July 1, 2013

On gifts and gratitude

The day before yesterday, I got on a plane to head home after being at a conference for the last few days in Chicago. The flight was full. I was one of those in the last group to be called to board the plane. I took one of the available middle seats. I nodded politely with a half smile to the two men I’d be sitting next to for the next couple of hours.

The man in the window seat very slowly pulled out a pad of paper and pen from a small bag he had with him. From my periphery vision it appeared that he was making a list. I continued to read my book. When the flight attendant came by to take drink orders I noticed that there was something unique about this man. His response of turning down an offer of something to drink was a “No, thank you” that sounded like a recorded track played back at a slower speed. He spoke softly and so I repeated his statement to the attendant. He thanked me in the same slow, quiet manner and I introduced myself. Patiently, I listened as he quietly and slowly introduced himself.

It was at that point that I realized that his list was of each state in the U.S. For some reason, I couldn’t help but comment on such an odd list, “So, you’re writing out each state, huh?” He slowly turned to look at me and said, “Yyyyyyehhhhhhhhhssssss.” Slowly, quietly he told me that sometimes he liked to make a list of all the states and provinces. “Wow!” I said, trying to be polite. “You must have a good memory.” We slowly and quietly exchanged a few pleasantries about where we were headed and I went back to my book.

His list seemed a bit curious but I thought little of it. I took my eyes away from my book at one point as I stretched and looked down at his list. Whatever he was writing out at the moment wasn’t a state in the U.S. It was the start of sentence. Maybe his memory wasn’t so great after all. But this didn’t really matter to me. I was reading a good book. I had been nice to him, patient with how slowly he spoke. I didn’t need to pay any further attention.

During the last half of our flight, my row partner made a silent, subtle motion that appeared to be an attempt to get my attention. He apologized for interrupting me from reading but that he had something for me. With his slow but accurate pen, he had made a list of all 50 states, along with the provinces of the U.S. in order of region.

But that wasn’t all.

There were several pages that followed this list of states and provinces, also with lists. The first was a list of state and province capitals in the exact order of the state list. What followed that was another list of the state and provincial mottos for each in the same corresponding order. All Latin and Spanish translated... so I could understand them.

I was seated right next to the man the whole time and knew he had not once looked at the other sheets to ensure he kept the order straight. It was flawlessly, perfectly penned from memory. The last page had a little note at the end:

“To my new friend, Mr. Jason”

There's a scene early in the film Fight Club where the protagonist is on a plane and says to the person in the seat next to him, “Tyler, you are by far the most interesting single-serving friend I've ever met.” It’s intended to be humorous–intended to poke fun at the shallow, half-ass pleasantries most of us exchange in the last few moments on a flight with the person sitting next to us. But in the film, the character means it. And I had that same feeling. This man had touched me. It’s unlikely that I will ever meet him again. Nonetheless, the gift he gave me was deeply meaningful.

In that moment I realized how much of a jerk I had been. In my haughtiness, I had thought I was such a kind, Christian person. My nominal kindness was returned with this miraculous list… a gift! My first internal response was one of humiliation for how awesome I thought I was just a moment ago. The second emotion was of deep gratitude. I raked my mind to consider if there was anything I could give him in exchange for his gift. What I quickly realized was that I had nothing to offer him... but my thankfulness.

The man sitting on my other side must've thought it odd that my new window seat friend and I kept thanking each other. Several times I thanked him and in response he would slowly thank me for thanking him. It reminded me of the first time I sold a CD of music I had recorded or the first piece of art I sold–they were grateful for the creative work, I was grateful that someone wanted what I had created.

What I received as a gift from this fellow traveler is, I imagine, most often observed as a disability. The beauty of what this man had done was take this unique capacity and literally turn it into a gift he could offer to anyone. His is a reflection of the kind of narrative we see in the Bible. Time and again, it is that person–or group of people–that popular opinion believes has little to offer that ends of giving the most. In our commodified culture, we often turn gift giving into a commercial exchange. But today I am wondering if sometimes what we ought to give back to the gift giver is simply gratitude–our thanks. I wonder if this alone has the capacity to give the giver the dignity that we often fail to extend.

Andrew Jones is a missionary and blogger who often summarizes his work this way: Tell stories, throw parties and give gifts. As I reflect on the experience with my "single-serving friend" and on the many gifts given in Scripture, I wonder if it might be appropriate to simply add to that list: And receive gifts... with gratitude.


joshuack said...


jasonevans said...

Thanks, Josh. Will you all be in San Diego late July, early August?

joshuack said...

I'm in San Francisco for all of July, home in August though. Lisa is in San Diego, kids will be interspersed here and there about CA over summer...

S. Taylor Romney said...

Very nice. I had similar encounters on my last trip "home," to attempt celebration for a tragic family event. On the train in each direction, I found high-quality engagements with people much younger than I but we found bonds through shared experience.

I enjoyed speaking with the bright young man from Vista CA who wanted to join the Peace Corp and the young second-generation Cambodian girl from Long Beach seemed in awe of my story but didn't care to share much of her story or that of her parents who escaped their villages in the sort of straits we encounter in movies alone.

... & I didn't get a like for my FB project from either of them... Scooter

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