A life-long attitude adjustment

Decades ago I boarded a plane in New York returning to San Diego from a business trip. One of the last persons to board handed his suit coat and overcoat to the flight attendant. She hung the overcoat over the suit coat. The passenger shouted, "you should know better than to put a freshly pressed suit jacket under an overcoat!"

Just as I thought "what an asshole", hoping he was seated far away, he took the seat next to me. I cringed and looked out the window to avert a conversation cloaked in hostility. When the cabin service began, the flight attendant took breakfast orders and deliberately ignored him until all other orders were placed. He was upset that there were no choices left when she took his order. This launched a contest of authority which he, of course, lost. I silently applauded the attendant.

A couple of hours into the flight, I saw tears running down his cheeks. I asked him what was wrong. He quietly sobbed, then said: "My daughter just started college in San Diego. She was killed in a crosswalk by a hit-and-run driver last night. I can't hold it together. I still can't believe it's true. I'm not myself. I've been angry at everyone this morning like they had something to do with it and I can't blame them for striking back. I really need to pull myself together."

I didn't know how to console him but I tried. From that day forward, my attitude towards people who act like jerks changed.

Yes, 90% of people who cut in line ahead of me, people who cut me off in traffic, people who give me the finger are probably assholes. But there is one in ten who are late for something important, who are rushing to the hospital with an emergency, who just had a traumatic event in their life. I am happy to give the 90% a pass so that the 10% who deserve it get the benefit of my doubt.

Everyone occasionally fights invisible personal battles and we might encounter them at a bad moment. But they are, like you and me, humans with all of life's stresses and emotional reactions to personal affairs that may only be visible to themselves. Be kind. Give everyone some benefit of the doubt, and have some empathy for whatever may have contributed to their offensive behavior whether it be immediate stress or abuse experienced long ago.

Every day I am reminded of this important lesson. And to my benefit, it relieves me of unnecessary stressful reactions. That's a win-win in my life.