Stranger on a Plane

I'm Sure I KNow That Guy

You’re on a plane and you start to notice that the fellow in front of you looks very familiar. Well, at least from behind. You didn’t see him sit down so you’re not sure what he actually looks like but each time he turns his head the glimpse of his profile reminds you of someone. And his mannerisms…He touches his ear again, just like that guy in your math class back in university. Wasn’t that guy a farm kid? You remember him telling some story about a tractor. This guy could be a farmer – he looks very healthy and tan from back here.

By the end of the flight you know him better than he probably knows himself: should you tell him his barber missed a hair on the back of his neck? Maybe his farm-wife clips his hair for him on their front porch (you’ve noticed the sensible gold band). And that mole looks worrisome – his wife would surely have noticed it when she cut his hair. She likely booked him a doctor’s appointment. Country doctors are so kindly. You are so happy that your former classmate has a nice life.

The the plane lands and you wonder briefly what he’ll say, what you’ll say, if (when) he recognizes you as he turns to wait hunched under the overhead bins while the other passengers lumber into motion. You prepare to act a little surprised at that moment of hello, since you suddenly feel weirdly ashamed of watching him so intensely. You are also busily gathering your belongings and these thoughts are so fleeting you barely notice them.

You watch. He turns. And…looks completely different than you imagined. There is nothing familiar – or farmer-ish for that matter – about this man. He is a a complete stranger, and now he is looking at you because you are looking at him. You look away, suddenly feigning disinterest.

This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Or am I the only one who composes stories for the partly-seen strangers before me on planes and in theatres or restaurants?

It occurred to me last evening (as the lady in front of me at The Lion King in Vancouver whose elegance I’d been admiring turned to reveal an unexpected visage) that this experience is not unlike the way we view our own lives at times.

Sometimes we get stuck looking at ourselves, our lives, our relationships from a limited perspective – like considering our parents from only the child’s point of view, or ourselves from the inner critic position. Maybe we are inclined to only see things as the victim or the hero (have you read my post on The Drama Triangle yet?). Our experience can be painful, which is why we then seek relief by drinking (or a myriad of other coping behaviours like shopping, eating, working, escaping by any means) and that process keeps us stuck. It becomes a vicious cycle.

Recovery is all about stepping back, sideways, forwards and seeing things differently. It is about looking at the whole picture and changing the perspective. Sometimes it is a huge AHA! moment just to become aware that what we thought was real was really a skewed version of the truth.

There’s nothing wrong with inventing a story for the back of a stranger’s head – it’s one of my favourite pastimes. However, when the moment of truth comes around may it serve as a gentle reminder for all the ways we fool ourselves with limited thinking and perspectives.


  1. I’m 113 days sober today and in the last almost four months I’ve done more self inspection than I’ve done in my whole life. I’ve been looking at everything I am, everything I’ve been, and all I want to be from every possible angle. It’s startling, frustrating, but also exhilarating. Before I was sober, I never took the time to “step back, sideways, forwards and see things differently; to look at the whole picture and change the perspective.” Thanks for reminding me that I should be doing this and it’s a vital element of my recovery.

    BTW, I’ve added The Bubble Hour podcast to my recovery regime. It’s great. Really appreciate all you do.



  2. Hi Jean,

    This post interested me because I have just ended a long flight from LA to London. I am always staring at people, picking up subtle cues, and building up a personality type alas Sherlock Holmes.

    In terms of storytelling the most destructive thing that I do is create stories about the way my son should live his life. It goes a something like this: I think back to when I was 14-years old; what was I missing, what did I love, and then I try and fill in the gaps, and do more of the things I like. I miss the whole point.

    It’s his life, and not mine.

    When I was drunk I was even worse. One of the greatest things about quitting the booze is clarity. It allows you time to think. I discovered I am a terrible listener. It’s all me, me, me – hence why my stories are also about me. Now I am sober I can finally learn to listen. I think it’s one of the most important traits/skills we have.

    Keep up the good work.




  3. I think I just experienced the type of shift in perspective you’re talking about: I have an issue that I had to begin to address (finances) and in the past year, before my visit to the attorney’s office…I’ve spent months dreading it, imagining the worst scenerios possible, worried what people would think of me, and how I’ve ruined my life. It’s kept me up at night. It’s put knots in my stomach…After the visit to the attorney…turns out that while I have an uphill battle to fight for a little while…it’s nowhere near what I thought it would be. Just like sobriety itself is not like I thought it’d be.
    Thanks for this post, I really enjoy your writing.


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