Americans are the friendliest people. You make eye-contact for more than three seconds and boom: in, they jump.
“Hi, I’m Mike. I’ll be your neighbour on this flight,” said Mike, my neighbour on the flight. Neighbours on flights can tricky: either it’s uncomfortable because you don’t say a word to each other for hours even though you elbow each other more than Maroune Fellaini at rush hour. Or, you get one of AMC’s “The Talking Dead” who will not shut up. Finding the perfect balance is rare: someone who knows when to flit in and out of conversation as your both your moods see fit. I call these people “soul-mates”. Mike was a talker. And he wanted to spread his message: the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Mike was on some sort of Christian bible tour of Israel. Our flight to Tel Aviv from JFK would take 10 hours. He started off harmlessly enough, asking about me and what I do. I told him I was headed to Israel to do a summer internship at a solar energy company. Then I asked him about what he did and he mentioned that a group of 10 of them from their church-group were going to visit all the holy sites in Israel. Mike was in his early 40s and spoke softly but with great conviction. After we exchanged introductions, he got down to business.
“So are you interested in religion?”
“Not really,” I said, “I’m not very religious.”
“But do you know about them? You must know about them. What religion are you?”
To his credit, he had already probed me about renewable energy and my plans in Israel. But now we had come down to brass tacks. This was his domain. This was the Game 1 of the Middle-Eastern Conference Finals and he had home court advantage. We were going to do this.
“I guess I was born Hindu, but I’m not religious,” I reaffirmed, my previously dormant atheism now yawning into life.
“Well, all the world religions say that there is going to be a saviour who will come to fix all the world’s problems. What does Hinduism say about it?”
Having spent the last few weeks reading Amartya Sen’s masterpiece “The Argumentative Indian” to try and figure out why my country is the way it is, I took a stab at some sort of answer about reincarnation and had little clue what Hinduism’s end-game was, other than all of us being enlightened enough to know how girls work. He wasn’t convinced. While he was polite and magnanimous when talking about other religions, his knowledge of them, for someone who claimed to be all about that life, was starting to strike me as scratchy.
The conversation moved – of course – to the Israel Palestine conflict and how it was all down to religion. I disagreed, arguing there were many issues that keep it going. He kept starting every sentence with “if you read the Bible, it says that…” and each time I didn’t have the heart or the will to counter with the notion that we need not take everything in the Holy books literally. But that was against my policy of not antagonising religious people, like a lot of atheists do for no apparent reason. I even threw in a few “hey, science doesn’t (yet) have all the answers” to ease the swelling furrow in his brow. Eventually we reached the grand question of why is the world so shitty and how we fix it. We don’t, explained Mike. Jesus will.
“We [his sect of Christianity] believe that Jesus Christ will return and save us and make everything perfect. No war, no suffering. Other religions believe in a saviour too. That’s why there will be a conflict. The Jews will not accept the Messiah. We don’t know when he will appear.”
The atheism inside me now went from groaning to growling. A tepid self-righteousness began to warm - filling me with eloquence I didn’t know I had. I must have sounded unbearably pretentious.
“Well, Mike, I have had a great and privileged life and I can afford to sit around and wait for the Messiah. But I come from a very poor country where most people cannot afford to sit around and wait because their child could die of starvation tomorrow. (Jah will not provide.) I have a duty and an obligation to do what I can to improve their lives today. If I can help build some solar plants to delivery energy and cut down on coal emissions, then that’s what I’ll do. I can afford to sit around and wait for the Messiah, but I won’t because they can’t.”
Mike had lost Game 1 of the Middle-Eastern Conference Finals. The conversation was amicable and we both did our best to make the other person’s viewpoint feel valued. But it had run its course and after a few “hey well you know, what you gonna do’s” from either side, we popped in our earphones and settled into our in-flight movies.
10-hour flight and the sound on my in-flight entertainment system doesn’t work. I tried changing the ear phones. I tried fiddling with the audio levels. Nothing. I was doomed. The flight was absolutely packed. I asked the flight attendant if I could move and instead of helping me, she said I could move if I found a free seat. Now begins one of the most awkward interactions you’re likely to face unless you’re a hot girl: going up to people on flights who have prized empty seats next to them and asking if you can sit there.
The first guy was some tall, blond dickhead who had moved to the empty back row (that doesn’t recline much) to stretch his giant legs. He was sat in the middle of the three seats, with his bag on the seat left of him and his giant horse legs in the space on the seat to the right. He was taking up an entire row.
“Excuse, may I take one of these seats next to you?”
“My audio isn’t working.”
“Uhhh only if it’s necessary and you can’t find another one.”
“I moved here from my seat, 41F, go sit there.”
I went to 41F, there was a family sat in that row and I wasn’t about to evict them. I went back to fuckface backbencher to plead my case. Audio-less on a 10-hour flight? What am I going to do, read a book? Fuckface backbencher had, in those 5 minutes, laid down sideways across the entire row and gone to sleep. Fucking fuckface.
I saw another empty looking seat. This time, a friendly looking girl stood in my way.
“Excuse me, is this seat taken? May I sit here?”
Her “Uhhhh why?” had even more disgust than the other guy. I explained my case. She did the smart thing by saying, “I don’t know, ask the lady on the other end of the row if it’s OK. I think her kids are coming to sit there.” Again, going all the way around to the other side of the row was not going to happen.
I went back to my seat, rather dejected. Would I have to talk to Mike about why bad things happen to good people because it’s all God’s divine plan?
And then something happened that I will not forget.
“Do you want to swap seats with me? I don’t really want to watch these movies” said Mike. It would have meant he would be separate from the lady sat next to him who he knew and who I assume was his wife. The compassion of the Christ. Of all the people on this Godforsaken flight, it was him that offered to swap seats without thinking twice. I declined sheepishly and spent the flight watching foreign language movies with English subtitles. It was actually rather nice to give my ears a rest. I watched a great Mexican film called Güeros and a nice Chinese documentary called My Life in China with an awful, misogynistic Parisian romp called Nos Femmes sandwiched in between.
This isn’t some parable for how the religious guy turned out to be right in the end or any of that. It was just a nice, surprising turn of events that lead me question how we think about strangers and the judgements we form based on our initial impressions.
I go some sleep. I chatted some more to Mike about religion, India, Israel and more. This time, I wasn’t looking to score any more points. I conceded the Middle-Eastern Conference Finals to him. And then Michael said that it was good. And then God made it good. And then it was good.