A man of another name
I have a debilitating fear of flying. The woman on the plane whiteknuckling the armrest? That’s usually me. So I was grateful during a recent flight when the man in the seat next to me took a look at my clenched fists and terrified expression and decided to distract me.
“My grandpa used to say that everyone who comes into our lives has something to teach us,” he said.
I pried my eyes from the window long enough to scowl at him. “Is that so?”
The man introduced himself. He had one of those ubiquitous names, a permutation of John or David or Michael with the kind of last name that has three pages in the phone book. His e-mail address, too, was common. first name and my last “Just my name at Gmail,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe how many messages I get for guys who have the same name.”
The jet engines droned and I gripped the hand rest. But the man talked on and my hands started to relax.
“For a while there, I was getting e-mails from this second-grade teacher,” he said. “She thought she was e-mailing some kid’s dad. She sent these real tough messages: ‘Your son is about to get expelled’ and ‘Your son’s behavior is unacceptable.’”
After a while, the man decided to write her back.
“I told her who I was,” he said. “That she had the wrong guy. Then I asked if she ever considered that instead of yelling at the father, she might ask if something was wrong.”
“You’re kidding,” I said.
The man smiled. “Would you believe she wrote me back? A few months later — to tell me that the family had been evicted and were living out of their car. She thanked me for my advice.”
I tried to imagine it — this anonymous stranger doling out wisdom over e-mail. How would it feel, I wondered, to be on the receiving end?
The man next to me smiled. “And that’s not even the best one.”
A man with his name was going through a rough divorce and the man’s ex-wife decided to take out her frustrations over e-mail. The wrong e-mail. After a few stinging messages in his inbox, the man next to me wrote the ex-wife.
“I told her I wasn’t her husband, but I was a human being. Look, I know breakups are ugly. But we should all treat each other with dignity.”
I envisioned the sort of vitriol the ex-wife must have slung back. But the man just shook his head.
“She said she got so wrapped up in her anger that she forgot she might be hurting someone.”
Here was a piece of truth I had not considered. I thought of my own moments of escalating outrage. Perhaps my attempts at love would be more successful if someone were there to pull me back from the angry edge — a stranger with my lover’s name who was rational and kind but who had no stakes.
Here was the lesson, then, in our meeting. A piece of wisdom I could tuck in my carry-on and take with me. I was so grateful I hardly noticed the plane touching down. ¦
— Artis Henderson has joined the Twitterverse. Follow her @ArtisHenderson.