Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinions about the things.
If you’re like me, then airports are simultaneously a source of enjoyment and frustration.
I fly regularly as part of my job. Often twice a week. Some might grumble about traveling so frequently, but it’s something I’ve enjoyed ever since I was young. It made me feel special and different, getting to do something that wasn’t available to many of my friends and classmates. And my father traveled a lot for work, so it seemed important. Even amidst layovers and delayed flights, I’m content kicking back in a terminal with overpriced food and a good book.
My only real complaint is the people.
You know what I mean. I’m talking about the person who shuts the window cover while you’re looking outside, the screaming kids, the pretentious girl with vocal fry who says “like, ah mah gawd” every twenty seconds, the large guy who spills over into your seat and takes the armrest, and the people in terminals who place their things on the few remaining seats and throw a tantrum when you want to sit down. And let’s not forget the folks who recline their seats.
But airports serve all types, so this is expected. Ignoring the obvious socioeconomic limitations–one-way tickets often cost more than a full week at minimum wage–you find people of all backgrounds and circumstances. It’s only natural that we find ourselves next to the sorts of folks that we generally avoid.
And these are little annoyances in the grand scheme–first-world problems, for sure. But they can grow and bloom into something severe until we’re angry, bitter, and utterly frustrated.
So how do we stop that from happening?
A Stoic Approach to Emotions
Epictetus and other Stoics understood this dilemma.
They realized that the cause of negative emotions is rarely an external thing itself, but rather our opinion of it. If a person pulls down the window cover when I’m looking outside, for example, I’m upset because of my own perception. It’s rude. What an asshole, right?
The stoics desired tranquility: freedom from negative emotions. They understood that freeing ourselves from their control is one of the most important steps in living a good life. And while our initial, involuntary reactions aren’t entirely under our control, we can control our opinions.
When the passenger next to me pulls out her tablet, turns on a cheesy sitcom, and promptly pulls down the window cover, I initially feel irritation. I don’t choose to feel this way; it just happens. And although I can work to react differently the future, right now it’s out of my control.
From that point forward, however, I am in control.
I can form a negative judgement about her. I see the Ann Taylor style clothing, bland expression, headphones, reserved attitude, and haircut that looks like it’s been approved by Human Resources–she’s probably another bitchy, entitled business traveler who thinks the world revolves around her.
I can also look at the situation differently. Maybe this is her second flight of the day, she didn’t sleep well last night, and she’s stressed out because of her job. She might even be missing out on a gathering of friends or family back home. Watching a stupid sitcom may just be her way to calm down.
Or I can ignore her completely. Who she is or what she does has no bearing on my life, after all. So what if I can’t look out the window? Who cares? I’ve still got a good book, and I’m on a form of transportation that my ancestors would have given anything to ride. All is well in the world.
However I choose to view this, it’s my choice. I’m in control of whether or not I spend the next hour angry and irritated. And who wants to waste time feeling like that?
But let’s expand this a bit.
How many times do we find ourselves angry, frustrated, or anxious about things that, in the grand scheme of things, don’t even matter?
I recently found myself in a debate on the subject of cell phones in schools. I used to teach middle school science, so I’m a bit opinionated on education issues.
“Just tell students to put them in their pockets,” I said. “Turn off the ringers, and don’t bring them out in class.”
But the others insisted that cell phones have absolutely no place in a school, and the conversation escalated until we’d become irritated with each other.
I was then told a story about a vice president at a local company becoming livid after an employee’s phone rang allowed during a meeting–the point being that it’s unprofessional and people are overly addicted to their devices.
I kept arguing, but then I realized something.
Why are we arguing about it? We’re at dinner. There are no students with cell phones here. The only thing that we’re upset about is our opinions on the topic, and we’re the ones who brought them to the table.
And why should a cell phone make someone upset? So what if it rings? It may be a bit distracting, for sure, but it’s hardly a cataclysmic event. For example, I was at a movie recently where the guy next to me–who was rather intoxicated–repeatedly took pictures of his girlfriend and texted them to her. I could see the glow of the screen, the occasional flash of light. It was kind of annoying. So I decided I’d say something, but then I stopped. I realized that it didn’t actually bother me, but rather I was annoyed with the idea: you aren’t supposed to use phones in a theater, and this guy did.
So I said nothing. Of course some people might argue that I was taken advantage of–I let someone step on me and act inconsiderate and rude. That’s a valid point, I suppose, but I just don’t care. Instead of getting angry, I let it go.
And I didn’t enjoy the movie any less.