Jeremy Statton

Living Better Stories

3 Lessons Learned from a Jerk on a Plane

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“Sir, would you mind trading seats with me so my daughter and I can sit together,” I asked the stranger.

“Where is yours?” he replied.

“Two rows back by the window.”

“I want the aisle seat,” he said.

“So you won’t trade?”

“I want the aisle seat,” he repeated.

“You’re going to make a 4 year old little girl sit by herself?”

“You should have planned better.”

I had this conversation this past Thursday with a stranger on a plane.

My wife, and 2 newly adopted kids were on our way back from China. It had been a very long day, beginning 24 hours earlier in Hong Kong. We then endured a 15 hour flight with 2 small children. Once we arrived in Detroit we found out our connecting flight was cancelled, and we were set us on a collision course to meet the jerk.

photo by Vivian Nguyen (Creative Commons)

I tried to convince him that he didn’t want to sit by a sleepy and frightened 4 year old girl who was thousands of miles from her home. But he wouldn’t budge. The aisle seat was way too important to him. It wasn’t worth trading one hour’s worth of his own comfort for this little girl.

When he said no, I was angry. Very angry. I wanted to shove his face into the windows seat in on the opposite side of the plane. Overhearing the conversation a young couple behind me offered to split up so we could sit together. Thanks to this kind couple, everything worked out.

The jerk got his stupid seat.

The plane took off. My daughter fell asleep with her head in my lap. And once my anger subsided, my thoughts were able to shift as I replayed the entire scenario back through my mind.

And I learned 3 important lessons from this man.

1. Little Things in Life Matter

To the jerk, the seat issue wasn’t a big deal. His quick answer made sense to him. The problem wasn’t worth his time. Certainly not worth giving up an aisle seat for. It was only a little thing.

He had a chance to make a huge impact on my life, but he missed the opportunity. He didn’t see this little thing for what it truly was.

Sometimes we write them off, these little things. We don’t write that note of encouragement. We don’t pick up the trash littering the side of the road. We don’t say “please” and “thank you.” We ignore the little things thinking they do not really matter. But they do.

What might seem small to us, could be incredibly significant to someone else. And when we pay attention to these small things, we can make a difference in someone’s life.

2. Making a Difference Must Be Intentional

I don’t believe the man boarded the plane with the intent of being a jerk. It probably happened by accident.

This situation suddenly popped up,. The decision was made quickly, and he went with what came out first. His decision came out of his heart.

These sudden scenarios in which we are given little time to think about how we respond, can give us insight to what is going on in our hearts. Do we grow angrily easily or do we respond with patience? Do we do what is best for ourselves or are we able to give to someone else who has a need? Do we sit by the window or insist on the aisle?

Living lives that are of encouragement and benefit to others is a discipline. It requires that we not just resolve to make the right decicion, but that we become the right kind of person.

If we practice being grouchy and selfish and rude, then that is all we will ever be. If we practice being kind, considerate, and loving, then when an opportunity suddenly shows up, we will be ready to make a better decision.

3. The Other Jerk

It was easy for me to be angry at this man. How could he say no? How does he sleep at night? How does he justify his decision with his conscience?

When the anger subsided, however, I was able to see a different story to the man. Maybe there were “legitimate” reasons as to why he acted like a jerk. Maybe his trip didn’t go well. Maybe he has a fear of flying. Maybe he had a bad case of diarrhea and wanted quick access to the bathroom.

Whatever his day was like, I bet his answer made sense to him. Maybe he felt he had earned the right to refuse.

Our trip to China wasn’t a vacation. We added two kids to our family while at the same time having to be away from the other four. It was stressful. My wife and I were both physically and emotionally exhausted by the end.

And there were times on the trip I acted like a jerk.

I let my tiredness get in the way of loving my wife. I let my frustrations get in the way of how I treated the airline representatives on the phone. I was even rude to the jerk who wouldn’t trade seats.

It was easy for me to see how what this other man did was wrong, but hard to see the exact same behavior in myself.

Have you ever almost gotten in a fight on an airplane? Have you ever been the jerk?

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

About Jeremy Statton

Jeremy is a writer and an orthopedic surgeon. When not ridding the world of pain, he helps you live a better story. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook or Google +.

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62 Replies

  1. DDF

    I’m smiling …

    For one, I’m incredibly proud of what you and your wife have done in adopting 2 children from China.  You did the right thing.  You are doing the right thing.  What could be more right and more stressful than what the two of you have just gone through?  Good job Stattons!  God sees this.  He will bless you and your other children over and over and over in the years to come.  What an ordeal.  May your ordeal become better and better. 

    But second, having traveled a fair bit over the years several things popped into my mind instantly when I read your story.  I’ve seen people act like jerks, and I have been rude and impatient when traveling on more than one of many mission trips.  Yes, on mission trips.  It’s true. 

    One day in a rush to change planes in Atlanta, I pushed my way several seats back to get my bag from an overhead compartment. There was no room for it over my seat when we boarded so my bag ended up several steps back.  I knew this, of course, and should have told the flight attendant before we landed.  I had a small window between flights and likely would have gotten some help. 

    That’s not what I did.  I was being stupid and I knew it when I pushed the wrong way to get my bag from the overhead.  I rudely reached over a small woman.  My bag popped thrust out and popped her right on the head. 

    She screamed at me, “Sir, for crying out loud, wait your turn.  Have you no respect?”  (The answer is “Yes, I’m a pastor.  I usually do show lots of respect.  But not this time!)

    I just stood there saying nothing.  I was in the wrong and knew it.  When we finally exited the plane I found myself walking right beside the woman.

    She saw me, glared and rushed away.  I wanted to say, “Please, I was wrong ma’am.  Please forgive me.  That’s not who I want to me.  I’m a pastor.  Can I carry your bag … buy you lunch.”   Sigh.  I didn’t get that chance.  I imagined what she said to your children when she got back home.  I felt like the jerk of jerks.  For a few minutes the apostle Paul let me surpass him, as the chief of sinners.  🙂

    So yes, Jeremy, we always have to be intentional.  We’ll often have to make split-second decisions when boarding planes, standing in line at the grocery store at the end of a long day, in parking lots, etc, etc.  It seems that God is “intent” in ripening the fruit of the Spirit in our lives at just those times.  🙂  🙂

  2. Great story. Thanks for sharing it. Now that I look back on many of the ways I acted, I feel like the biggest idiot. We all do it. But I hope to decrease how often it happens. 

  3. Ursina Williams

    But it also gave a young couple the opportunity to show kindness toward a stranger and his frightened  daughter.  Heaven smiled on that part. 🙂

  4. That’s all you can do.  It’s great that the young couple overhead and was able to show grace.  A simple reminder that we will be provided for, just not necessarily in the way we think.

  5. Great story, Jeremy.  And isn’t it funny that jerks so often don’t see how they’re doing you the small favor of giving you a great story to tell? 🙂

  6. We don’t say “please” and “thank you.” Thanks for mentioning this. I might go overkill with these a tiny bit, but I think it does make a big difference. 
    You never know how many times you will interact with someone else; it could only be one time, or a thousand times. When you treat others with respect and kindness, it reflects Christ and it also lifts others up. 

    All that being said, I think think you might be a saint for not decking the jerk. LOL. Don’t mess with dad’s and how protective they are over their daughters. This might be a righteous anger moment, possibly. At least I would justify it in my mind that way as a dad 😉 

  7. Kirsty

    I acted like a jerk today, and when I read this I felt OUCH!!  What I said was wrong – and showed me what was going on inside me. I did apologise, but the words were out and it was too late.

    Guess we all have to learn from these things and gain better control. A hard lesson learnt today – or should I say re-learnt – some scenarious happen over and over again don’t they, until we really get a grip.

    Thanks for this timely story – my first one from you as I have only just joined your group!

  8.  “What might seem small to us, could be incredibly significant to someone else.”  Love that reminder, Jeremy.    So true.  The littlest act of kindness or unkindness can make such an impact.    Glad your family is all back together!

  9. Great example of the lessons everyday life can teach us! 

  10. Wow, I got to say you’re probably a better man than I am Jeremy. If I had encountered that man, the plane may have left without me. 

  11. I’ve been in the same seat scenario multiple times with a 2 year old. Fortunately for us, the other passengers  and flight attendants have always worked graciously to accommodate us. I guess God gives you what you can handle. You were able to handle the situation with tact and take something away from it. If it had been me in your shoes, I might have left the jerk in the aisle seat sitting next to his teeth.

  12. i don’t know this other dude, but i’m 6’3 and I have to pee a lot…two reasons why i’d be hesitant to give up an aisle seat. I’d probably end up giving you my seat because I wouldn’t want to spend an eight thousand hour plane flight being convicted by Christ for being selfish, but I’d also probably spend the whole flight kinda PO’d at you for making my flight ten times worse. this is the kinda scenario where it is easy to judge someone’s actions, but it’s hard to know their intentions. you have a very good reason why you wanted that seat, but there’s always the possibility that he had a very good reason as well, his just wasn’t as obvious to you (as you noted). we can’t change how other people are going to act, we can only change how we handle ourselves in those situations.

  13. Jeremy, your second point about intentionality is so true, but tough! If we don’t practice living a particular way, then how can we expect to be that type of person? Just what I needed to hear this morning. Thanks for telling your story and pointing us to some great truths found in it.
    You could write a whole post about that second point.

  14. I agree. I probably should have spoken more about them in the article. it turns they were on a long journey as well coming home from Paris. I didn’t ask them to do this, they volunteered.

  15. I agree. I had a hard time cutting this post down and still might be too long. we all need to learn how to care more.

  16. In the middle of it, I didn’t care about his reasons. But once I settled down I realized that we all have them and they always make sense to us. It makes me have to take a step back and reconsider some of mine. And yes, he was a big guy.

  17. I could have used more tact. I regret being angry about. annoyed, yes, but maybe not angry.

  18. i had spent 4 hours watching planes leave without me. I was done with that.

  19. Me too. Thanks, Eileen.

  20. As I point out, I can be a real jerk too. this is the amazing thing about forgiveness, that even if we keep messing up, it’s still there.

  21. I know. I’m sure he had no idea he would end up on the Internet. ; )

  22. Wow, Jeremy. You are a much better person than I because I don’t think I would have let the situation die just like that. And you’re right – it all comes down to being intentional with every minute of every day. I’m guilty of being too reactive instead of proactive, and I need more practice with intentionality. Great post, Jeremy. I’m glad you’re home safe and sound with all six of your kids now.

  23. 6 kids? That number still catches me by surprise.

  24. personally, i’d have given up the seat, especially if i were traveling alone. if i were with someone, like my wife, maybe, maybe not. and though i would definitely get angry too at such brusqueness of response, i whole-heartedly agree with your point about not knowing the guy’s story. we each have our own view of the world and to him it made perfect sense to say no, albeit kind of rudely. sorry to hear you had to interact with such a character, but glad to hear you made it back home safe and sound.

  25. I used to admire people that are nice, calm, polite, unruffled. But admire is all i did, never tried to practice. But i discovered that repeating something for a while can make it stick. I just needed to change what i practiced.

    6 kids? Gulp. :). We are nine kids in our family. Just from that, my mom and dad are heroes! You and your wife are amazing!

  26. Great story. Great lessons. Thanks, Jeremy.

  27. Things that are “little things” to some can be huge to others. Both you and your “nemesis” on the flight reacted to something that the other probably thought was a “little thing” in a big way.

    Meanwhile, I need to pamper the “little things” at the end of my feet (toes) that your story stepped on in a big — but good — way. 😀

  28. Confession: As I was getting on the plane today I witnessed a jerk situation go down. There was nothing I could do to diffuse the bomb (don’t tell TSA I said “bomb” in a post about airplanes).  Instead, I prayed, “God, don’t let her be my seat buddy.” It would have been just as easy and painless to genuinely pray for her and the situation rather than myself. I too am an airplane jerk.

    I’m pretty sure the diarrhea reason is why he needed his aisle seat. That’s better than the alternatives I’d considered.

    Great post, Jeremy. Great lesson.

  29. Getting in a rush (especially at ATL … familiar with the tram there 🙂 ) is our most frequently used but least respectable excuse for rudeness. I don’t travel much anymore, since I would probably require 2 seats for my extra width and would be constantly checked by security for the same reason, but I used to leave as much of a layover as I could at any connecting airport, though it was usually Hartsfield in Atlanta. It didn’t always work, but it usually helped this too-paranoid-over-being-late guy.

  30. Laura Thomas

    We live in such a me-centered world.  If he didn’t have some “legitimate reason” for saying “no”, it was very likely the whole mentality of, “I don’t owe you anything” world.  Thanks so much for the insights.  They definitely make one think.  And I’m just thinking how funny it will be when you go back to work and this guy is sitting there as a  patient… 

  31. I have had that run through my mind as well. It would be pretty funny.

  32. If that were the case, then I’m glad he refused.

  33. Every time I see someone write “6 kids,” it freaks me out. I think I’m in denial.

  34. I agree. We both had our perspective. Sorry about the toes.

  35.  Jim – I’m with you:  I say “please”, “thank you”, and “bless you” all day long. 

    As Jeremy says, it’s the LITTLE things that matter.  We don’t do big, heroic, out-of-this-world things each day — we do LITTLE things that can make or break people.

    It breaks my heart when I see someone miss an opportunity to show some kindness.

  36. Jeremy:  I think “be a better person than I was yesterday” should be on out to-do list every day of the week.

    We’re all far from perfect.  But we need to do our best to make good choices when it comes to our behavior. 

    Oh. My.  I’m preaching to the choir now!

  37. Giavana Jones

    Once again, a great post/lesson but interestingly the lesson for me was bigger than what I thought. This post made me think but it also sparked a very animated conversation between me and my husband and at the end [long story], I had to repent to God for the condition of my own heart. I’m grateful for scenarios like this where God has an opportunity to reveal some of the other “stuff” that may be hidden under and/or within my Christianity.  Thank you so much for sharing.

  38. He used my situation and my anger to reveal stuff to my own heart. He is showing me that I still struggle trusting him.

  39. Chris

    Glad you added number 3…I was afraid it might just be another self-righteous rant that never considered that a) there might be a good reason for him to have refused to move, or b) you’ve been the jerk before.  Thanks for including the speck in your own eye.

  40. I have no idea whether or not he had any reason at all since he offered none, but I do know I have been rude and inconsiderate when even when I had no reason to be so.

  41. Kapil Sopory

    Never get into angry and loud arguments with a fool (jerk) for the passers by will not be able to distinguishbetween both of you  and  would regard you also to be the same. Hence, dissent also should be responded by a ” Thank you”. Anger, in any case, is  not a solution for any happening – it is a self-defeating exercise.
    Yes, we cannot be a judge of the other person’s behavior. There are five fingers and all are not equal !

  42. I agree Kapil. I regret my own anger.

  43. josh perkins

    Good word!  I sat by a jerk on my way back from LA a few weeks ago.  It is sad though to think how often I am that jerk too.  Self-focused and concerned more about my comforts & happiness vs. others.

  44. Tina

    A friend linked to your post on FB and I’m so glad — what a great read and a good reminder!  I’m a frequent traveler and because I have a terrible eavesdropping habit, I  offer to switch seats a lot.  Last week, I gave my window seat to a 12-year-old girl after I heard her whisper to her grandma that she wished she had the window.  She was so excited, I felt like I’d given her a present, and the pleasant conversation that followed made the flight so much more fun.
    But I’ll never forget the time I settled into my aisle seat and realized that the very little girl in the middle seat didn’t belong to the person by the window — her mom was directly behind her.  I immediately offered to switch, which meant taking a middle on a cross-country flight.  From the mother’s reaction, you would’ve thought I’d offered one of my kidneys.  She even tried to pay me (ridiculous).  We made the switch, and about 10 minutes later, a piece of paper came through the crack in the seats. It was a picture and a note in crayon:  “Thank you for letting me sit by my mom.”  What a reminder of your point #1! Small things matter.  I saved the picture.  Sorry for the long comment, but thanks for letting me remember that story and share!  Congratulations on your new additions!

  45. Great stories, Tina. I love how “rewarded” you were for doing this. We need to see that more often in our lives. If we give up that aisle seat, we may have a better flight than if we hadn’t.

  46. Mikezserdin

    Hey Jeremy, here’s another thought: it allowed other observers (the couple behind) to step into the story and be heroes…as much as he WAS a jerk, the other couple overheard and responded. Cool for them and of them.

    Glad to have you back. The emotional output was extreme I’m sure. Thanks for sharing the pain of the process.


  47. The contrast between the two responses is interesting. It makes you wonder who is happier in life in general. The man who refused or the couple who stepped up even when they weren’t asked to.

  48. Mikezserdin

     We both know the answer to that 🙂

  49. Restless Knees

    Could your anger be because you weren’t getting your way and not because of the kids?  A lot of times we request in what we think is reasonable but when it isn’t granted we get angry.  The anger is not for the request but for the answer.  If it was for the kids you would have assured the kids they will be fine and tell the guy to let you know if they become unruly or become scared.  Honey instead of vinegar….  The same results would have been the couple stepping up but all in a calm way.  I too have to have the aisle seat due to my KNEE PROBLEMS but wouldn’t want to appear to be an idiot to the people on the plane.  I might have given up my seat but everyone around me and ME would have been miserable with my restless legs and artho knees.  We get angry at God when He doesn’t see things our way too.  The guy responded correctly by saying no but not giving you a reason…then he just responded back with aggression since you stepped up the level of the conversation.  We Christians cause a lot of our own problems but we blame others.  Thanks for your post and showing both sides of the issue. 

  50. I understand your point, and I agree that we often cause our own problems. I also regret my anger because it is stupid and helps nothing.
    But I was acting out of my desire for my daughter. To protect her and take care of her. She is barely 4 years old, but due to developmental delay as an orphan, she functions at an even younger age. She was in a foreign country and didn’t understand anything. Assuring her that everything would be okay was not possible. All of this after traveling for the previous 24 hours. I understand knee problems. I treat them. But I also get “scared little girl” problems because I am the father of 3 girls. To me, the little girl wins out over bad knees every time.
    This man had an opportunity to let his knees suffer for the good of someone who was more fragile and vulnerable than he. Maybe if he had chosen to give up his seat, his knees may have been sore, but I bet his heart and his soul would have been happier.
    I’m sure he didn’t see it this way, but it makes you wonder how often we miss out on a chance to meet the needs of others because we are too busy thinking about our own perceived needs. We are focused on the image in the mirror instead of looking out the window at the rest of the world.

  51. While I think it would’ve been awesome to drop that fool in the aisle you did the right thing. I’m glad you made it home and the kind couple gave up their seats.

  52. Dee

    I fail to see how a failure to plan on your part makes it the “jerk’s” problem. He paid for his seat and is under no obligation – legally, ethically, or morally – to surrender it just because *you* asked.

    To me, the “jerk” here is you for expecting others to accommodate your demands and then getting pissy about it.

  53. Thanks for the opinion. I don’t disagree about my behaving like a jerk. In fact I called myself that in the article itself. But we disagree about which action of mine was jerkish. I wasn’t a jerk for asking, I was a jerk for being mad when he said no.

    You are right. It was his seat and he reserved the right to say no, which he did and nobody tried to force him to do otherwise. But the issue isn’t about who paid for what. The issue I wanted you to think about was an opportunity to do something kind for someone in need. Is the world a better place when we keep what is rightfully ours or is it a better place when we help those in need?

    With the short little lives we have, these are the kinds of choices that can give our lives purpose and meaning.

  54. Julie

    I agree with you. If it doesn’t inconvenience us/or pain us, why not be a little kind and considerate. It is no no big deal. no big sacrifice on our part.

  55. Dave

    Dude, I think YOU are the jerk, seriously. Because the thing is, you should have planned better, and it’s not the guys fault that you were split up from your family. I purposely buy my tickets early for the simple fact that I want to be able to select my seat simply to ensure I am NOT stuck in the middle and have a better seat. Furthermore, with how airlines are set up now, you have to pay for most times to select your seat? Which I will pony up the extra 10-25 dollars for that right. Being hassled by someone who was either too lazy, or to cheap to select their seat pisses me off. Everytime I fly I run into this problem. The last time it was a bulkhead seat, this jerk walks up to me and explains his wife will be sitting next to me and he all but demanded that I give up my seat to him, even going as far to refuse to move until I got up. I explained to him that if he bothered to buy the tickets earlier, go on an app to select seats or paid the extra money he wouldn’t have this issue. I did all three of those things and people like you, and him want to guilt people like me into giving something up that I paid for and call me the jerk. There is one point you made that gives me some hope for you, where you admit that there may have be a personal reason as to why he did not relinquish his seat. As for myself, I’m tall an aisle seat allows to kind of stretch out my legs this also helps as for when I use the restroom I don’t have to awkwardly climb over people grabbing other peoples seats etc. also I purposely choose a seat as close to the front as possible, simply because I’m a busy man when I fly and I want to get off of the airplane as soon as humanly possible. But seriously, this guy was not the jerk in the situation, you were. This man took his own personal time to personally select his seat and probably even paid some money to secure the seat as well.

  56. Dave

    No one is obligated to do anything nice for one. For two, in your story no one was “in need” if it were a matter of you wouldn’t be able to even get on the airplane and you needed to be home for work or school then you could make the argument of being “in need” and yes the world may be a better place if people inly did things out if kindness but for every good consequence there’s an equally negative consequence. Maybe he does have an illness or diarrhea and now not having the isle seat where he was originally may cause a rather uncomfortable flight for someone else

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