This long, cold winter has produced some interesting obstacles to my travel schedule. One of those challenges occurred on a recent trip to Roseburg, Oregon. My flight itinerary routed me from St. Louis through Phoenix to Eugene. The first leg would take three hours; the layover was to be an hour; the second leg would again last three hours; and the final car ride from Eugene to Roseburg would require an hour and a half. Total travel time from leaving my home and arriving at my final destination added up to eleven hours, which –by the way – is more time than a non-stop flight to Europe! However, every time I book one of those travel-twice-as-far-for-half-the-money tickets, I remind myself that flying is far superior to a car, bus, or other slower modes of transportation.
I boarded the plane with reading materials in hand; I was mentally prepared for the long travel day – or so I thought! The boarding procedure began on time. With only half the passengers loaded on the fully-booked flight, the attendants announced that all the overhead compartments were full and that all passengers’ carry-on luggage must either fit under the seat or be checked. That created a heightened state of confusion and delay. Forty minutes after the scheduled departure time, flight attendants were still carrying luggage off the plane and people were still trying to settle into assigned seats.
Late departure meant late arrival. Before we landed in Phoenix, many passengers became aware that making connections to their next plane would be questionable. Those going to Eugene had about ten minutes. The race was on! One man in our newly formed pack of six-travelers-desperate-to-make-the-Eugene-flight hailed a motor-driven cart. We hopped on, and the driver radioed ahead to the gate for the flight to wait for us. From the far end of concourse B to the other end of concourse C we sped only to be greeted by the words, “You missed your flight.”
The plane had just pulled away from the gate – three minutes ahead of schedule! After a short time of everyone talking at once, we were directed to the service counter where we would be re-routed and re-booked. Tempers began to flare. One man threw his coat and briefcase to the floor. One woman cried and said that she had not seen her children for a week. The stories and troubles were diverse; attitudes were negative; accusations and complaints were flying. And there, across the counter from all the disgruntled customers, was a ticket agent. She smiled, apologized, sympathized, smiled more, and tried to offer solutions.
As I had not yet had my turn to be waited on, I was observing the interactions between the frustrated customers and the accommodating airline representative. She did not return self-defense for accusation. She did not combat anger with anger. She did not retaliate in any way. Instead, she responded to each disturbed customer with a soft answer. My mind reflected upon the proverb that states a gentle answer turns away wrath but harsh words stir up anger (Proverbs 15:1). She may have been just responding out of her customer service training, but she was a living Bible lesson to me.
I wondered how often I had successfully turned away wrath when someone near me had heard the words, “You have missed your flight” (metaphorically speaking). In the midst of someone’s missed opportunities, blocked goals, unavoidable obstacles, or frustrating moments, had I smiled and offered customer service? As I stood in line, I whispered a little prayer of repentance for any of my past retaliatory harsh words. I prayed for the agent, for my fellow travelers, and for my own responses. I asked God for the grace to return a gentle answer.
Within seconds, I had an opportunity to practice my prayer. I would be placed into a hotel for the night without my luggage, clothes, cosmetics, or toiletries – which had miraculously caught the flight to Eugene. I would fly out the next morning and arrive at my destination twenty-six hours from the time I left home. I smiled and offered a gentle ‘thank you’ to the service agent. I walked away with a memory and a life lesson that may be helpful in ordering my responses the next time I am face to face with someone who has had a “You have missed your flight” moment in life.