Our Better Angels

“Please stop watching.”  

The round, green eyes of my traveling companion flash as she whispers these words toward me. We are sitting in a crowded, delayed airplane stuck on the runway. Hot, stuffy, and impossibly close. Bodies of all sizes are wadded into same-sized seats like so many sausage parts stuffed into casings. The man next to me, nearly twice my size, hunkers close to the window attempting to create his own space in this metal tube of chaos. 

Her words startle me. I am embarrassed. How long had I been watching?  

I had been watching to find some way to help. As the mother across the aisle valiantly attempted to console an inconsolable toddler in an impossibly uncomfortable space, I admired her outward calm and determination to heed to better angels. I had been praying for something to magically change the moment for her, for them, for all of us. I imagined the ball of ache rising in her chest as efforts to calm an overwrought toddler proved fruitless. I was loving her across those inches, and yet, all my care-induced tracking and praying had only contributed another layer of claustrophobic discomfort. 

Sometimes, love and prayers are not enough to relieve another’s discomfort. We know this. In that moment, the only thing the distraught toddler needed was to get off the airplane. To breathe new air, to be unencumbered, to stretch legs and arms, to be. And after that, when her breath had been steadied, to fall into the embrace of the one who loves her. Until then, there was nothing magical enough, distracting enough, or loving enough to ease her distress. She just needed out.

That little girl had aptly expressed what many of us feel as we search for comfort, for fresh air, for space to stretch our arms and legs within the trapped, claustrophobic chaos that is our world. Seeking some way to ease the smothering reality of viruses, politics, economics, poverty, climate change, family conflict—whatever stands between us and the freedom we imagine we need for ourselves or for another. 

The experience also revealed that we cannot offer true freedom, or even love for that matter, without grace.

Grace had reigned in the aisle that led out of the plane. As we walked off the plane that day, many fellow travelers met one another’s gaze, empathetic eyes smiling above masks. Putting aside their own discomfort and heeding to their better angels, they acknowledged that the little one had only been expressing what we all felt on that delayed, hot, and stuffy plane. Annoyed critics would have changed the outcome of the walk down the aisle. Instead, walking past the gate and a few yards down the concourse provided a view to the beautiful toddler sitting within her momma’s embrace on the floor, catching her breath and calming her spirit as her momma stroked her hair and whispered sweet words of love.

Kindness and empathy—our better angels–give good gifts.

Jill English is an avid encourager of humans and lover of words. She is most at home out-of-doors, and in particular, while walking any beach. Her most magical moments involve being Grammy to two remarkable grandchildren, and Mom to their lucky parents. As a discerner of call in higher theological education, her favorite conversations involve connecting the sacred dots of everyday life and faith. Jill lives in Grand Rapids, MI with two small, elderly pups.