Staying Cool When the Levee Breaks.
Once, I worked in the restaurant of a hotel on a hill overlooking the city. Our motto was literally, “high above the rest,” if that gives you an idea of our typical clientele.
Business people from all over the world came to our expansive breakfast buffet, and I served them fresh squeezed juices; or they ordered room service, and I put everything they needed on a little tray, perfectly arranged. I would bring it all up the creaking employee elevator, which was always full to the brim with housekeepers and their ceaseless linens.
After stepping into the hotel room and placing the tray wherever the bathrobed client wanted, I would stop on the second floor to view the sunrise from a huge leather chair where no one could see me before returning to the hectic kitchen downstairs.
Every once in a while, someone famous would stay at the hotel, and one day it happened that Robert Plant, the lead singer of one of my favorite bands of all time (Led Zeppelin, of course), was coming to stay.
When I was a high schooler, my walls were covered in posters and magazines, and more than a few of these were of the gorgeous Robert. I had all of his albums and knew all his songs and sang them at the top of my lungs during my commute.
I was still at an age where I could be completely star-struck, and from the moment I heard he was coming, I daydreamed about our meeting and subsequent life together. But I knew it would never happen. Stars never came down for breakfast and they never ordered room service.
On the third day of his stay I wasn’t scheduled until lunch, but at eight a.m. I got a call from a coworker.
Groggy and unshowered, I hardly understood the words: “He’s here! He’s eating!”
I threw down the phone and put on yesterday’s wrinkled uniform, screaming obscenities as I ran out the door. I jumped in the car, deodorizing and putting up my hair as I ran. I sped down the road. I sped, and I cried. Would he fall in love with someone else? Despair and anger consumed me, and I rode people’s bumpers and screamed for them to move over.
One person in particular was driving so slowly in the fast lane, and I got closer and closer to him, laying on the steering wheel until he finally pulled over to the slow lane and rolled down the window. I was ready to zoom past him while he gave me the middle finger, but when I looked over at the hand coming out of the window, I saw a peace sign in front of a relaxed smile on his lips.
I made it to see Plant (who drank decaf coffee and complained that our oatmeal was cold). He will never, ever remember me, and my own memory of him has faded.
One thing always stuck with me about that day: the peace sign.
That peace sign made me stop for just one second and breathe in a frantic moment. Sure, I went back to frantic after that one second, but later this man’s actions made me think.
How could I be more like that calm, collected man who didn’t react to my aggressiveness? How could I not let others’ negative actions affect me, and give back positivity instead?
Here are three strategies that I’ve come up with to move in that direction:
1. Realize that I am not the center of everyone’s universe.
Although it may seem like it most of the time, I am not the center of the universe. There are billions of people with countless emotions and circumstances occurring at all times. When someone is acting aggressively, I realize that it probably has nothing to do with me. I couldn’t have cared less who was driving those cars when I was trying to get to work; I just wanted to be there, staring at Robert Plant. I may have been angry, but it was nothing personal toward the other drivers. It was a general anger at the world. I don’t know everything about a person’s situation; I’m just there at that moment for them to take out their negativity. I won’t feed it and let it grow.
F. Scott Fitzgerald says it best in his novel, Tender is the Night, when he writes,
“Most people think everybody feels about them much more violently than they actually do; they think other people’s opinions of them swing through great arcs of approval or disapproval.”
Especially when it comes to strangers, or an aggravated driver, this person is not expressing an opinion about me personally. Their aggression is directed toward all those they feel have offended or hurt them in some way—even if that offense is just driving too slow. When it comes down to it, this person is thinking of her or himself, so why would I take it personally and put a damper on my own day? Maybe a smile and a wave will remind them that I’m a person, and not a representation of the collection of drivers they disapprove. Maybe not, but could it hurt?
2. And the universe is so expansive!
I can’t believe how huge the Earth is; how huge our sun is; how huge our universe is. And there’s more! Do I really want to make the universe so small that I use up all of my energy on this moment, hating a stranger for doing something that is actually not hurting me at all? That’s what happens with anger: it consumes, and rarely can other thoughts enter if I’m unaware of what’s happening. When I find myself in a state like this, I try to remind myself of one of my favorite lyrics from a Kinks song:
“Big sky too big to care.”
And I look up at the sky and realize, Wow! The sky really is huge. There are things that are so much bigger in this world; I should just let this go and get on with it.
3. Come to the whole of the present moment.
I’ve heard this one before: be present! In these situations of anger, there’s an anomaly. I may be way too into one aspect of the present moment, thinking, for example, “this f***ing driver is tailing me,” over and over. Or, “this f***ing driver isn’t going fast enough.” Either way, I have this same exceptionally negative and unimportant thought on repeat and I’m not seeing anything else! Looking around, I can realize, maybe, “Here, I can pull over for this driver.” I can realize that the sun is shining, or accept the fact that I’m getting to where I need to go a little bit slower. Looking around, I can relax my grip on the steering wheel.
Sometimes people might need to speed, or go way under the speed limit. Maybe they’re trying to get to someone in trouble; maybe their car is making a funny noise that’s making them drive cautiously. Some people will always want to go faster than the person in front of them, and others mindlessly allow themselves to become angry whenever they get behind the wheel.
By not allowing myself to get angry or react to others’ anger, I’m creating a space where I can breathe—and hopefully showing the other driver that they can too.
It may seem tough at first, but in the words of Mr. Robert Plant in his song “In the Light,” remember:
And if you feel that you can’t go on. And your will’s sinkin’ low
Just believe and you can’t go wrong.
In the light you will find the road. You will find the road.
Author: Kate Wallace
Image: Dina Regine/Flickr
Editor: Toby Israel