At my inflight, fold-down table, I was appreciating the extra inch or two of legroom that one finds in the last four rows of economy seats on an Etihad flight back to Ireland. The girl next to me hadn’t flown before and so she didn’t know any better. For now, she was just excited! Legroom wasn’t a concern for her. She was an Australian travelling with her Irish boyfriend to see his beautiful homeland and meet his family. She was proudly clasping her newly-purchased copy of ‘Angela’s Ashes’. She told me she had saved reading it for the long flight. She was excited! The first offering of a drink and miniature bag of pretzels will do that for most first-timers.
Later in the flight – about eight hours later – the gloss was wearing off her first in-flight experience. She was now experiencing that precise moment for all passengers (the ones that can’t sleep on planes, anyway), after the first drink, the first meal tray, the first two movies and a fitful attempt to sleep, when one realises that one is not going to arrive at their destination anytime soon.
I noticed her fidgeting and her squirming (sure signs) and then with moistened eyes she turned to me and asked “How long is the next leg of our journey?” We still had 8 hours left of the first leg of the journey. I recognised the rising panic – the realisation that this journey was going to feel longer than she had ever imagined.
It’s at that moment that every economy class passenger faces an important choice: giving into the panic and tears and angst or submitting to the present reality – thinking ‘This is my life for the next 24 hours and I will calmly try to accept that life.’ You don’t have a third choice (short of one involving a parachute but, as far as I know, there are no parachutes provided in economy class). So you can either fight it or submit to it.
You don’t have to be seated in row 47 of an Etihad flight to face these two choices. They can appear before you in many different contexts: a 40 hour train trip to Townsville; an 18 hour trip on a Greyhound bus; a 15 minute trip on a train at peak hour with your face in a stranger’s armpit; or just about any situation in our ‘long-haul’ life where we are faced with an inescapable reality from which we would like to escape.
Can God be found in these moments? It’s sometimes very hard to find him there. Often we can admit that he’s there but we’re fighting with him for putting us there or for leaving us there. Occasionally we don’t even look for him there, as we are consumed with the rising sense of panic.
So many songs, poems, riots, screeches from fed-up children and status updates come from this space. ‘I’m here with seaweed wrapped around my head’, ‘My bones are aching’, ‘I’m forgotten’, ‘Where are you, God!?’
Some time ago, I travelled a short car journey with a friend. He is a true poet, a man of depth and one who suffers the excruciating ups and downs of chemical imbalance. He’d had a good week. A glimmer of joy in the lyric of a new song he’d heard. God had stepped into his long-haul journey and shown he was there. He lifted him out of the miry pit – for a little while anyway. This friend, like many others, has journeyed in this reality and pain for what seems like an eternity.
We long for rescue. Someone to step into our present journey and lift us into another – to upgrade us to the flat-bed seats and champagne of business class. Sometimes that happens (for awhile anyway) and other times it doesn’t. Other times we’re there in row 47, trapped by our seat belt and the overly reclined seat in front of us. There’s no way out. Fight or submit?
David, the poet king, once wrote of his submission to a good shepherd who gave him all that he needed. This shepherd sometimes took him to still waters and made him lie down in green pastures. But other times the shepherd travelled with David in row 47 in the 8th hour of the first leg of the journey – the ‘valley of death’.
This shepherd is not just a fellow passenger, but the pilot, the air-traffic controller and the flight attendant with a real glass overflowing with the best of beverages. He’s all that, right there with us in row 47 as we settle back and try to enjoy the in-flight entertainment and ignore our swelling ankles.
At the end of the long-haul flight to Ireland there are green pastures in sight.
This journey will be over soon and it will end so beautifully with a feast of the fruit of our longings during those dark valley times – feasting in the house of the shepherd forever.