Stoicism at the Airport

[image from “”]
Flying is stressful. Flying during the winter is even more stressful. Last week, the winter storm “Hercules” hit the northeast United States, dumping feet of snow. Now, an Arctic chill creeps eastward across the northern midwest, chilling the air in some places to negative 65 degrees Fahrenheit (with windchill), as further storms hit. Coming at the end of the holiday season, the timing couldn’t be worse. U.S. Airlines canceled over 2,300 flights last Thursday and about 1,500 flights early Friday, according to the New York Daily News, and the trend continued, with over 6,000 flights canceled yesterday.

My parents, meanwhile, struggled to navigate the Kafkaesque airline industry to reroute, cancel, or reschedule flights for their long-ago-planned anniversary trip to San Francisco and Sonoma. They didn’t have much luck. Saturday, I spent an hour and a half with my dad waiting in a line stocked with people with canceled and delayed flights–some of them trying their luck for days–only to be told we couldn’t do anything in a flat, minute-long answer. Sunday, United Air canceled their flight, and they canceled their trip.

On both days, when we called, a pre-recorded message said the company was too flooded with calls to help. The others in line had the same problem, one man insisting he waited on hold for six hours before giving up and driving an hour to the airport to meet with someone. Others told similar tales.

Meanwhile, indignant flyers hammer employees at desk with questions, as their machines occasionally froze and their administration sorted through the swath of situations.

From a large perspective, airport stress is insignificant. It is, as the internet memes say, “a first-world problem,” and seems a minor cost to pay for the ability to hop in a metal machine and fly around the world in relative comfort at record speeds, going from New York City to Cairo in 12 hours. Compared to the Silk Road, the bandit-laced treks of merchants in the Middle Ages, and the tenuous crossing of the Atlantic on cramped wooden ships by early settlers, flying is easy.

But in the midst of it, airport travel is a difficult endeavor and that stress requires serious effort to overcome. Fortunately, stoicism provide a few helpful tips.

My first time flying alone was to Oxford, England, to study for a summer. I had one connection. The weather was fine. I wasn’t rushed or worried. But, as my departure time approached without announcements, my connection got more and more threatened. Nervous, I tried to reschedule. The man at the desk said I was on a later flight, but for some reason, he couldn’t print print a boarding pass. Apparently this wasn’t a problem. It happens all the time, he said.

After further delays–a woman falling, a paperwork mishap, and a busy runway–I was was definitely going to miss my original connection. No problem, I thought, I just need to go to the new gate and get my ticket.

I rushed to the desk, learning I wasn’t on the later flight, which had filled up just a few minutes before. After a further adventure, during which I waited in lines for hours, lost my passport, wandered the airport, found my passport, and finally discovered–through a Holmesian search for answers–I had a flight the next morning, automatically rescheduled for my convenience. I just needed to spend the night in the airport.

Learning through an airport security guard that baggage lanes reopened at 12:00, I waited in the gray, dehumanized expanse of the open terminal before I shuffled through security, which seemed incorrigibly rude, struggled to find a place to sleep, and nodded off for about three hours in fifteen minute intervals, shivering on a near-plastic bench as an announcement blared “DON’T LEAVE BAGGAGE UNATTENDED!” to a near-empty airport of maintenance workers and custodians. By five, the bustle of travelers made sleep impossible.

Fortunately, the rest of the trip went fine, and when I finally met my teacher after midnight, Oxford time, I couldn’t have been happier.

Still, a latent stoicism prove essential to the whole experience.

Despite being founded by Zeno of Citium 2,300 years ago, Stoicism retains a surprisingly robust following. Some of it is direct, like books, blogs, Youtube videos, and the occasional philosophy course. But many echoes of it linger in other forms, from cognitive behavioral therapy to Christianity.

It has a few central tenants, but it’s main focus is the attainment of the “good life” or eudemonia. Countless other philosophies have their own techniques to attain this ideal state. The Stoic take has a focus on a rigorous code of ethics that asks the stoic to stay involved with the concerns of the community though a rational lifestyle, with a tranquil control over all emotions. The ideal stoic attains harmony with nature, accepting what happens as part of nature’s course.

When it comes to traveling, I always fallback on a few particular nuggets of wisdom.

First of all, I remember what the stoic, Marcus Aurelius writes in his Meditations: “The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing, in so far as it stands ready against the accidental and the unforeseen, and is not app to fail.” Never underestimate mental preparation. Traveling is difficult, stressful, and miserable. Preparing for it like a fighter softens the difficulty.

Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 121-A.D. 180), looking stoical. [picture from Wikipedia]
Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 121-A.D. 180), looking stoical. [picture from Wikipedia]
Second, people can be awful. As Aurelius wrote, “Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.”

Seneca has a similar take in his essay “On Anger”: we often get angry because we expect people to behave rationally, but simple experience shows that most people don’t. Instead of fighting it, we should change our expectations.

This doesn’t mean we should hate people. On the contrary, it means we should accept negative behavior as part of the human condition and respect people despite it. The Stoics believed we’re all in this together even if we don’t act like it. Aurelius says we are all connected like a body and most functional when we work together.

Thus, that person behind the desk is a living human, with a life, dreams, maybe a family, maybe a serious tragedy weighing on them. They are not a mere extension of their job.

And three, we almost always have a choice about how we react to challenges. As the slave-turned Stoic philosopher Epictetus said in his Discourses, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” When something bad happens, we can either stress out or try to behave as a rational, compassionate person. As Epictetus says elsewhere, “Everything has two handles, one by which it may be borne, the other by which it may not.”

Epictetus (A.D. 55-A.D. 135) [picture from Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]
Epictetus (A.D. 55-A.D. 135) [picture from Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]
When it comes to travel, stress is inevitable, but we can reduce or control it with enough effort, focusing on the positive as we cope with the negative. As Aurelius writes, “When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love,” even if that’s standing alone in line with a worthless ticket in the cold, gray-tiled airport longing to be home. It too shall pass.


For more on stoicism and the good life, check out these past posts:

The Good Life


And some other posts from fellow bloggers:

7 thoughts on “Stoicism at the Airport

  1. I, too, find stoicism attractive. Let me just add that, when faced with a person acting irrationally, it’s good to ask yourself which of you is in fact being irrational, or, indeed, if there even is an absolute rationality free of your individual circumstances. Hint: not even remotely!

    1. Agreed, Mikels. There’s a a limit to what is “rational” and sometimes what may seem rational could be pretty unhealthy and destructive. It’s like G.K. Chesterton says: often the most rational person is the one who is crazy.

  2. First, wish you and your family a wonderful and healthy ’14…and smooth travels. The stoic attitude towards travel works for me, and I really admire the words of Aurelius. I do ‘go with the flow’ when I travel, turn off any expectations and ride out the storm (if any). In a strange way, it can almost be a relaxing experience…even if anything but. Cheers to you Brett and wish you a prosperous ’14.

    1. Thanks, you too, Dalo. I agree, once you commit yourself to the bumps and stagnations of travel, it becomes much either. It’s almost Taoist, when you put it that way.

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