One of the perks of air travel is that you never know when you’re going to experience the wonderful world of missed connections due to flight delays. I had one such experience recently and it took me on an emotional journey from frustration to seething anger to acceptance to the quiet acknowledgment that my emotional responses to events are based more on my beliefs about how things are and what they mean, rather than how they really are.
“Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it. The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe to it. Being alive is the meaning.” – Joseph Campbell
I was flying into San Francisco Airport from Santa Barbara, on a small turbo prop plane. I had been away from my home and family for the past week on business; and this being a Saturday, I was more than anxious to get home and spend the weekend with them.
There were weather delays out of SFO that morning, and my flight was already arriving an hour past our original time, and I knew the time to catch my connection back to Reno would be short. However, I also believed that if my flight in was delayed due to weather, then certainly the flight out would be as well. That’s fine, I thought, because I’ll still get home just after 2:00 PM and have most of Saturday left.
When we landed and I walked off the plane I was greeted by an airline gate agent who asked me what my connection was. When I told her Reno, she quickly instructed me where to go to catch my connecting flight, and said they were boarding now. I rushed to the gate, and it literally took me only 45 seconds to get there, only to learn that they had just closed the doors. That’s it. Once the doors close, they don’t reopen until the flight lands. I missed my flight by less than a minute. Start the process of building anger…
“You see, it’s never the environment; it’s never the events of our lives, but the meaning we attach to the events – how we interpret them – that shapes who we are today and who we’ll become tomorrow.” – Anthony Robbins
When I went to the customer service agent, I was told the next flight they could put me on was leaving in almost 7 hours! Tension is mounting inside of me as I do my best to keep calm. It’s not working. I was then told they will put me on standby for a flight in 2 hours from now. OK, a little better but still not all I was hoping for. I grabbed a pre-made sandwich, and sat at the gate slowly eating this most unsatisfying meal.
All I could think of was how this was impacting ME. What this meant to ME. I had no thoughts whatsoever of the other people at the airport, not knowing what they may be suffering through, and in my own selfish way at that moment not really caring. I had given this situation a very distinct meaning, and I’m angry. Not my best moment, certainly.
Then, as I sat there seething, I noticed in my peripheral vision a woman standing to my right. I looked up and immediately recognized her as a friend from Reno. “Hi, Judy,” (not her real name) I said with a forced smile. I was immediately aware that something was wrong.
She was waiting for the same flight that I was on standby. She sat next to me and said she was on her way home from Hawaii, where she had been with one of her girlfriends. The sadness in her eyes and voice were unmistakable. Then she said the words that changed everything.
Forcing her words through a flood of tears she said, “I had to cut my trip short and come home, because last night while I was in Hawaii, my husband (back home in Reno) died in his sleep.”
My “problem” was suddenly rendered completely insignificant. I sat with her for the next 3-plus hours, as the flight we waited for was delayed several times. We talked about the fragile nature of life. We spoke of love, and loss. We cried. We laughed. And the whole time my only focus was to be there for her. Comfort and console her. With the exception of me, she was there all alone; she knew no one else in that airport as she waited to get home, to grieve, and to say goodbye to her beloved husband.
“Man – a being in search of meaning.” - Plato
As the flight began to board it became clear I was not going to get on. As I hugged her and we said our goodbyes, I whispered in her ear, “This is why I was put here today. To be a small source of comfort for you on your journey home. Being with you this afternoon has given meaning to my day.”
Too often in our lives, we experience challenges or unwanted situations that we immediately label and give meaning to; and the meaning that we give them drives our emotions and our behaviors. And we fail to seek the empowering meaning. We don’t ask, “What else could this mean?” It’s always available, if we are willing to see beyond ourselves and look for it.
The next 2 1/2 hours went by without so much as a thought of missed flights, gate agents, or my so-called problems. And, when I did arrive home later that night, and held my loving wife and children in my arms, I realized that the things I call problems are really an invitation to seek a deeper meaning, and opportunities to learn and grow – if I am open to them.
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Kevin Ciccotti, Human Factor Formula
Helping companies create sustainable, effective teams that are committed to the success of their projects, the organization, and the individuals with whom they work