First, the airline employee explained that the older woman had five bags, and could not check all of those bags without paying hundreds of dollars in fees. I shared the information with the older woman, Ruth.
Ruth explained, through tears, that she’d come to the United States to bury her son, and she was returning to El Salvador. The bags contained all she had left of her child. She couldn’t pay the fees, and didn’t want to leave her dead child’s belongings behind.
My heart tugged. But I too am a passenger in an increasingly disconnected world. So I cautioned myself. Was this woman’s story real? Or was it a well honed plea for unneeded charity that had, perhaps, worked for many years and many flights?
One of Ruth’s bags was open. I peered at the items inside.
Beat up books in English – a language she didn’t speak. Crumpled, dirty, t-shirts and other clothing a young man might wear. An old blender. An old cell phone with a cracked screen. Scratched, unkempt pots. A bible…
I looked back at Ruth. “This is all I have of him,” she whispered, in Spanish. “He’s gone.”
Why are so many of our best decisions the ones few others understand at first?
I looked into her bloodshot, exhausted eyes. I saw a mother who had just buried a son; a broken, lost and bewildered mother; a mother who needed to return home with dignity and humanity; a mother who needed help.
I explained to the airline attendant that this was an important moment for her; a moment she could make a difference in someone’s life. I looked at the attendant’s permed, blank stare as I spoke. I knew the answer before her lips moved.
“I’m sorry, sir. It’s a sad story. It really is. But there’s nothing I can do. If she wants more bags, she’ll have to pay for them.”
“I’ve taken countless flights on this airline,” I responded. “I am one of your most frequent fliers. When given the chance to bend rules to help me, your colleagues have usually bent rules and helped. Please… help her.”
“That’s different,” she responded. “We can sometimes bend rules for people like…”
“No,” I replied. “You can bend rules when decency calls. You can bend rules when there is no choice but to bend rules. Now is one of those moments. Call whoever you need to call… and find a way to help.”
A blank stare. A shrug. “It’s not that simple, sir. There’s nothing we can do.”
I was angry. But I also knew my anger wasn’t as important as Ruth, who needed help.
My wife, Nathalie, and our months old daughter, Luna, were traveling with me. For 45 minutes or so, Nathalie and I helped Ruth repack her bags. We reduced five bags to three, and reorganized a few times when we were over the weight limit by a few pounds.
I gave the attendant my credit card to pay for the additional bags. Ruth insisted on reimbursing me what she could of that amount. Then Ruth walked together with me, Nathalie, and Luna, through security and toward our gates.
On the other side of security, we talked a little longer. Ruth’s story was hard, sad. She had experienced horrific tragedy; she had buried both of her sons. We talked about how to use tragedy to grow… and to help others grow.
We hugged a few times. Then Nathalie, Luna, and I boarded our plane, and Ruth boarded hers.
I’ve thought a lot about this experience. What bothers me most is that in the name of rules (however well intentioned they may be), this attendant felt emboldened to not care about another person; she felt emboldened to forget her own humanity.
I am the CEO of an organization. I think often about what it means to do the right thing. I seek, always, to hire employees who are willing to do the right thing – even if it means breaking rules or standards I’ve put in place. Here’s why:
We live in a big world. We are billions of people. But we also live in a small world. We are family. Together, we must realize that our first obligation is to each other, as family. If we don’t heed that obligation, nothing else matters…
… for we will have abandoned the one asset that makes us unique in the world: our humanity. Without it, we are, in the truest sense, nobody. Without it, we are just attendants who follow rules, even when the consequence is losing ourselves.
We are so much better than that.
We are so much more.
Let’s do better. And let’s do more.
Co-Founder & CEO, Avanoo
Daniel Jacobs is the CEO and cofounder of Avanoo. Daniel’s work has been featured on Fortune, Inc. BusinessInsider, Apple News, HuffPo, and most major news publications in the United States. His company, Avanoo, uses storytelling, micro-learning, and cutting-edge technology to help many of the world’s most prominent brands drive desired change, performance, and engagement at scale and in just three minutes a day.