As I was entering the airplane with 3 of my friends by my side, we each sought out the few available seats left because it was pick-your-own-seating and we were of the last group to board. I made my way toward the back and immediately noticed a man sitting in a window seat with two spots open next to him. For some reason, he really struck me and I felt drawn to taking my place by him. I asked him if he’d mind my friend and me accompanying his trip and he gladly agreed that it would be fine.

I made myself comfortable in what I know most would say is the most uncomfortable spot on the plane – the middle seat – but the way I see it, sitting in the middle seat only gives me more travel companions! There’s just something magical about knowing that each and every person on this plane is headed somewhere that means something different to them, be it work, vacation, something scary and exciting, or something awfully tragic… just so many different stories and walks of life coming together on the same craft. It really just leaves me in awe and wonder to know that we could have each chosen different paths, yet we’re here, together, heading in the same direction at the same time and I welcome the opportunity to know more about my companions along the way.

Needless to say, I was excited to know more about this man who I had somehow felt drawn to immediately upon arrival. I was quickly pleased with my seating choice.

After opening the conversation gently by introducing myself and my friend and asking his name, Pat playfully commented that he’d never had such a beautiful travel neighbor. I laughed, and maybe even blushed a bit, before I told him that he could stay and that he was officially my kindest travel neighbor so far. He smiled so genuinely, I could tell we were going to have a great flight.

As we moved through the air, Pat and I moved through conversation. I told him that I was headed to Las Vegas for work and he told me of his experiences on the strip. We compared notes and I silently thanked God for not sending me to the strip this time around. We were on the first flight of two toward Las Vegas and this first leg was flying to Kansas City. It wasn’t until about 5 minutes in that I had the opportunity to ask him why he was headed in that direction, but that’s where our conversation took it’s most significant turn.

Pat, at a mere 74 years of age, was headed to his daughter’s funeral.

My heart dropped… past the floor of the plane and plummeting straight toward the ground thousands of feet below. It absolutely broke for him and for his family. Knowing that he was having to bury his daughter – someone who he loves dearly and had expected to outlive him – left me without any words to offer but a simple and humble, “I’m so sorry for your loss”.

I mean really, what does one even say in a time like that?

But beyond the shock of hearing that he was having to experience a parent’s worst nightmare, what was so interesting to me was the way in which I couldn’t have even begun to anticipate where he was in his life upon meeting him. There was absolutely, 100%, zero indication that his heart was bearing such a heavy burden upon meeting this delightful, flirty, and seemingly cheerful man. Whether he was hiding the pain intentionally or not was irrelevant, because what I stuck out to me more was the fact that it was for any reason so undetectable, even by someone as typically perceptive and sensitive as myself. It blew me away and really brought me to facing a reality that I know well, but which is so easy to forget…

We can never, ever, assume that we know what’s going on in someone’s life or heart.

Pat and I sat there and chatted for the remainder of our flight. Some of the conversation was filled with being on the verge of tears, although the waterworks never quite reached their full potential because Pat was clearly keeping his emotions at bay and I, therefore, felt a responsibility to maintain my own composure for his sake (even though I wanted to cry and hug him at least 12 times), but then other parts of it were simply joyful and full of laughter. I did my best to remain in the present moment as we spoke, but I couldn’t help continuously coming back to the amazement of the fact that he was maintaining his composure so well in a time when a show of complete and utter devastation would have been more than understandable.

And how many times do we make the assumption that we know? How many times do we experience a person’s demeanor, or even hear part of their story, and assume that we know their story well enough to judge them in either a positive or negative way? We assume that the person who was rude to us must be a terrible person, or that the person who was kind must have a wonderful life. Very rarely do we consider the idea that those who are rude to us more than likely have experienced pain or insecurities of their own that bring them to that defensive, and at times offensive, place in which they hurt others in order to keep their protective walls up. Equally as rarely do we consider the idea that most of the people who are so kind and lovely are that way because they have experienced pain and struggle that they have moved past and processed in a way that has allowed them to see the world through a more compassionate, loving, and grateful way. Maybe the confidence that we mistakenly see as arrogance is truly a show of strength that these people have worked to acquire from a formerly insecure and timid place.

The point that I’m hoping to make in sharing this story is that we never know… and it’s not that we must always dig to find the deepest, most meaningful aspects of every person’s story, because there’s also something significant to be said for respecting a person’s privacy. But what I think we could all benefit from trying a little harder to do is to simply remember that we don’t know, don’t understand, and can’t assume anything.

So, if we must assume anything, assume the good. Assume the compassionate. Assume the love. Because in my opinion, if you give others the benefit of the doubt, they will rise to the occasion, and if you give them doubt, they will lower to that.

I’m grateful for Pat and the experience I had in getting to know him. He’s an incredible person with an incredible story, and I’ll never forget the lesson he taught me- we can be going through the world’s roughest storms, and we really don’t have any control over it. But what we do have control over is the way we react to those storms, in which case we can choose dwelling in pain or choosing to begin healing. He also taught me that every book of every cover is worth reading if you have the chance… you never really know how one’s story can impact you until you give it a good page turn.

*Thank you for sharing the love of your heart and of your family, Pat. Prayers go out to you and your sweet daughter in Heaven.*