A few minutes after boarding a flight crowded with holiday travelers, I was reading my book when I noticed a woman standing in the aisle beside me trying to get something out of the overhead compartment. I leaned forward to give her more room and just then a heavy, sharp-edged object banged into my right shoulder blade. “Jesus!” I exclaimed. I looked at my partner who was sitting across the aisle and we both looked down and saw a metal water bottle on the ground. The woman grabbed it and began apologizing. The bottle was full and the whack did hurt but it wasn’t anything serious so I said, “I’m okay. I was just really startled.”
She went back to her seat and my partner asked if I really was okay. When I said I was she added, “Oh I wish I’d been quick enough to yell, ‘Is the reason for the season’ after you yelled, ‘Jesus.’” We both started laughing. A few minutes later a passenger was putting a bag in the overhead bin just in front of my seat, and another passenger helping him glanced back at me and said, “Let’s be careful, she’s already had enough trouble.” That set my partner and me into another round of giggles.
About an hour into the flight, I was standing in the aisle to let my seatmate out when I noticed the woman whose water bottle had clipped my shoulder trying to catch my eye. “I’m so sorry,” she said again and explained that she hadn’t realized the bag was open and that the bottle was at the front. She asked if she could buy me a drink. I declined “I’m really okay.” I told her again.
As I returned to my seat, I felt unsettled because I realized she had tears in her eyes when she was speaking to me. I know that in her situation, I might have spent the previous hour berating myself, replaying the scene, imagining how it might have been worse, and taking a trip down memory lane recalling other mistakes I’ve made and generally feeling like a shame-filled, miserable piece of crap.
A few weeks ago a friend and I were talking about shame. She read that some scientists believe shame is the only emotion that doesn’t have an evolutionary function. I can’t speak to its evolutionary value although there are neuroscientists who argue it has one. But if shame is distress caused by the conscious awareness of wrong or foolish behavior, especially when that behavior causes harm to another, my friend and I agreed we want to feel it. We also agreed that where we go wrong is in getting stuck in shame, in seeing a wrong or foolish behavior as the sum total of our identity.
Clearly, my fellow passenger didn’t intend for me to get a bruise on my shoulder. Like all of us, she had a moment where perhaps she could have acted with more caution or patience. But I regret not taking the time to ask her to be at peace, to have compassion for herself, and to stow her backpack under the seat in front of her.