I met a man today. He looked broken and distraught at first glance, but I didn't think much of it. I put my headphones in and got ready to settle in for a long flight, fully intending on blocking out the world around me and not acknowledging human existence until I landed.
But, my inability to sleep on the plane cracked the door open just enough for the man to ask me a question.
"....Are you Jeff Hansen?" he asked.
There was some trepidation in his voice. At first, my ego led me to believe that he was star struck. I am, after all, a VERY lowly paid internet blogger with DOZENS of followers.
I responded in the affirmative and he and I struck up a conversation. It didn't take very long for me to learn that the trepidation in his voice had exactly zero to do with me, and much more to do with what this man was going through.
I assume he was a BYU fan, but admittedly, I didn't ask and we didn't talk at all about BYU. Instead, we talked about him. He raved about his four children - all junior-high aged and younger. One of the boys was a star athlete who he was sure would be the next big thing. Another boy was a future engineer with ability to 'sit down and just figure things out.' His eyes really lit up when he talked about his daughter. It was clear to me that she was the real joy of his life. She was smart, she was funny, she was beautiful - she was his everything.
The light from his eyes quickly dissipated with one simple sentence.
"But I don't know when I will get to see them again. Hopefully soon, but I don't have very high hopes," he said.
At this point, I didn't know what to do.
Do I ask a follow up question? He sort of left things open-ended enough that it felt like he wanted me to follow up, but what on earth would I say? I just met this guy. Do I have some sort of a role now? Do I just stick my headphones back in and pretend to be asleep? Of all the seats on the airplane, I had to pick this one.
My silence must have spoke loudly. He took the next step away from me and continued without any prodding.
"I messed up," he said. "So, she left me. I just went back home to make my case for a second chance and, well, now I'm here sitting next to you."
It hit me like a ton of bricks. I put my headphones back in their case and could see that this man needed someone - and I just happened to be the someone who was sitting next to him on airplane.
Almost sensing that he had taken the conversation to a personal level that he didn't intend on bringing up, he changed the subject.
"Anyways, I've seen some of the stuff you've written about your own anxiety and other people's depression and stuff. I first saw the story of you corresponding with the man in prison throughout his entire sentence. It was really amazing. It's cool that you are there for people," he said.
I immediately recognized what he was doing. I put my hand on his back and said, "Hey man, I love you. How can I help?"
The truth is, there was nothing I could do. I had only known this man for about a half hour and, at this point, was struggling to remember his name. I had no idea who his wife was and had exactly zero clue what I could do to actually make a difference in his life. But, the one thing that I knew I could do was tell this man something that he probably wasn't feeling a whole lot of in the moment - that I loved him.
Our conversation lasted for most of our flight. Turns out, he was a BYU fan and he had seen me around that arena as well. We talked about the Big 12. We talked about Kedon Slovis. We talked about Mark Pope and the basketball team. We talked about a lot of things.
For the most part, the sports talk was a distraction from the reality that he was facing. But what the sports talk represented was so much more than just a distraction. It was our way of connecting. It was our way of clearing our minds. It was our way of bonding and forming a relationship.
Naturally, the conversation would gravitate towards his life. That was, after all, consuming most of his thoughts. I had no advice to offer him and I have yet to discover time travel so I couldn't go back and undo whatever it was that he had done. So, the best I could do was listen to him.
We landed and as we began to say our awkward airplane goodbyes, I was able to catch a glimpse of something that I hadn't seen since he was talking about his children. For a moment, his countenance was lit up again. I'm sure that flame would disappear as they day went on and he got back into his thoughts, but for a brief second, it was present once again.
To be clear, I did exactly zero things for this person. I was just the set of ears on the other side of his conversation. But boy, for a minute, my ears sure seemed to help him get through a kind of pain that Wile E. Coyote could relate to.
Over the weekend, my mother-in-law pulled all of the family into the room and asked a simple question to all of her kids and their spouses, "How do you guys communicate with each other even when one of you has made the other mad? How do you maintain a relationship with someone even though you disagree?"
The conversation led to a discussion that I didn't think a whole lot of at the time. But, after my plan ride today, that foundational question posed by my mother-in-law crept back into my mind.
More than the specifics of how I react when I'm mad, or what I say when I'm mad, I became infatuated with the idea that that it was conversation that would ultimately power me through any disagreement that I had.
In the instance of this man, a conversation helped him power through an incredibly difficult time in his life.
Conversation doesn't always change minds or solve problems. Conversation does, however, power the heartbeat that leads to common ground or amenable solutions. Conversation is the lifeblood of compromise. It is the lifeblood of closure. It is the kindling for the fire that leads to relationships.
Certainly, there are instances where one shouldn't compromise, and clearly, there are some relationships that need to end.
In those cases, conversations with others (friends, family, therapists, random people on an airplane, etc.) can help power you through another hour or another day as you strive to find peace once again.
We're currently living in an era where the desire for conversation is at an all-time low. We don't just talk to people for talking's sake anymore. We don't converse just to converse. It became clear to me on the airplane today that I would like to converse with those around me more than I already do.
But it's hard, and it's only going to get harder. We're constantly berated with the idea that if someone thinks differently than us, they are wrong and shouldn't be associated with. If you voted for Joe Biden, you're a woke moron who doesn't care about freedom. If you voted for Donald Trump, you're a racist bigot who doesn't care humans. If you're a BYU fan, you're an ignorant Mormon who is entitled and obnoxious. If you're a Utah fan, you're a myopic monster who progresses forward with contempt and hostility to those around you. If you're a man, you're a predator and a threat to women. If you're a woman, you're only successful because of your looks, not your brain. If you're a millenial, you're an entitled, lazy know-it-all. If you're a Boomer, you're old and out-of-touch.
I could go on and on.
The point is that we've let our labels or our snap judgements define people before we allow conversation to teach us about people.
'How do we react when we don't agree with someone' could be rephrased to 'how do you treat others whose opinions haven't earned your respect?'
I don't know the answers to very many things, but today, a random stranger on an airplane reminded me of a very important lesson - conversations matter. If we tune out the world because we're focused on Slack calls and Teams meetings, or if we block out the world because we allow labels and media to define people before they open their mouths, we're only contributing to an expedited regression of society.
But if we open our minds and our hearts enough to talk to people with the intent of listening, learning, and loving, we can change the direction of society.
That's the kind of power that conversation has.
And I'm grateful that I was reminded of that today.
(P.S - to the man on the airplane, if you stumble across this newsletter today, you're doing great - and there is an entire Give 'Em Hell, Brigham community ready to help you get through this.)