What-Ifs and a Smile

Finally, it’s Friday, the end of a long week on the road. I’m at the airport in New Orleans, heading for Chicago.

As I walk the loading ramp, I glance out a window facing toward the tail of the plane and see what appears to be a dent in the plane’s fuselage. I do a quick stop, look again to be sure, then keep walking.

The flight attendant checks my ticket, and I find my seat, stuff my duffle into the overhead compartment, and sit, my brain flashing back to what I’d seen minutes earlier.

What if it really is a dent that only I have noticed? What if one of the food supply trucks hit it, the driver feeling and hearing the bump to realize that in pulling away he’d come much too close to the plane. He gets out and glances all around. Nobody saw him do it. If he reports it, they’ll have to empty the plane. There’ll be many questions. Most likely, he’ll lose his job and the incident will forever be on his work record. That can’t happen; he has a wife and two kids to feed and care for. Tightening his grip on the steering wheel, he drives to the garage where he parks the truck, punches the time clock, and goes home hoping that hugs and a cold one will help him forget.

Then I shift my thoughts to me. What if I were to say nothing, write it off as my imagination, a trick played by light and shadow. As the plane flies upward toward its cruising altitude, it takes a sudden and hard turn before pitching downward, heading toward earth in a death spiral with me realizing the most horrible of all horrors, that because I didn’t tell anyone what I saw, more than a hundred people, including myself, are about to die. There’s scant time even for urgent and fervent prayer.

I reach up and push the call button. The flight attendant walks toward my seat and stops. “Yes sir, may I help you?” I motion her to come closer and as quietly as possible explain to her what I saw. “I’ll tell them up front,” she says. She turns and goes forward toward the cockpit. I’m relieved to see the captain or first officer leaving the plane.

As I watch everyone board, I temporarily forget my concern. Then I see the flight attendant making her way toward me. She gets to my seat, bends down close to my ear, and in a loud whisper says, “It’s made that way.” We both are aware of my clearly audible sigh of relief. Then she smiles wide as she straightens and says, “I’m glad too.”

So, you ask, what’s the takeaway?

Well, this happening was a classic example of what’s called “situational awareness.” Although everyone should have it, few do. Consider this: People driving and never looking from side to side or up and down, only straight ahead. They neither see nor react to what’s around them. Even worse, the looks on their faces reveal they aren’t alertly dealing with the “here,” but rather dumbly with the “far away.”

Then there are those who with their sight riveted to their phone, step off the curb, walk within only a few feet of your car, and across the intersection while thinking the words they’ll make up, the words they’ll peck out as soon as they reach the sidewalk on the other side.

Or what about the fast moving tourist on the interstate, looking straight ahead, missing much of what’s beautiful, exiting only to gas up and grab another bag of chips.

None of them are aware of the potential dangers they face or the wonders of the world they miss.

In sharp contrast, those who have gifted themselves with situational awareness use that quality to avoid trouble, learn something new, and to realize the potential as well as the real. If you’re around them, you sense they seem to be in greater control, because they are. They seem to know more, because they do. Their life seems to be more interesting, because it is.

In early America, situational awareness was a logic born of necessity—seeing a deer and killing it for food, sidestepping the often fatal mistake of coming between a mama bear and her cubs, scanning the sky for an approaching storm.

Today, it’s a matter of not only using it to stay safe, but also to identify wonderful sights and experience enjoyable encounters that help make life worth living.