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Reflection: Waves of Grace

September 30, 2014

Working from home doesn’t prepare one for a red-eye flight to New York City, not even the expansiveness of an exit row. The very things that drew me to working from home, the easy pace and the quiet, also set me up for the shock of traveling again.

Thus, when we boarded the plane for the five hour flight to NYC and a woman five feet tall decisively stored her briefcase in the overhead, yanked the wrapper off a new zebra-striped blanket, quickly pushed huge breathes of air into the inflatable head pillow, positioned her eye mask and headphones in the seatback pocket in front of her, and snapped her seatbelt in place, I was alarmed. As much as I was startled at her abruptness, I was more concerned she was settling in on the aisle right next to me. Did she think she would be undisturbed? For five hours?

Inside of me, I felt the tension rise and experienced a sensation I recognized as feeling trapped. I tuned in to the shifting sensations inside me, raised an eyebrow at my husband, and thanked my stars we weren’t on a ten hour flight to Europe.

And then I noticed her. Her movements weren’t decisive, they were sharp. She wasn’t anxious, she was angry. Every move ended in some object being slammed. The pillow into the seat. The tray table down. And, the seatback back.

I waited, noted my breathing and focused on me in my space, my little allotted space for the duration of what was suddenly seeming like an even longer flight. I waited longer and decided I didn’t need to care if she was angry or anxious or any other number of possibilities. I kept shifting to see where else I could let go of my tensions and became aware I was reacting to her tension as if it was my own. When I stayed focused on noting which feelings belonged to me, and me alone, my internal sensations subsided to my usual equilibrium. Just to be sure, I escaped to the bathroom before the plane left the gate so I could stand up and move and take clearer stock of my own senses without having to filter past hers.

The plane took off and by the time we were in the air three minutes, she was covered and muffled and eye-patched and hooded. As soon as she finished mummifying, her energy diminished and there was peace once again. To a certain degree, I marveled that someone so small could march past several people well over six feet tall who sat crammed into their economy seats as she claimed space in the exit row. As a tall person, I saw a certain injustice in it. And then, she not only claimed the space, but sealed herself off from the world in a position that put her in the way of the others in the row.

As you probably know, you have to get away from a habitual behavior long enough that it is no longer a part of your day-to-day life before you can sense its full impact on your actions. For me, that has meant studying the anger/anxiety complex at work in my family of origin and cultivating other responses. I learned many of these behaviors as a child from watching my father and mother and grandmothers and grandfathers. Everyone else has been gone for a couple decades, except my dad. Then, he had a stroke. Now, he can no longer hang on to either anger or anxiety. He is fairly calm unless something is wrong. We sit together, often in silence, and enjoy contemplative and communal moments. Here, now, after all those decades of mercurial ups and downs. I’m grateful for the timing, it coincides beautifully with my own process.

These days, I focus on my emotional posture. Noting the tension, recognizing when it’s not mine, and letting it go. At another point in my life, it might have taken me weeks to sort out that the tsunami of feelings belonging to the person next to me. I’d certainly have over-reacted and remained upset the entire flight and long beyond.

Not today. Today, I’m feeling better, more like me, within minutes of an incident such as this. In fact, it must be time for a nap.

Eye mask, anyone?


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  1. You described perfectly that habit of taking on someone else’s anxiety. What a wonderful skill you’ve learned…and continue to refine…to let go of it. Such a great reminder in how we can find center amidst surrounding chaos. Hope the rest of your trip went well.

    • Thanks, Wally. We had a great time and there were no other people flinging their anxiety like a baseball. At least, not in close proximity. Maybe that’s another distinction, the closeness of proximity versus the collective anxiety. The collective anxiety is more subtle, but also more pervasive. Always appreciate your thoughts.

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