The view from 50,000 feet

September 18, 2004

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SALZBURG, AUSTRIA ✦ I love my daughter, all 15 months of her, for many reasons. One is that she’s more like her mother than me. Especially while flying.

My wife Jean and I continue to be aid workers in the Middle East and Africa, so this is often. In fact, diaper-clad Elizabeth Katherine has already been on more than dozen flights and four continents.

The Squirt knows one word. Just one. It’s “hello.”

But words can be powerful things. I personally don’t like to use more than I have to. This is because, by nature, I am, or at least I was once, painfully shy. Yes, playing hide ’n’ seek with this kid meant calling Search and Rescue to find me.

Elizabeth, on the other hand, will say “hello” to anyone (of any colour), anywhere (of any political or religious stripe), anytime (even if you’re trying to sleep.) She’ll give a snappy “hello-hello-hello,” or maybe a more deliberate “hell-ooohh!” with a wave and toothy grin, and playful swat to your head.

Realize, though, that her “hello” can mean anything from “good night,” to “I’m hungry,” to “I have a stinky.”

Now flying around the planet, glamorous as it seems, has its challenges. Even before sky-terror, staying alive was one of them. The airlines don’t want you to dwell on this, so they offer various in-flight distractions. Air Emirates, one carrier we use, based in oil-rich Dubai, wins awards for providing things like video consoles to every passenger.

Entertaining. But they just numb and dumb us down. I mean, in case of that panic-driven descent, does anyone really believe that, as safety rules say, putting your head between your legs will help much?

Think about this. Upon impact, where exactly will your head go? Does anyone really want to be found like this?  And life-jackets? Have you ever heard of even a single rescue from the Atlantic Ocean?

This is why I use flight safety-drill time to build my nest. Shoes off, books out, pillows and blankets everywhere, along with a noticeable yawn, so anyone sitting nearby, besides my wife of course, understands I don’t want to say “hello.”

Elizabeth, standing on a seat if possible, waving to her fans, does enough of that. Jean, an obstetrician, also seems to genuinely enjoy interacting with virtually anyone.

It all works quite well except for the rare times when I fly alone, like recently, here to Salzburg, where I’m attending a conference on how globalization impacts poor countries. It’s a reminder how humanity truly is a global family, how we’re accountable to each other, how we need to, in essence, say “hello” to one another more often.

No, private personalities or not, we have a profound effect on each other. My strengths and joys, like my weaknesses and disappointments, reach beyond me. They touch those around me, sometimes in very distant places.

Economically, globalization shows what’s true relationally: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” It’s been said that this great truth, first penned just so by poet John Donne, is both comforting and disturbing.

For me, this is especially clear when flying, vulnerably, at 50,000 feet. I get perspective on the petty worries that seem so large on the ground. I see how vast the ocean is, and how small my boat is. I see how my little girl, like all children, somehow lives more like the rest of us are meant to: a bit closer to heaven.

So if you and I have not yet met on these pages, Elizabeth would, I’m sure, want me to re-introduce myself after my summer repose. Soon we three return to our home in Yemen, an impoverished Muslim country in the Middle East.

From this ancient place, I will write more, while Jean will continue her work improving health care among the world’s most needy women.

And Elizabeth Katherine? I suspect she’ll keep learning things about this world that we might not imagine.

Until next time then, from each of us to all of you … hello. And hello again.


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September 18, 2004 • Posted in ,
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