Picture me sitting in the back row of a packed faculty workshop. Every time I tilt my head to see the speaker, the guy in the front row leans directly into my line of vision. Frustrated with the back and forth of my completely-non-malicious, big-headed, good-listener colleague, I keep angling my head to work with his unpredictable rhythm. After several minutes of this back and forth, I realize that my shoulders are tight, my breathing is shallow and I’m completely distracted from the speaker by the urge to….wait! I can just move my chair. I shift my chair, take a deep breath and calm down, view restored.*
Sometimes reality is too intractable and a chair moving option is not available. (What if I didn’t have to see the speaker? What if I closed my eyes and just listened?)
It seems like we are often required to manage our frustration and spikes of adrenalin, whether it’s coping with the news or colleagues or commuters. (It’s not just me, is it?) I often make it a game, imagining that the guy who just cut me off is worried about being late to his daughter’s chemo appointment. Or that the woman who rammed me with her backpack in the subway car is late to a critical job interview.
Sometimes the internal exercise doesn’t work. So I just speak directly to the kid on the subway with the earphones reading his phone when a pregnant woman is standing in front of him. If he doesn’t respond, I enjoy a well-deserved moment of connection with my fellow-commuters about our shared disgust. I treat the national news in the same way.
Self-awareness demands that we check in with ourselves about our own frustration. The options are limited.
Change the situation where possible. Or change the response.
Boy, I feel both silly and elated when I’ve had a personal epiphany about something wise philosophers have been talking about for years.
Grant 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.**
*The same thing has happened to me in movie theaters, by the way, where once I ended up trading places with the large fellow sitting in front of me. Another time, the curly-haired monster in front of me very kindly agreed to scrunch down a little so I could see all of The Bourne Identity. Amazing what happens when I am brave enough to take action.
**Reinhold Niebuhr, 1951.