Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The theory of relativity

Normally, getting five hours of sleep in a stale-smelling budget hotel room isn't my idea of a good time. But last night it was like ambrosia.

You see, my 50-minute connecting flight home from Detroit to Ithaca last night turned into a four-hour ordeal, much of which I spent cramped in seat 5C of a small regional jet, before the flight was finally cancelled. First it was a gate delay, then de-icing, then concerns over the weather for landing. We were actually loaded on and off the plane a couple of times until they finally decided to rebook everyone at 1 AM.

So what struck me, as I now walked through the vast emptiness of Detroit Metro Airport with my hotel voucher in hand, was how *good* a bad situation suddenly felt. Sure, I had looked forward to sleeping in my own bed and seeing my sweetie that night. But after being on a hot, crowded plane full of cranky people, it felt absolutely delicious to bathe in the silence of an empty terminal, stand in the cool night air waiting for a hotel shuttle, and then finally have a space that was mine, all mine, for a few hours of rest.

This got me thinking how every situation is relative, on a small scale or a large scale. Even when we were stuck on the plane, small changes like the engines starting up or the ground crew coming on board triggered major mood shifts, where I would leap in an instant from being sore and tired to being awake and alert. Same with those little points of contact that strangers develop in a cramped space, from knowing smiles to shared stories. What first seemed like an endlessly bad time was, in fact, a collection of vividly changing moments.

But for some people, these moments of relativity seemed completely lost on them. One man on our flight, for example, was a bundle of anger and nervous energy who seemed primed to explode. While most of us bore up under the delay with relative good humor, he jumped out of his seat repeatedly to complain to the lone flight attendant, cut in front of everyone when we lined up for rebooking, pounded his fist on the counter, and bent the ear of anyone within arm's length about what a horrible experience this airline was causing.

Which got me thinking about a deeper level of relativity. The night before, arriving in Louisville for my speaking engagement, my cab driver asked politely if I'd had a good flight. I responded in kind by asking how his night was going, and he drew a deep sigh and shared that he was worried about his family in Haiti. Asking if everyone was OK, he said that some were and then, softly, that some were not. I shared my condolences and offered my prayers, but for the most part I frankly didn't have words that could adequately respect his quiet dignity in the face of loss.

So to be honest, last night I was wondering what would happen if Mr. Pain-in-the-Ass from our flight were to talk with that cab driver from Haiti. Would he rejoice that the wife he was constantly complaining to on his cell phone was alive and would see him in a few hours? Marvel in the privilege of being in a warm hotel bed with clean sheets? Perhaps even learn that creating connection and compassion might help him feel better about his own situations?

I don't know. But I do know that keeping things in perspective helps me a great deal. That's why I smiled at a beleaguered gate agent that night and joked, "No stress in your life tonight!" before worrying about where I would end up for the evening. Why I didn't mind lugging the bags on my shoulders through yet another concourse. And why, ultimately, I felt a sense of peace and comfort being alone on a cold and late night in Detroit. Everything is relative.