Imagine the scene. It has been a wearying time. You left your hotel room at 11:00am on the final day of your much-needed holiday. You spent a final few hours trying to enjoy the last dregs of the Mediterranean town you have inhabited for a week, but at the back of your mind a voice is chanting with increasing volume: “I just want to get back home …”
At 3:00pm you, your holiday rep, and your bags are thankfully reunited at the local airport for the 5:30pm flight. The temperature outside is just below 30C. The queues for the ham and cheese paninis and coffee are long, and the Mediterranean males are shouting and stomping as they serve, while their resigned women sit quietly and take the money. The airport lounge is overcrowded and there are not enough seats. “I just want to get home,” you say to yourself. “I just want to get home.”
And then the announcement. It came from nowhere.
It shocked, and you took an involuntary intake of breath. It was as if you had been mindlessly paddling in warm sea only to be brought back to consciousness by treading on a hidden sharp rock or broken shell.
“Flight to PMQ4376 to London Stansted will be delayed for one hour due to extreme weather conditions on the flight path.”
A tiny part of your brain is grounded. You do the calculations. “One hour probably means two or three. We now won’t get home until … What if I have to pay extra for parking?” But in parallel, somewhere else in your brain is in overdrive, about to order the release a cocktail of stress chemicals into your system. You are being tested. In a nano second you have to decide whether to release the chemicals, or if they have already bolted, whether to let them go or call them back.
The automatic response would be easy and effortless. The neurological pathways are well honed. The social animal wants to be accepted and is used to going with the crowd, going with the flow, responding in the same way as everyone else. All around you the predictable responses are emerging; strong anger being suppressed behind tight silence, or being allowed out with cursing and swearing; frustrated whines, and tears of the young and not so young.
There is another option. It is not easy, and it may not be familiar, but it does exist. It is a response that will curtail the stress hormones slowly killing the body. It will reduce the anger (whether suppressed or released), and it will temper the whines and the tears.
It is pointless to spend excessive emotional energy railing against something that you cannot control. The wise feel their bodies and minds start to rail at some distress or disappointment that they have no control over. That is a normal response of caring individuals with functioning endocrine systems. However, if they start to talk differently to themselves, they are able to keep the needle on the emotional distress meter within the mild to middle range, or bring it back there if it strays above.
What you think has a huge impact on how you feel. To paraphrase Epictetus – life is only 10 percent of what happens to you, but 90 percent of how you respond to what happens to you.
It is ok to be disappointed and mildly annoyed by the delay, but if we don’t pull ourselves back from serious outrage and stress, we are making two simple, but fundamental mistakes.
The first is the mistake of exaggeration. Albert Ellis, an American psychotherapist, said that people suffer from awfulitis – that is, the ability to take something bad and make it worse. Being delayed by a flight is bad, but let’s not make it worse than it is. There are worse things in the world that could have happened to us. Ask the inhabitants of Grenfell Tower.
The second mistake is less obvious but much more futile. We are attempting to control something that we have no control over and arguably have no responsibility for – in this case the weather. Many of us go through life fretting over things, trying to make things happen, and unable to see that the frets and the exertions are wasted because we are largely powerless in most situations.
We can learn to control more appropriately our response to things that happen, but we largely cannot control a myriad of things that happen to us on a daily basis. We want people to like us, and can do a reasonable amount of trying, but ultimately we cannot make it happen. We want to get the job, and can do a reasonable amount of trying, but ultimately we cannot make it happen. We want the weather to be fine so that we can fly home at the appointed hour, but we cannot make it happen.
As Reinhold Neibuhr famously said: Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.