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A Helping Hand

I thanked the people in the aisle and middle seats as they stood to let me pass by to my window seat on the plane. As we settled in, the woman in the aisle seat explained that she hated to fly and was scared out of her mind. She began taking deep breaths and clenching her knees.

The man in the middle seat nodded and said, “Actually, there is nothing to be afraid of. You know, flying is actually safer than driving. The odds of dying in a plane crash are about 1 in 5 million. The odds of dying while simply walking down the street are 1 in 500.” The man kept going, rattling off endless facts and statistics.

Despite his valiant attempts to change her opinion of flying through logic and reason, the woman in the aisle seat did not look relieved. In fact, she looked annoyed and put an end to the unhelpful conversation by nodding and opening a book she held on her lap.

About an hour into the flight, the turbulence began. It was dark and stormy outside. The lights in the plane began flickering. The plane bounced around. Drinks splashed onto the tray tables. The pilot sternly reminded everyone to keep their seat belts fastened.

The man in the middle suddenly seemed less confident about his airplane wisdom. His face was white and filled with fear. His hands clutched the armrests. 

The woman in the aisle seat reached over and gently – without saying a word – put her hand over his. 

I looked out the window and smiled to myself. In the window, I could see my seatmates’ reflections. Her hand remained over his. Steady. Calming. 

The man was scared. His own facts and figures, which he had so confidently declared a mere hour earlier, had failed him as a coping strategy. What helped him was the kindness of a stranger. The absence of words. A simple, comforting touch.

Author: Alyssa Forcehimes, PhD

An expert in behavior change, substance use disorders and empathic communication, Dr. Alyssa Forcehimes serves as President of The Change Companies® and Train for Change Inc.® She lives in Arizona with her husband and two daughters.