Quivering hearts

Sylvia Boorstein, in her book “Happiness is an Inside Job,” talks about being seated on an airplane, and just before takeoff a woman came and sat in the empty seat next to her. The woman explains that she hates takeoffs and landings and feels better if she can sit closer to the front of the plane — she’ll move back to her assigned seat once the plane is in the air. Boorstein expresses sympathy, but the woman waves it off. “Everyone has something,” she says, which is the point of the story for Boorstein.

I think of this story when I fly — and, being an editor, I wonder that there was an empty seat, that the flight attendants let her move out of her assigned seat, that this miracle of compassion could have taken place. But, of course, miracles of compassion take place all the time.

I thought of this story particularly this week as I flew. We had a three-flight trip planned to take us from sunny Oregon to frigid Connecticut. Checking flight statuses as we sat in a coffee shop, we learned that flights 1 and 3 were on time, but flight 2 was delayed so that we’d miss the third flight. The app said there were no options available; a phone call found there were no agents available either.

So we went to the airport as scheduled. After 20 minutes of searching, the agent booked us onto a flight that was already boarding — we were the last ones on the plane. I had a middle seat, and no planes to speak to my seatmates. The man on my left had headphones and a screen in front of his face the whole time. The woman on my right put her hands over her face during the flight attendant’s safety demonstration. I thought about Sylvia’s woman and that maybe this was just her thing.

I asked her if she was OK. She said she was just tired — she’d been visiting her son and sleeping on an air mattress. I’d been visiting my child too, so we talked about them. I was reminded, deeply, of the preciousness of human life — not because we were in a metal tube flying (flying!) in the air but because of the humans we talked about and we are. We didn’t become friends — we didn’t even exchange names, let alone email addresses — but her “something” was my “something” for that flight.

Compassion is sometimes described as a quivering of the heart in response to suffering. Maybe it’s a quivering of the heart in response to another heart’s quivering, an attunement, a harmony, an energetic call-and-response. Boorstein writes that her book is about “restoring caring connection… and (that) maintaining it when it is present, is happiness.” That caring connection starts with just being present where you are and noticing those around you.

Compassion, or lovingkindness, opens our attention and makes it more inclusive, transforming the way we view ourselves and the world. Instead of being so caught up in the construct of “self” and “other” and “us” and “them” that we tend to see the world through, we see life much more in terms of connection to all.  — Sharon Salzberg

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