The power of unanswered questions


One day, I had to take a flight from Chicago to San Francisco. It doesn't sound that interesting, does it? Get to the airport, check your luggage. Take off your coat and shoes, and take everything out of your bags in order to get through security, bundle everything into your arms and run for your gate. Board the plane, sit quietly for five hours and, voila, you've arrived!

On this particular day, however, it wasn't that simple. Nor was the adventure that mundane.

I arrived at O'Hare Airport, a large hub on intra-continental flights, and flew threw security in about twenty minutes. Having learnt from previous experience that the ordeal of US airport security could take over an hour (the last time I'd been in O'Hare, I ran to my gate barefoot and got on my plane with 2 minutes until the flight closed), I had plenty of time to peruse the stores and cafes of one of America's largest airports. In typical style, my resolve to abstain from overpriced airport food lasted all of about ten minutes, a weakness that I've long possessed and is entirely due to the desire to be less-bored (entertained is a bit of a stretch for airports) while waiting for planes. Just quietly, I think the reason wifi still costs money in so many airports is we'd all buy fewer needless items at the airport if we could settle into a chair with our laptops, tablets or smartphones. 

Wandering through the terminal towards my gate, I was struck by the cross-section of society seen while we all wait. This is the in-between stop for some, the homeward journey for others, the start of something bigger for holiday-makers and business-people alike. You see the children running wildly, their parents exhausted and trying to call them back, the women in leopard print (I only seem to see leopard-print clad women in airports, though I imagine that it's impossible that is the only place they exist), workers and students. It seems like society congregates here. Waiting.

I arrived at my gate, bagel and yoghurt cup in hand (one for now, one for the flight), and searched the crowded waiting area for a seat. Most of the scene disappears into the ubiquity of airport terminals. One thing, however, has stuck in my mind. As I searched for a seat, my eyes fell upon a young man, pretty typical, with strawberry blond hair and casual clothes. He was wearing sports shorts and tapping away on a computer. Again, nothing special. What caught my eye was that in one of his two typical sports shoes, there sat a prosthetic leg. A shiny, fancy, prosthetic leg. 

All of the sudden, what was a typical person, who would have otherwise disappeared into the vague sense of airport anticipation, raised all sorts of questions. I wanted to know why there weren't two human feet in those shoes - was it an accident? Was it a war wound? Had he been born with only one leg? And yet, none of those questions would be appropriate. There would be no way of politely allaying my curiosity - and why should there be? Where most of our stories are hidden in the depths of our mind and the pages of our journals, his story was in part written on his body. And I'd hardly expect a stranger in the airport to come up to me and interrogate me on my life experiences.

I wondered why I wanted to know so much about this person's story. Was it sheer curiosity? Did I want to gain insight into what it's like to have one prosthetic leg (do they hurt, I wondered)? Did I want an excuse to make a friend in an otherwise lonely environment? Most of all, I was suddenly aware of how isolating an experience airports are. Because here I was surrounded by people with families and friends and people using their phones, and with questions pounding in my head and no-one to answer them. I was alone while we were all together.

Soon enough, a voice sailed above the hubbub. Those with young children or who need special assistance may now present for boarding. The young man with strawberry-bond hair did not get up. He boarded the plane with the rest of us. Why would he go first? I'm guessing he saw himself as a fit, capable, healthy young man.

We flew away, ready for the destination ahead of us, only to turn around an hour later due to mechanical problems. As we disembarked in our departure city, I saw the young man with strawberry-blond hair rushing along the terminal up ahead. And I found myself wondering...

Why am I so interested in this person's life? Why did I have this perception that his different thing was so much more interesting than finding out why some women wear leopard print at airports but I never see such fabrics in the street? And then I realised. I only get to experience the world as me and I'm so interested in knowing what it's like to be someone else. What would it be like to have a sister, or a step-parent, or to be male, or to need medication in order to live one day to the next, or to enjoy studying finance, or to be taller or shorter, or to need to use a wheelchair most of the time? What would it be like to not be me? A comprehensive understanding of the world comes with understanding what it's like to walk in someone else's shoes. And the best way to hear those stories is by having conversations.

Some would say the strawberry-blond young man in a t-shirt and shorts was brave. I don't know if he is. Some would say he's strong - and by all rights, he looked pretty fit. Who knows if he's mentally strong. Some would say he's a hero. But to me, he's someone who made me question myself. He's an ordinary guy going about ordinary life-stuff. He could be an honoured war veteran or a college senior or a sportsman on his way home. All I know about him is that he has strawberry-blond hair, sometimes wears sports clothes and has one prosthetic leg and, on that day, he had to catch a flight. And all that matters is that he made it to his destination. And so did I.

San Francisco.

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