. It was very challenging to call the airline, but with help from others we were able to get through and Barry secured two very good seats for us. The next day we began our journey in Rome to Frankfurt, with an overnight stay in order to catch the early morning 12 hour flight home.

We arrived at Frankfurt airport the next morning only to be told that our boarding passes had been cancelled by mistake and that there were now no more seats on the plane for us. After much work on her computer, the ticket agent happily announced that we both could have middle seats in totally different sections of this very big plane. Unlike St. Francis, I was upset and had trouble letting go of what I wanted…to sit next to Barry. He thanked the woman while I was still complaining and ushered me over to the very long security line. I felt very sad, but had finally surrendered when the same ticket agent came running up to us and said she had been able to find two seats together for us, an aisle and a middle. We both gave her a hug and felt much better.

We settled into our seats, so happy to be able to hold hands and be together. I noticed that a young man in the window seat in front of us was starting to drink vodka from a bottle he must have bought from the duty free shop. This young man was from Russia and looked like a younger version of the British actor, Rowan Atkinson. The German flight attendant that was in charge of the entire coach section introduced himself in his overly proper English. It was obvious that English was difficult for him, and it was spoken in a definite British way. This man looked exactly like the British actor John Cleese. Barry and I just noticed these things and settled in to watch a movie.

While watching, I couldn’t help but notice that the young Russian continued to drink and within one hour had finished off the entire liter of vodka. Things were getting out of hand. The young German couple in front of us was having a very hard time with him and
the woman started to cry. I went and got a flight attendant who came and told him to stop drinking. However, the damage was done, the bottle was empty. The couple was so upset that other seats were found for them.

Now the young man focused all of his attention on Barry and me. The alcohol was not only making him act drunk, but also mentally unstable and paranoid. Other flight attendants came again and again, but the situation became worse and worse. Finally, the head flight attendant came and asked for the man’s passport, but the Russian couldn’t find it, mumbling that it must have blown out the window. The flight attendant, in his proper, but poor, English, said decisively, “That is NOT what has happened. If you continue to act this way, I must call the police and they will arrest you when we land. Now give me your passport!” He eventually did find his passport…it hadn’t blown out the window. Picture John Cleese trying to manage Rowan Atkinson. It was definitely more entertaining than the movie we were trying to watch.

Barry told the flight attendant that he was a psychiatrist and that he would watch over the man. The flight attendant was visibly relieved. For the next ten hours we felt like a cross between therapists and baby sitters. Sometimes he would settle down for up to an hour. Then he would start pounding on the tray table or shouting at the top of his lungs. We kept reaching out our hands on his shoulder and letting him know that he was safe. Then he would settle down again. Barry insisted over and over again that he drink lots of water, which he did under Barry’s watchful eye.

On a whim, I went and checked out the original seats that we had been assigned two days before the trip. Yes, they were the best seats in the coach section with plenty of leg room and no one in front. We would have been very comfortable. And yet there was a higher plan at work, one we did not realize when we went to check in and found out our seats were given away. We were meant to sit behind this young Russian man. We were meant to comfort and understand him in a way that no one else on the plane, including the flight attendants, seemed able to. We wanted to just be together, be comfortable and get home, and yet there was also a plan of service awaiting us.

What a beautiful way to live life, to always be looking for the opportunities to be of service as St. Francis, St. Claire, Mother Teresa and many others did and are doing. This experience has strengthened my faith in the greater power to bring us into position to be of the greatest service, even if it comes in the form of cancelled tickets.

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