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Story

By Eric A. Clayton

I am not the hero of this story.

Recently, my wife and I found ourselves disembarking from a flight. Pretty standard. You’ve been there before. People are standing up from their seats, reaching for their luggage, shuffling down the aisle.

You glance at your watch, wonder about that tight connection. Wonder why the person in front of you just now thought to pull their carry-on luggage out of the overhead compartment. Wonder why that person behind you is jabbing the handle of their handbag directly into your shoulder.

Pretty standard.

So, now it’s our turn. My wife and I grab our bags and begin our own sojourn from row 31 to the front of the plane. The suitcase wheels go roll, bump, roll, bump, bump. Then we’re on the jet bridge, knocking shoulders with other passengers. Our roller bags competing for space like go-carts buzzing around a track.

And then there’s a hold-up. Someone not moving quite as quickly. Traffic on the right side of the passageway slows to a crawl. Wheely bags and their disgruntled owners scurry to one side, eyes down, thoughts focused solely on that next flight to catch, next place to be.

I follow suit, cut hard to the left. Barely register the lady who is slowly making her way toward the terminal, an impossibly large suitcase in one hand, her cane clutched in the other. That cane is a lifeline to this elderly, dignified woman. One slow step at a time, fierce determination plastered to her face.

And there I am just in front of her now, casting a comment about connecting flights to my wife, my own focus on the light at the end of the runway tunnel.

But all I hear in response is, “Do you need help with that?”

And I bring my wheely bag to a screeching halt. Because of course a halfway decent person would stop to help this woman. To at least ask if it was needed.

I didn’t want to assume… I begin to think, grasping at silent excuses even as I become the obstacle to other passengers in the jet bridge.

My wife smiles, puts a hand on this woman’s shoulder, takes her bag. I glance around like a fool and take my wife’s bag — like that’s some sort of great service to anyone. And together, slowly, the three of us make our way to the terminal.

“Thank you,” the woman says as we step past the gate.

“Where do you need to be?” my wife asks. “We’ll get you there.”

I nod, schmuck that I am, as though I’d also had that idea.

And so we continue our slow, steady march. We get this lady to where she needs to be, get her seated, get her bags gathered up around her. We learn that she’s en route to a grandson’s graduation, that this is a far journey for her and then in a year or two she’d likely not be able to do it. But she’s happy to be able to do it now — and we nod, happy for her, happy for her grandson.

“Kindness makes me cry,” she says as we part ways. And we smile, wish her a safe journey.

But the truth of the matter is this: I was no hero. The kindness offered was at best wrested from me by my wife — “You didn’t hear me,” she said later. “I whispered to you to help but you were so focused on getting out.” — so what credit was I really owed? What thanks could I really accept?

None of that is the point. Our ego gets in the way and tells us we’re owed something for our good deed. Or, it scolds us for not getting to that good deed first. It wasn’t our idea. We were too slow. We didn’t respond as best we could. And then our ego shames us.

But God doesn’t shame us. God delights in us. And God gives us opportunities to continue living into ourselves. I may have missed the first chance to help that woman. But my wife was more perceptive — and she brought me into the experience despite my own misstep.

God’s will was still done. The only thing that could unravel God’s will was my obsessing over who got credit. My sense of shame for not getting there first.

What an absurd thing! And yet, I wonder if you, too, have moments like this. Moments when you resist playing the supporting role because you’re embarrassed you missed the audition for the lead. We all want to be the hero of the story.

The thing is, we’re all on-stage together. We’re all telling the same great story — God’s story. Muddling through still gets us to the end, and we learn and grow along the way.

But sitting out? Stopping altogether? Letting shame sideline us from God’s delight?

Imagine if I had looked back at my wife and that woman and said, “Well, I didn’t think to help her, so I guess I’ll just keep going on and leave them to figure it out alone.”

It’s not about being heroes. It’s about being together.

This reflection is part of the award-winning weekly email series, “Now Discern This.” If you’d like to get reflections like this one directly in your inbox every Wednesday, sign up here.

a person smiling for the cameraEric A. Clayton is the award-winning author of Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith (Loyola Press) and the deputy director of communications at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. His essays on spirituality, parenting and pop culture have appeared in America MagazineNational Catholic ReporterU.S. Catholic, Busted Halo and more, and he is a regular contributor to Give Us This Day, IgnatianSpirituality.com and Dork Side of the Force, where he blogs about Star Wars. His fiction has been published by Black Hare Press, the World of Myth Magazine and more. He lives in Baltimore, MD with his wife, two young daughters and their cat, Sebasti