Lessons from 4 days in airports

After speaking at a winter camp in Oregon and Iowa, I had the joy of traveling home to the midwest during winter. Anything can happen with wintry mid-west travel…and it did. I spent four days living in airports, boarding and de-boarding planes, and trying to engage my brain as much as possible. During this stint of getting to know every nook and cranny of the airports in Des Moines and Chicago, I learned a lot about the Overboard Life. Here are a few important lessons that should affect how I live outside the airport:

airport living

  1. Be kind to people under stress. While winter was blasting the midwest with snow, sub-zero wind chills and ice, those working in the travel industry were under a ton of stress. One day in Chicago, over 3,500 flights had been canceled, and thousands of weary travelers were stranded. Many of them, like me, were just trying to get home, some were trying to get to a job, and a few I met were on vacation. Everyone was going somewhere. The poor American and United airline employees were powerless to control the weather, but so many customers were rude, unkind and downright childish in the way they talked to the workers. I was amazed at how far kind words went whenever I spoke to employees who were doing everything they could to get everyone rebooked and sent home. Some were working double shifts to help with the overload of travelers and a simple, “thank you for your hard work” or “I really appreciate that you’re doing all you can do” changed demeanors, brought smiles and in one case, even a couple of tears to a travel agent who had been beat up by several of the previous customers in line. When people are under stress, be kind. I still worked hard to get home and to get on flights etc… but I was able to do it with kindness and those who received it were grateful. Paul’s words are so fitting and so direct: “Be kind to one another…”
  2. Think win/win, not win/lose. While everyone was trying to get a flight, there were just limited number of seats. Flying into Traverse City, for example, there were just a handful of flights a day, and when previous days’ flights were canceled, the flights suddenly were massively overbooked. One day, I — along with two others — were put on a plane headed back to TC and suddenly we were removed by customers who were high up on that particular airline’s loyalty program. As we got off, the patrons getting on were a tad smug and boasting a bit about their success, “no one treats me like that” was one comment I heard. Well one of the girls with me burst into tears as we lost our seats, because she had been stuck in Chicago for four days, her luggage had been checked through to TC, so she was living on airport food, airport clothes and very ready to be home. In order for one set of travelers to “win” their seats, someone else “lost” theirs. Sometimes when we’re fighting for “our” way, “our” seats or “our” thoughts, we take a win/lose mentality. We don’t think about the cost to others if we get our way, because we’re so stuck in one zone. How can you turn a win/lose into a win/win?
  3. Everyone loves to talk. I was waiting at one gate, hopeful that I was finally going to catch a flight. A young lady, in her mid 20’s, was sitting next to me with ear buds planted firmly in her ears, playing games on her phone. After an hour, she popped them out and sat their silently. I simply asked, “Where you headed?” and we engaged in a 60-70 minute conversation about her life. She was a student, traveling abroad, but headed home from a vacation in Florida. Her family is fractured a bit, but her aunt and uncle’s home in Florida is a safe place for her. She loves the son, but stays in Iowa because that’s been her childhood home. She shared with me her hopes and dreams, shared heart ache about a broken relationship and we even talked a bit about God. Over and over I engaged people in conversation and I realized that everyone has a story, and everyone loves to share their story. I never had a shortage of conversation, all I had to do was ask a few questions, and people would begin to talk. Are you listening to those around you?
  4. People aren’t used to receiving grace. Sometimes when you offer kindness and grace to people, they don’t receive it well. Grace can be easier to dispense than to receive. (I only have to look at myself to see this truth in action!) While travelers were walking numbly through airports (is it just me, or does time move at a different pace during travel?!), and airline employees were working frantically to solve problems, grace wasn’t always readily available, and when it was given, wasn’t always received well. But people’s inability or choice to not receive it, shouldn’t discourage us from still offering it. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 reminds us that the grace God gives us is meant to be given out to others. The passage doesn’t say others have to take it, we just have to be willing to give it.
  5. Sometimes a hug is all it takes. Back to point #2, when the young lady and I were booted out of our seats on the airplane, we had to do the walk of shame back up to the gate. However, when we got to the gate, the door was closed and we had to wait for the flight attendant to open the door and let us back in to the terminal. This young lady and I were standing silently, both feeling a little bummed about being on a plane and then losing our seats, when she suddenly burst into tears…full on sobbing! I didn’t know what to do as it was just the two of us on a the jetway. After a moment, I just reached over and gave her an awkward Baptist side-hug, and she buried her face into my shoulder and cried her little eyes out. She had been stranded for four days, she was at her wits end, and losing a seat she had been begging for was devastating to her. I couldn’t help her. I had no way to get her on the flight, but I could stand there and hug her, a total stranger, until she regrouped. By the time the flight attendant arrived, she had recovered enough so that we could go to the counter and figure out our next flight options. I’ll never forget that the hug from a total stranger gave her the strength to process and press on through what was an emotional moment for her.
  6. Let your friends help. I have been blessed with amazing friends that live all over the world. Two of them live in Chicago, Mikee and Joel Stutzman. More than once during the day they sent a text saying, “If you get stuck, give us a call and we’ll come get you.” Mikee and Joel live an hour from the airport, and I kept thinking, “I don’t want to put them out….” After two days of hobnobbing between airports and hotels etc… I needed to be with friends. So after an on again, off again airplane ride to nowhere, I called them and they were eager to come pick me up. I could tell it was a joy for them to help out, put me up in their home, let me eat their food and then to take me back to the airport in the morning. They were practicing 1 Peter 4:9 (the subject of another blog!) and demonstrating the gift of hospitality. I’ll tell you what, when I got back to the airport for day four, I was refreshed, energized and ready for whatever was next. My friends were a real encouragement to me. Are you letting your friends encourage you?
  7. Walking clears the head. Whenever you get bogged down, what do you do to clear your head? I couldn’t do much in the airport, but I decided to walk. Who knew you could walk over 3.5 miles in the Chicago airport and still not hit all the terminals? I used an iPhone app to track my mileage and I set out walking. It helped. I realized that when I often get mentally or emotionally bogged down, I tend to turn to things that don’t help clear my mind: food, tv, sulking etc… Instead, a high-energy walk helped a ton. Physical exercise is a huge part of our mental health and well-being, even if you’re stuck in an airport.

The Overboard Life isn’t meant to be lived in church or in some secret religious practice. The Overboard Life is a process of embracing who God made us to be (Psalm 139), so that we can do what God made us to do (Ephesians 2:10). That means there are lessons and opportunities, everywhere. I hope I never have the opportunity to be stuck in airports for four days, again. However, if I do, I still am privileged with the choice to live Overboard with those whom I am encountering. Overboard living doesn’t get to take days off; “whatever we do, whether in word or deed” or travel or fun or exercise or…. “do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.”

What lessons are you learning?

Go ahead and take the plunge, life is always better on the water!

If you are looking for some great Overboard resources, be sure to visit our bookstore: http://www.bookstore.overboardministries.com

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2 Responses to Lessons from 4 days in airports

  1. Jeromy says:

    Thanks Joe. Very encouraging.

  2. Tom Tanner says:

    Great post! Thanks for sharing your lessons learned in the middle of a mess!

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