Enjoying the unseasonable weather last weekend, my wife and I sat on a ledge at the park playground and watched our two kids clomp around pretending to be dinosaurs or detectives or Jedi when a little girl not our own wandered right up. She smiled big while the wind slapped her golden curls and told me very directly in squeaky toddler speak, “Get up! It’s a pretty day! You supposed to play!”

We laughed and conceded that she was correct while her dad, burly and bearded in a hoodie and sunglasses, came around the corner of the playground equipment to call her off and explain she is especially outgoing. “She walks up to total strangers and hands out hugs in the mall,” he chuckled. “It’s good and bad. We have to keep an eye on her.”

In the small talk that ensued, our new parenting pal said something I found especially insightful:

“I tell folks being a parent is like piloting a plane in thick fog,” he drawled. “You make the best suggestions and commands you possibly can and then you hope to God that when that fog clears you’ve got that plane in between the lines of the runway.”

This strikes me both as funny and fairly accurate. Currently parenting two kids who are getting old enough to ask a lot of questions that can’t be answered just with a “yes,” “no” or “later”, I am constantly second-guessing every syllable I mutter and permission slip I sign. It’s hard sometimes not to worry over every decision, fearing that a seemingly innocuous misfire might be the one thing that sends a child down the path to drugs, crime and vampire novels. So it was nice to hear from another parent struggling with the same stuff who has apparently made at least some sort of peace with it.

But the more I have thought about the plane analogy since that sunny afternoon, the more I think it doesn’t apply only to parenting. In every relationship we build, we potentially become part-time air traffic controllers. Obviously, the affect is exaggerated with parents and spouses and siblings due to close contact, but you might be flagging someone on or off the airfield without even realizing it.

I saw an old friend last week who now lives far across the country. As we caught up over wine and cheeseburgers (him wine, me cheeseburgers), he told me in a serious moment that I had been an important influence in his life, being there to help him years ago when he was in a rough spot. I was flattered but speechless because I had no idea what he was talking about. Not only did I not know that I had been helpful – I wasn’t aware he’d needed help. He reiterated that it was never overt, but just being positive and encouraging and inviting him out had made a big difference.

His confession made me think of people who did the same for me. In college, my friend Lindsay was a huge bright light. I sent her a note telling her that she had been helpful to me during a dark time all those years ago and her response echoed the one I made to my wine-drinking pal: “Dark time? I never knew you were having a hard time at all!”

It comes down to this: you never really know the flight conditions someone else is driving through. But you don’t have to know.

Just remember: the smile, the coffee, the text message could help defrost the windshield a little. And sometimes a little is the difference between landing on the runway and hitting the water.

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