Stoicism at the Airport

airport-security-line
[image from “theotherhubby.com”]
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.

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The Good Life

opulence
Miniature giraffes and gold-encrusted chairs clearly mean the good life.

What many people consider creativity doesn’t occur in flash of sudden brilliance. A Mona Lisa doesn’t leap from the brush. In Search of Lost Time doesn’t write itself. Maybe sometimes, but not often. Most creative people slog through long hours, laboring without much inspiration, until their little efforts accumulate into a sizable project.

As French writer Albert Camus put it in an essay on French novels, “Works of art are not born in flashes of inspiration, but in a daily fidelity.”

One can never underestimate the sustained effort of a single person. But a person needs a direction first. Simply running and working without direction leads nowhere. Like a dog chasing its own tail or a hamster sprinting on its wheel, undirected effort–no matter how hard it is–remains undirected and fruitless.

One needs something to structure effort, like a goal or even a way of life. In many ways, this was once the role of philosophy.

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Stoicism

By eighth grade, most guys find girls. I found Stoicism. Girls came later.

Zeno of Citium (c. 334 B.C.-c. 262 B.C.), founder of Stoicism, depicted by Raphael. Picture from Wikipedia.

In eighth, I read my first philosophy book–a brisk, colorful introduction called Get a Grip on Philosophy by Neil Turnbull. The recycled-paper pages reminded me of paper bags,  and its binding soon faded from many rereadings on bus rides home.

In the section about Hellenistic philosophy–the period following Aristotle–Turnbull wrote, “the Stoics didn’t lose their sense of wonder” and described a Stoic as “a person who advocates an ethic of resilience in the face of adversity; a believer in cosmopolitan politics.”

There were a few paragraphs , not much else. Still, Stoicism made an impression. It’s focus on reason, morality, and tranquility had roots in my personality, and the idea of being a cosmopolitan, “a citizen of the cosmos,” sounded fascinating.

So I converted.

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