What Does Forgiveness Look Like? An Armrest

Let me share with you the longest flight I ever endured.

It was a 20 hour flight across the world, though it wasn’t the duration of the non-stop flight that made it so long, but rather my neighbor…

He was a bigger gentleman, binged on R-rated films for most of the flight, and like most of us was in need of a shower and some deodorant from a very long venture. None of that bothered me, because I got it: we had a long trip home in front of all of us, and we were all trying to make the best of this day-long flight.

But the spitting tobacco was what set me over.

A few hours into the flight, the man asked for a Styrofoam cup from the flight attendant and began dipping and spitting. Having lived around smokers most my life, I feel I have a rather strong disgust tolerance for all things tobacco. So, believe me when I tell you that this was the most repugnant aroma I have smelled in my life.  The man had concocted a miasma of foul poison from his mouth to this cup, comprised of his spit, the tobacco, and whatever other toxins that particular chewing tobacco had. The sound of this ichor going from his mouth to the cup was so visceral. Though I could be imagining this particular detail, I’m fairly certain the man’s backsplash into the cup flung at least one droplet into my space.

His Styrofoam cup became a biohazard as he dozed off to his film, his grip on it uncertain during his dreams. Thankfully he awoke about fifteen minutes in and had the kindness of using my armrest’s cupholder to secure his petri dish of backwash.

Some theaters and airplanes are designed properly to give each seat a full armrest. Some are not. Some are so inadequate and unpartitioned that it makes the dividing line of “mine” and “yours” rather ambiguous. But there’s an ideal to be pursued with armrests: each person taking up the seat ought to have one armrest to themselves, undeterred, no questions asked. The man had usurped my armrest with chemical warfare like a World War One affront across the Maginot Line. Worse than that, it wasn’t just that I was an armrest down, but that all my senses (sight, smell, sound, perhaps even touch) had been assaulted by the man’s nasty habit of chew poison. Such grievances have caused humanity to ratify ethical rules of engagement such as the Geneva Convention.

“So why didn’t you say something to him?”

You’re right to ask that. I have only excuses for why I didn’t engage with the man, all coming from base fear and calculated reasoning:

1. It was a 20 hour flight. Depending on how our conversation would go, I would have to endure a day’s worth of travel with an enemy instead of a stranger, and I didn’t have the stamina to take our relationship to that level.

2. I was alone on this flight. I’d flown back at a different time than my friends had, and so I was surrounded by strangers who looked just as tired and checked out as me. Would they have the gumption to get my back should things escalate? I wasn’t so sure.

3. Should the man become upset with my boundary setting, I might have had to wear his chewing tobacco the entire flight, if you catch my drift.

All that being said, I had a responsibility to say something to this new friend of mine, to patch up our budding relationship, and to say it in a tone that would be easy for him to hear. I think we sometimes neglect to say something because we are afraid how our words will be received, or how they’ll come out when emotions are high. But to say nothing while there is something coming between us and the other is to keep a person away rather than to draw close in authentic relationship. Who knows, maybe if I voiced my disgust for his chewing tobacco our conversation could develop into an edifying topic of mutual interest.

We sometimes assume from the Gospels that Christian love and humility means acting like a doormat. While we are called to bear with one another and be charitable in our actions and resources, we must also consider times when Jesus said “no” and set boundaries. It might seem that Jesus is pushing away the Pharisees and Scribes in His list of “woes” at Jerusalem, though really He is pleading with them to change something, so that they too may become disciples. We also see how often Jesus leaves cities after periods of being unwelcome or retreats into the wilderness after trying times of ministry. And then there’s the overthrowing of the vendors’ tables at the temple, rebuking Peter for cutting the ear of a soldier, denying Herod a sign & miracle…the list goes on.

These acts of our Lord are not gestures of pushing away even though externally they may seem as such. The honesty, the firmness, the line in the sand is all a means of healing a broken relationship. It’s like a bone fracture that sometimes tries to heal on its own without any guidance (a phenomena called malunion), for which the cure is actually rebreaking the bone in order to set it back in the proper place.

In Greek, the word forgiveness is συγχωρώ. The etymology of this is “syn” or together along with the verb “χωρέω”. Χωρέω sometimes has a connotation of withdrawing, but also can mean “making space” for someone or something.

I’ve sometimes struggled knowing exactly when I’ve forgiven someone or when I’ve felt forgiven by someone else. How does one forgive when someone has done something that has left things still uncomfortable? I take solace in the image that the Greek word forgiveness has here, this visual of two people together making space for one another. It’s a mutual act of the two parties understanding what each has contributed to a conflict.

This discourse is not meant to throw my fellow passenger under the bus (or plane) for not making space for me after apologizing. There’s room for me to grow in this practice of setting boundaries. As you can probably imagine, I wanted nothing to do with the man during and after the flight. A complete opposite approach was taken, stonewalling without setting a boundary. “Hey man, chewing and spitting that isn’t good for you, and isn’t good for me. Please stop it.” Though armrest etiquette is something most of us take for granted, sometimes these rules of engagement need to be reiterated, reminded, the line in the sand drawn again after the wind obscures it.

Forgiveness is obviously a two-way street, but it works best when a boundary is known by both parties. You can’t make space if you don’t know how much space is being asked for, know when the line was crossed if we can’t agree where the line is.

The beginning of Lent starts with a beautiful service of Forgiveness Vespers. Often we come to this service asking forgiveness from those whom we can’t remember a single time offending or being offended by. But perhaps the asking of forgiveness is an opportunity to lay to the side something we’ve kept inside as well as practicing the line “forgive me” when it’s too hard to say. Lastly, asking the forgiveness of a stranger perhaps is a spiritual way of forgiving those miles away from us who have spit and chewed tobacco next to us on a very long plane ride.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, please forgive me, a sinner!

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