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On Seatbacks and Sin

Last Sunday, I flew from Philadelphia to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, with a layover in Detroit. It was the fifteenth anniversary of that horrible day when the planes hit the towers. I had been in the computer lab at the divinity school, writing a paper, when someone called to “come quick.”

As I arrived at the Philly airport, it hit me—it’s been a long time. The gate area was full of teenaged girls returning from some sort of figure skating competition, begging their mothers to get their seats changed so they could sit by one another. It hit me that they might not have been alive fifteen years ago. If they were, they certainly didn’t remember.

And as I watched the screens showing Hillary and Donald observing the day, I felt small. Self-centered. Naïve. I realized how preoccupied I was with my headphones. My coffee. My boarding pass.

After we boarded and I settled into my seat, crammed in between two other adults, strangers trying to share the armrests without actually touching one another, the man on my right jokingly told the passenger in front of him to move his seat forward. It was determined, much to my neighbor’s chagrin, that the seat was broken, and therefore the  upright position was not possible. The flight attendant made a note.

Just after that, I noticed that the man in front of me was reclining, his seat seriously encroaching into my personal space. As the flight attendants gathered in the aisle, they too recognized the violation. When they politely asked if his seat was also broken, the man capitulated and moved his seat forward. We all had a good chuckle—flight attendants poking fun at him for “trying to pull one over on us.” Sheepishly, he laughed in acknowledgment. If only he could claim a broken seat as well.

A couple of minutes later though, still long before takeoff, the seat was back in my lap. As the minutes ticked by, I grew unreasonably irritated. I talked myself through the issue. Why am I so angry that this guy is breaking the seat rule? I remembered Ellen’s joke about this stupid rule and tried to keep a sense of proportion.

Upon reaching 10,000 feet, I pressed my face into the seatback in order to extend my arm low enough to rescue my backpack (and laptop) from my feet. I needed to get some editing done. But as I opened my laptop, irritation grew to silent fury. Even with my computer pressed into my stomach I could not open it wide enough to see the screen. My own seat would not recline—it backed up to a flight attendant’s folding seat in the exit row.

I wrestled with my emotions: How could this guy be so insensitive? Why did they design one seat to recline into my lap and my own seat to stay put? Couldn’t everyone see that I needed to work here?

And I thought of the older brother—you know the one. The brother who stayed on his father’s estate and who resented his rule-breaking brother. The one who thought he had earned his father’s love and who didn’t want his rebellious brother to experience it. The one who focused on himself and judged the others.

Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner. When I forget the loss of people’s lives in favor of my own petty complaints, have mercy on me. When I believe myself to be righteous and those around me to be sinners, have mercy on me. When I seethe with anger over reclining seats, have mercy on me. Have mercy, Jesus.

Anna Moseley Gissing

Anna Moseley Gissing is Associate Academic Editor of InterVarsity Press. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild, and her writing has been published in Let us Keep the Feast and Not Alone: A Literary and Spiritual Companion for Those Confronted with Infertility and Miscarriage. She lives in the Chicago area with her husband and two kids, and she aspires to more reading, more writing, and more patience.

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