Last night, on a flight home from Chicago, I had the extreme misfortune of sitting in front of a man who made me embarrassed to be human. This lone man (I pegged him to be in his mid-thirties) solely made the flight the worst one I’ve ever been on. After we deplaned, I overheard several other people say the same thing. This man’s boisterousness alone made me crave the sound of the crying baby sitting directly next to me.
What I found particularly interesting was that this individual had clearly read the work of Tim Ferriss, Chris Guillebeau, Tucker Max, and Sam Harris, but I’m pretty certain he hadn’t read much else. Whatever the reason (mostly likely a form of cheap signaling), he felt compelled to spew verbal diarrhea on every person in the back half of the plane who forgot to pack their ear plugs (my poor fiance and I were some of these poor souls who forgot earplugs).
The really unfortunate thing is that I actually shared several of the same opinions as this tactless piece of work, which made me cringe. Though we shared a belief in the absence of evidence for a monotheistic God, we didn’t share the same views on how and when to approach the subject. He was the most evangelical atheist I’ve ever encountered and he made me realize why atheists can be equally as bad as (if not worse) than religious fundamentalists. As I discussed in my exchange with Larry Sanger, how you approach things matters.
Ultimately, this situation created quite the philosophical conundrum for me. At several points during the flight I thought that I ought to say something witty to put this arrogant ape in his place (at one point I thought he may even need a fist in his mouth to put him in his place), but I quickly realized he was probably hoping someone would do that. Besides, what made me think that I was the airplane’s chosen philosopher king responsible for putting people like him in their place? Where did my righteousness come from? Ignoring this irritating pontificator, difficult as it proved to be, seemed like the best thing to do and so it’s ultimately what I chose to do. However, it did nothing to stop the verbal onslaught.
This situation also made me afraid to speak ever again. Opinions are the stuff of life, but if speaking increases the probability of sounding like this guy, I’d prefer to remain silent for the remainder of my existence. Yes, it was that bad!
Why exactly this man felt compelled to launch a cacophony of pseudo-wisdom from his mouth for well over 90 minutes I’ll never know, but I suspect he was trying to signal something, albeit poorly. If this man truly had valuable insights on how to live better, as he clearly thought he did, I’m not sure why he would freely offer them up to anyone within earshot. To me, it seems prudent to never take or give unsolicited advice.
After I got off the plane, and began reflecting on the situation further, I feared that some people who don’t know me in real life (and only read my writing) may have the wrong impression of me. I voiced these concerns to my fiance on the drive home and I reasoned that writing was fundamentally different for one key reason — no one is forced to read my writing. On the contrary, when people like this sorry excuse for a human begin vociferously preaching on an airplane there is not much you can do to ignore it. You can ignore writing, you can’t ignore a loud voice in your ear.
Ultimately, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is nothing wrong with being opinionated per se. However, there are appropriate times and places in which to share your opinions and there are times when the wise thing to do is to refrain from sharing them verbally. What one writes about and what one talks about needn’t necessarily perfectly overlap — only fools don’t understand the difference.
My globe-trotting atheist friend from the the plane ride was clearly a fool — he was in desperate need of a course on critical thinking and how to be a civilized human-being. Unfortunately, the people who need to have their beliefs challenged the most are the least likely to seek it out. My experience last night is merely an anecdote which supports this idea of mine and it also reminds me that there is no perfect solution to these types of problematic situations, which I’m sure I’ll encounter again.
After last night, I began to think that perhaps Jean-Paul Sartre was right: “Hell is other people.” But then I also remembered that so too is heaven.