Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.
– 14th Dalai Lama
In June I was scheduled to fly from Newark to Atlanta, a two and a half-hour flight. Departure time was 1:51 p.m., so I expected to arrive about 4:30, and a fun evening was planned. I was primed to get on the plane, have a nice snooze, and be fresh for the activities. But boarding time was pushed back an hour. Then when we did get on the airplane, we went nowhere.
The pilot said that because we were late, we had lost our place in line to take off, and there was a line in front of us. There were various problems in the system that day. We sat on the tarmac for two hours, with no air conditioning, no drinks or snacks. I felt too hot and sweaty to sleep. Every now and then the apologetic pilot came back on the loudspeaker and give us a progress report, which sounded like no progress at all. It was a hot day. The flight was full so we were all scrunched up together in the heat. We weren’t allowed to get out of our seats.
I felt trapped, like a character in the absurdist play No Exit. After two-plus hours, the airline had to let us off the plane because of some regulation. So, we taxied back to the gate and exited the plane and were told to stay close to watch for our next chance to take off. In the end, our takeoff was delayed six and a half hours and I was lucky to get to Atlanta before midnight. Once the ordeal was over, of course, I forgot all about it almost immediately.
Nobody on that flight was happy about it, but I was pleasantly surprised how well people took it. I’ve seen many reports lately of people blowing up at frontline workers in every line of business: flight attendants, desk clerks, health workers, even teachers. I was glad that scene didn’t play out for us that day. I guess videos of people throwing tantrums had given me the impression that this was normal now. But in spite of the discomfort and frustration, people were remarkably good humored about it. The plane was packed, it was a diverse group, and everyone was nice.
We have been living through some trying times, and maybe people have shorter fuses than usual. Fortunately on this trip, everyone managed their stress with grace.
I think the rise in incivility can be chalked up to the unprecedented stresses of the times, most notably the pandemic, which affected everyone. So, we have more people who have been pushed closer to the edge than usual. People are often ready to snap. Then there are the secondary effects of the pandemic, the staffing shortages and supply chain issues that create further frustration in people who are already overstressed.
But the pandemic had other effects as well. It made people appreciate things they may have taken for granted before. I believe that most people traveling today are, as I was, really happy to be able to travel again after such a long time of relative confinement, and are experiencing some travel euphoria.
During the lockdown period, I was content to hole up and I made the most of it. As always, there were some surprise benefits, like being able to slow down and change your perspective. I got used to it. But when I was able to travel again, it unleashed that old euphoria. I had forgotten how great it is to travel.
The joy of travel will carry me through a lot of mishaps. It takes a lot to penetrate that. I feel truly free when I am traveling, as if I am escaping all the bad guys, the predators, maybe even eluding death itself. When I travel, I am buoyed by that euphoria. That helps to ward off the effects of being stuck in a hot, packed plane.
There is a basic property of travel that is unavoidable. Certainly one of the main reasons people choose to go on vacation is to break out of their habits, escape the drudgery and boredom of daily routines, and refresh themselves with experiences of something new.
But it’s inescapable that there is no way to experience anything new except by plunging into the unknown. And if you do that, it’s nearly inevitable that there will be mishaps, things not to your liking. But you may find that one of the changes that bothered you initially brought you some unexpected benefit.
It’s hard to remember that principle when you are feeling the sting of some unfortunate event. But it always proves to be true, so you can count on it, and just wait for it.
Still, it’s sometimes a challenge to keep one’s composure when things go wrong. I know what it feels like to lose your temper, so I have sympathy for the angry person.
I hear a lot about the loss of civility in society today, and I’ve been pondering what we can do about it as a society, or what one person can do as an individual. Social trends come and go, and I don’t expect any great panacea to cure this particular problem, but the one thing that does seem to help is kindness.
A friend of mine said, “A smile is the shortest distance between two people.” There are few actions that deliver more mileage. In situations like the one at the airport, I try to be mindful that the frontline worker is probably having an even tougher day than I am. There’s some deep satisfaction from kindness. It’s certainly a much greater pleasure than blowing your top.
Another friend, speaking at his father’s funeral said, “This is going to be the shortest eulogy you ever heard. My father would want you to hear this. Be kind.”
Isn’t that what all the great religions teach? To be kind to one’s fellow human beings, and to treat one’s world with respect. I’m no scholar of theology, but I have gotten that impression from what I have learned about the historic religions. Such principles as the Golden Rule are the foundations of civilization. Without them we are just a mob.
In the tangled jungle of social media you sometimes see a gem. I recently saw a post that said: “Everyone is fighting a hidden battle you know nothing about. Be kind.”
As I was musing about possible slogans for a campaign for a return to civility, the words “Try a little kindness” flashed across my mind. That phrase triggered a memory of a song from the early ‘70s, which reminded me of a previous period when the country was sharply divided and that division often sparked angry confrontations.
In a way that memory was reassuring, because it showed that we’ve been here before, and we came through it to more harmonious times. And I am confident we can do it again this time.
Meanwhile, every day is better when you can exercise some kindness.
Your humble reporter,
A. Colin Treadwell