The TSA Agent Who Changed My Life

I was flying to Los Angeles after burying my father when an irritable TSA agent yelled at me for forgetting to take off my jacket. I peaked up at the gruff man towering over me with tears in my eyes and pleaded, “My dad just died. Can you be nice to me? Please?”

There are many moments that have changed my life, but I undoubtedly remind myself of this one most often. Yes, the TSA agent was immediately nicer to me…but it was the horror in his eyes that seared the memory in my brain. Dictionaries don’t recognize the word “sonder,” but I can tell you, for certain, that it does exist.

sonder n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk. – The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

You might think that I’d be happy to watch him process how unnecessarily rough he was being with someone…particularly someone in mourning. But the reality is, I have reminded myself daily to be kind to everyone I meet because of his reaction. I could see him soften. I watched him self-check. He stuttered. He was embarrassed. He didn’t know what to say until he finally mustered an “I’m sorry” before putting his hand on my shoulder and shuffled head down to the next person in line.

How easy is it for us to be removed from people who are just passing by? We make jokes at strangers’ expenses, honk our horns if they aren’t moving fast enough or don’t hold the door when their arms are full…but why?

Why can’t we be kind to everyone we meet? Why can’t we live our lives from the point of love?

I wasn’t a “bad” person before my dad died, but the change in my behavior is undeniable. I am gentler, more loving, and live my life lifting other people up. These things weren’t priorities before my father died…or before my encounter with this TSA agent.

I doubt my moment of vulnerability changed his life the way it did mine…realistically he probably doesn’t even remember this exchange. But anytime I feel myself getting frustrated with someone, especially a stranger, I remember the look in his eye – sonder.

This man was clearly not a mean man…one simply caught up in his own life and job. He just needed a reminder that seemingly fleeting encounters do make an impact no matter how small one thinks the interaction is.

It a tiring and conscious effort to be empathetic daily and not desensitize to your surroundings…but isn’t that something worth pursuing?

Can you imagine what the world would be like if we were all a little kinder and more mindful of one another?

…that’s what I’m working towards. Especially during this year of travel.

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