It was late afternoon in Dallas, Texas, I was walking down the loading bridge to the plane… and frankly, I had a bit of pep in my step.
I was here by way of Minneapolis, on a connecting flight to Portland (Oregon, where I was headed to record episodes for my podcast and meet with collaborators/clients). It had been a stressful morning, but things were looking way up. After a delightfully productive and focused flight from Minneapolis to Dallas, I was filled with the excitement that can only come from travel and from the near-promise of arrival at one’s destination.
I was just a couple hours from sweet, sweet Portland. So close. And I was in luck on this flight—I had a coveted window seat, specifically picked out when I purchased my ticket (we all know the Instagram potential of a window seat is undeniable). I wheeled down the ramp and on to the plane. I waved hello to the flight crew, and ambled toward my seat, (21A to be specific). The future sigh of settling into a window seat(!) was on my lips as I counted up:
18A / 18B
19A / 19B
20A / 20B
21A / 21B…WAIT!
There was, uh, well, someone in my seat. THAT WAS MY WINDOW SEAT. Specifically, there was a woman (likely a card-carrying AARP member by the looks of it) sitting in my seat. I started to process this unexpected reality and quickly concluded that clearly there was some sort of mix up here. This woman must be confused or in the wrong aisle. This would be resolved momentarily. Let’s just chat with her and get it settled.
ME: “I assume you prefer the window seat.”
HER: “Yes. I do.”
And with that hardly-discernible guttural utterance I got angry. Real angry. I was angry that this woman was so inconsiderate as to take my seat (did she even realize how long my day had been?!), and not only that, but the audacity with which she took MY seat, wow (I SPECIFICALLY CHOSE A WINDOW SEAT, YOU SENSELESS SEAT-STEALER, YOU DEPLORABLE, IMMORAL, CROOK)! And she was so smug and so annoying and and and I started to text a friend, “You will NOT BELIEVE what just happened to me. So, some stupid lady on the plane….”
Seriously, why was this my first action? When faced with a mildly frustrating situation my first instinct is to…complain? To shovel some negativity off on someone just because they’re a few keystrokes away? Is this the modern equivalent of a flight reflex…running away into my safe little digital world? Avoiding real life because it’s easier than actually dealing with something?
See, this type of response is simpler than taking a moment to reflect and consider the motivations and the circumstances and the situation. And thus, we follow the path of least resistance. We follow the path of instant gratification, we chase anything that eliminates discomfort, annoyance, or pain. See, emotions are hard. It’s far easier to try and control our world and our experience. We’d rather look at a screen than a stranger because it’s comfortable.
And we make snap judgments, we get flustered and complain, because it gives us power. We’re the ones who’ve been wronged—we deserve to be upset. When the world forces its will on us our initial reaction is to try and force our will upon the world. This was my initial reaction when the woman took my seat.
And then something happened.
A moment of…something. I finished typing my ALL CAPS OUTRAGE into my iPhone and read back through the message before I clicked send. And then something happened. I felt sad.
Reading this bitter text message made me feel really sad. Because the message was mean and sad. How else would it make someone feel? There’s hardly a conceivable way in which receiving this text would result in a positive reaction (short of schadenfreude). And as I thought about it, I realized that this text wouldn’t even give me a positive reaction. This was basically poison by way of SMS.
I took a deep breath. I deleted the text. I had suddenly grasped how much power there was to be had in this moment—the true influence lies not in trying (and often failing) to affect your will upon the world, but in owning your reaction. It’s incredibly difficult to see past our knee-jerk perceptions, but in acknowledging our prejudice we can leave space for contemplation, and actual cognition, which ultimately leads to a more honest appraisal of our lives. It gives us the ability to retain agency over our lives.
What would I accomplish by extending my dissatisfaction to a friend? Not only for their mood, but for my own. Who would I benefit?
We cannot control the events around us. We can plan, we can work hard, we can do all sorts of things to prepare, but ultimately things don’t always go as expected. But if we can remain calm, patient, and self-aware, we can control what happens at every fork in our path. It’s not easy, but we have a choice.
We can tell ourselves the world owes us something, we can moan and groan about how unfair things are. We can choose anger—the well-worn road we naturally gravitate toward. We can let the adrenaline and the lizard brain cloud our reasoning and darken our moods.
Or we can choose happiness. Instead of escaping into our devices and distractions, we can focus on the things we can control. We can laugh at discomfort, pain, annoyance, and realize that the way past those feelings comes from within ourselves. It’s liberating to take control of your path and of your experience in a healthy way. It’s powerful.
When the default path is to avoid discomfort, when we condition ourselves to indulge our most detestable traits, when we react to an imperfect world with anger and depend on the world, not ourselves, to make us happy, we propagate a form of poison. This poison is especially dangerous and particularly toxic. It’s a nasty breed of cynicism, a virus that prevents us from experiencing the world fully.
I chose happiness, and It was exhilarating.
I plugged my headphones in and queued up a playlist. I grabbed my laptop out from my bag, opened up a screenwriting project and started typing. I put the woman and the window seat out of my mind and quickly felt the familiar flow state take over. Ahh, finally. I sat, totally engrossed in my work for an hour or two, until…
I felt a small tap on my shoulder.
HER: “Hey there, do you want anything from the flight attendants?”
I was surprised at the interjection. I pulled my headphones off just as the attendant walked back to her cart. A steaming cup of coffee and mini bottle of Bailey’s had been placed on the tray next to me, obviously ordered by the woman in the window seat.
HER: “Did you want anything?”
ME: “You know, actually, I like where your head is at with the Bailey’s and coffee. I think I’ll have one of those too.”
HER: “Oh well let me get it for you, you’ve been such a great seatmate.”
ME: “Ha! You really don’t have to…”
HER: “I insist. We’ll put it on the company dime.”
ME: “Well if you insist I suppose.”
We both chuckled as my “seatmate” instructed the flight attendant to bring me the same order and to charge them together. The attendant promptly returned with my refreshment, looked around the cabin suspiciously, and leaned closer, into our seats. She pulled another small bottle of Bailey’s from her pocket, set it on the tray next to me, smiled, then whispered to the woman, “This is for being so sweet.”
And that, my friends, is a pretty goddamn awesome moment.
When humans do good we’re literally motivated by chemicals to feel good. Even simply observing an act of kindness releases oxytocin into our system. It’s a powerful chemical and a powerful feeling. My seatmate and I looked at each other and grinned. We raised our airplane-grade cups of coffee/sweet liqueur together and reveled in a moment of weirdness and goodness and victory. A small moment of celebration at 20,000 feet.
I had constructed a story about the person sitting next to me in my head. I had built her up to be mean, evil even. A villain! But she wasn’t a villain, actually she seemed pretty great.
We began to make small talk about where we were headed, what our plans were in Portland, etc. Before long she opened up the second Bailey’s (the one the flight attendant had gifted her) and motioned toward my cup. I tipped it downward for her and she dumped half of the liquid in.
After we finished our drinks, as we neared our destination, we started to talk about the various elements of traveling. I made a comment about how silly I thought people were when planes land. It’s almost guaranteed that the second we’ve landed a cluster of people will rush forward and crowd the aisles to get off first.
ME: “As if I don’t have anywhere to be. Haha, come on people, where do you think you’re going to go?! Relax. Wait your turn. We’re in this together.”
HER: “I KNOW! IT’S SO FRUSTRATING!”
She agreed with a bit more fervor than expected. Her face was suddenly flush and she clenched her jaw. She held my gaze for a moment before looking out the window.
HER: “My sister died last year. On a plane.”
ME: “Oh no…”
HER: “When they were trying to get her help no one listened. The passengers jumped up into the aisles and pushed and shoved. There was an announcement to remain seated, that a medical emergency was happening. But they didn’t care. No one listened.”
ME: “I’m so sorry to hear that…”
The woman, whose name I never got, continued on to tell me the story of her sister’s bizarre mid-flight illness. It had caused internal bleeding and vomiting and she died shortly after landing. Intense.
The woman, my seatmate, pulled off the mask we all wear every day, the one that stops others from seeing our heartache and our faults and our truths.
She continued on and told me about losing her brother six months after her sister died. She told me how she was the only sibling left, how she is the only sibling left. And how she was getting older. And she couldn’t help but think about her own mortality more seriously now. And her siblings were gone. And her parents were gone. And she was OK, “no really, I’m fine…I’m fine” but the pain was evident. Tears streamed down the woman’s face.
Next to me, in seat 21A, was a human. A person with real relationships and problems and desires and duties and fears. She wasn’t so different from me. Or from anyone else on the plane, really.
Sometimes we forget how alike we are and how interconnected our experiences are. How much we impact each other. We have the power to lift each other up or tear each other down, whether consciously or not.
When I decided not to entertain my temper something happened. Instead of constricting myself I created a sort of positive space—for myself and for those around me. Quite literally I changed not only my own trajectory, but that of the woman in the window seat.
When the default path is to avoid discomfort, when we condition ourselves to indulge our most detestable traits, when we react to an imperfect world with anger and depend on the world, not ourselves, to make us happy, we propagate a form of poison.
This poison is especially dangerous and particularly toxic. It’s a nasty breed of cynicism, a virus that prevents us from experiencing the world fully. There is a world brimming with potential if you look close enough. In this life there are those who experience life as it can be instead of how it seems to be. I hesitate to say as life is because there’s a certain subjectivity to life. Perhaps not in the hard facts of biology and mathematics, but in the way we perceive it. We can adjust our posture relative to the world one way or the other.
The woman continued her story. She told me about her family. She asked about mine. She told me about her job and I told her about mine. Eventually we landed. We packed up our things and shuffled off the plane together. We paused for a moment near the gate. She wiped her tears, I struggled to gain my composure, we both leaned in and embraced.
“It was great meeting you.”
“Thanks so much for the coffee. And for sharing.”
“Take care, goodbye.”
When I decided not to entertain my temper something happened. Instead of constricting myself I created a sort of positive space—for myself and for those around me. Quite literally I changed not only my own trajectory, but that of the woman in the window seat. Though it was but a small interaction, there’s no denying it left us both changed and connected. And for the last couple weeks I’ve brought that joy and that memory with me. I have to imagine, or at least hope, that the positive influence my window seat experience had on me has been felt by others. And who knows how it might have changed that woman’s trajectory.
I left that day feeling something pure and real. As I picked up my luggage from the carousel I realized how unbelievable that plane ride was. What I shared with that woman was such a rare occurrence. An experience to be treasured. A gift, a treat. An experience that may not have happened had I given in to my initial agitation.
When something goes wrong, especially something that seems unfair, we want to be acknowledged. We don’t want to feel alone. We want to be told we’re right and we deserve ____ and blah, blah. This is why I immediately started angrily texting my friend, selfishly groping for gratification.
It freaked me out that I could have ruined such a wonderful occasion.
It freaked me out that such possibility was hiding in that situation.
So for the rest of my vacation I couldn’t help but be open to strangers. I couldn’t resist cheerfulness. I couldn’t not see people as humans (instead of strangers). I still can’t resist it. Later, on the train down to Portland I connected with an amazing group of people. Forced into what would be a 12+ hour delay from forest fires I formed bonds people I may have never talked to, maybe even avoided, if not for the reminder of Seat 21A. Thank you for the reminder. Thank you for taking my seat. I never caught your name, but I think you might have changed my life.
It’s hard, it’s messy, but choosing happiness is worth it…The good news is that just like pessimism, optimism multiplies. We have an opportunity to create better experiences for each other that lead to better experiences that lead to better experiences and on and on, ad infinitum.
And if we had left that airport feeling bad we may have spread that gloom. I may have negatively impacted scores of other people on our paths. Pessimism is contagious. It’s sad and it’s dangerous.
I wonder what might happen if we made a more conscious effort to understand each other? If instead of assuming the worst of people, we took the chance to get to know them? What if we suspended our judgment and our anger and our immediate conclusions? What if we stopped letting little things affect us so negatively?
What if we choose happiness?
What if we don’t? What are we sacrificing? What sort of potential are we leaving on the table? What are we missing out on if we don’t?
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
This seemingly unavoidable Pinterest-famous quotation has become a cliché, but I think it’s misunderstood. I don’t think this is about being “nice” to other people—I think kindness to others is also a form of kindness to ourselves. Be kind, my friend, for we are all fighting hard battles. Why not fight them together? Through kindness we open life up to a whole other range of other possibilities.
I’m not arguing about realism vs. ignorance here, or that life is all cotton candy and rainbows. I’m not suggesting “ignorance” is the answer to happiness. I’m simply saying that we have the power, in very real and palpable ways, to adjust our own attitudes. And I’m suggesting that our attitude, our posture to the world, has a direct impact on our life experience. It’s not as simple as a snap of the fingers. It’s a choice, and it’s not a choice that’s made only once. It’s made every day, and it’s not easy. It’s hard, it’s messy, but choosing happiness is worth it.
I believe that focusing on general positivity, open-mindedness, patience, and self-awareness will make you a happier person. These things are within reach for any of us. We are capable.
The good news is that just like pessimism, optimism multiplies. We have an opportunity to create better experiences for each other that lead to better experiences that lead to better experiences and on and on, ad infinitum.
So next time someone is sitting in your window seat* think twice about how you’re going to react. Wait a second before you act. It might just change your life.
*or if someone uses the last roll of toiler paper and doesn’t replace it, or someone drops your iPhone, or lies to you, or steals your laptop, or forgets to pick up milk at the store, or borrows your Collector’s Edition Back to the Future DVD box set and never returns it….or any of the infinite amount of things along the spectrum that annoy you/hurt you/anger you/etc.
“Seat 21A” by Grant Spanier was originally published on Medium. To view the original article, click here.
Click here to see Rose’s tips for healthy and happy relationships