Stoicism for a Better Life (Part 5)

Testing Moments

“What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance.” ― Epictetus

About two years ago, I was going to Savannah, Georgia (US), for an email marketing conference. I had taken the non-stop Air India flight from Mumbai to Newark and was waiting for my next flight at the gate at Newark airport. I then heard an announcement that the flight had been cancelled. My first reaction was that of panic. I knew that there were not that many flights to Savannah, and I had a conference to attend the next morning. I walked up to the agent’s counter and asked for options. The first response was that the next available flight they could book me on would be on the following morning – about 20 hours later. In a quiet voice, I told the agent I had come a long way and I could not possibly afford to miss a third of the conference. Were there any other options? All this was happening as I saw tempers rise around me of fellow travellers who saw their own plans getting disrupted. The agent then suggested an option: if I was willing to travel to La Guardia airport immediately, there was a flight from there which could help me get to Savannah by late evening. My checked bag would not be on that flight and would be delivered either late night or the next day. I had minutes to decide. She offered to cover the cab fare to La Guardia.

A younger me would have thrown a fit, and argued that they should put me on a later flight from Newark itself. (There were flights, but they were all booked.) But a “Stoic” me stayed calm, and took the La Guardia option. I have come around to the belief that “there is some good in everything that happens.” The flight cancellation was beyond my control. What I could control were my reactions. Getting angry at the agent would not get me to Savannah. It was not her fault. The worst case was either that I missed a few hours of the conference the next morning or I landed in Savannah in the evening without my checked bag. I took the latter option.

I made it on time for the flight from La Guardia. When I landed in Savannah and reached the hotel, my first task was to get myself some clothes for the next day – just in case my bag didn’t make it at night. (I normally always carry a set in my carry-on baggage, but had not done so this time.) After checking in at the hotel, I rushed out and found a Gap store that was just about to close for the day. I persuaded the manager to wait a few minutes and managed to buy some clothes. All’s well that ends well! My checked bag arrived just after midnight – for once, I was delighted to be woken up in the middle of my deep sleep! Come morning, life was exactly how it was supposed to be. My bag and I were united, and I was making my way to the conference right on time.

As I thought about the incident, I was surprised at how calm I was. At a younger age, I would perhaps have not been so, and would have gone into a negative frame of mind. But through the years, I have learnt to accept things as they come.

The “excitement” on that trip did not end there. When I checked in at Savannah airport after the conference to take a flight to Los Angeles via Atlanta, I forgot my credit card in the self-check-in machine. I had to pay for the baggage, and two of my credit cards did not work. I was a bit flustered and then made a mistake. The third card worked but I forgot to remove it from the machine. I only realised it as the flight was landing in Atlanta. I told myself that the worst case was that someone would take it and ring up some charges – money was the only loss, and I could presumably get that back from the credit card company. So, I once again stayed calm, messaged my office in Mumbai, and asked them to cancel the credit card, even as I rushed to make the connecting flight to Los Angeles.

Both were small incidents – one beyond my control, and one where I erred. I could have let both consume me, but I did not. I accepted what had happened, thought through the worst case scenario, and worked out the best possible option, and moved on with life. In both cases, my Stoic mindset helped me navigate the situations.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.