I was in London at Heathrow Airport when I learned that my flight back to Newark, New Jersey was canceled. More than that, they explained that Newark and all the surrounding airports in the New York City area had been closed because of Hurricane Irene, and that there was no possibility of getting a trans-Atlantic flight for a couple of days.
To make matters worse, the hotels in London were filled because of an annual carnival in the city. There were no rooms.
The airport staff was stressed because, well, weary travelers were stressed, which made for some unpleasant encounters. A woman was spewing at the counter in front of me.
“I must leave today, leaving tonight or tomorrow isn’t an option.”
“I am sorry, the airports are closed tonight and tomorrow. They will not be open again until Monday.”
“I have to be home tomorrow. You people need to get me there! Who closed the airport?”
“Don’t they know people have plans?”
“They are concerned with the safety of your travel.”
“Who can I speak to about this?” she said, raising her voice.
Who could she speak to about this? God would seem the only appropriate choice. As this airport drama unfolded, a handful of us were watching her meltdown. No one was happy about this diversion – we all had plans. But watching her frazzle like a drop of water placed on a hot frying pan actually helped. After a few more exchanges she huffed off to get God on the phone and it seemed as if everyone after her was a little more restrained in their reactions. No one wanted to be her.
Although there was a part of me that could understand exactly what the woman was feeling, I tried to have an open mind. After the woman stormed off I spoke to the agent and told her I admired her composure during the encounter. She said some people were better than others, and that she did her best not to get too unraveled by the people who freak out. We had a very pleasant conversation and she commented on the fact that I seemed to be managing okay, and that I had a rather good disposition as well. I told her I was busy thinking about what my alternatives and options were for the next couple of days, and was trying to think of how I might maximize my found time in London.
So much was out of my control that I did what I could to think about what good could come from this. I explained my plan was to take the Underground (subway system) out to a hotel away from the carnival to try to get a room.
That was when she gave me the first bit of good news.
The policy in the UK is to reimburse you for hotel and food expenses when the airline has canceled a flight and you are more than a couple of hundred miles from home. She informed me that they had a block of rooms at the nearby hotel, and that my expenses for the duration of my stay would be covered. While they were arranging for my stay I received an email that my hometown was under a mandatory evacuation.
Let’s see, free room and board in London to extend my vacation, or be evacuated to a local shelter?
Suddenly the bummers turned into gratitude. Instead of going home and then being evacuated to a shelter, my vacation was extended, and funded, for a couple of days.
Over the past several years researchers in the field of positive psychology have been researching how adversity may be the very ingredient we need to make our lives meaningful. Researchers have noticed that people who possess (or can cultivate) an optimistic and resilient thinking style deal with misfortune in a way that not only helps them recover, but also allows them to grow from the experience.
While I might not have been as full-tilt as the lady who yelled at the airline personnel, there was a time in my life not long ago when I would have been, well, huffy. But I’ve been working to change my disposition and reaction to adversity.
A leading researcher in the field of positive psychology, Jonathon Haidt, outlines in his book The Happiness Hypothesis the elements that may be necessary for such a growth event to take place. In his book he describes something he calls the Adversity Hypothesis, suggesting that people need adversity, setback and perhaps even trauma to achieve the highest levels of strength, fulfillment, and personal development. He suggests three things to remember after being blown off course in your life.
Rising to the challenge can reveal skills you wouldn’t know you had
The first is rising to the challenge and thereby revealing your hidden abilities — which in turn alter your self-concept. Having your hidden talent arise when difficulties appear gives a different perspective to the adversity. The struggle awakens a talent that hadn’t previously needed to be activated. Rising to the challenge in the case of the airport debacle meant me trying to manage how I would respond to the situation, generate alternate plans, and shift my focus from a reactor to an observer and responder. These skills wouldn’t have arisen if there were no conflict.
Second, relationships change during adversity and the difficulty serves as a filter. Some people get closer to you during the struggle, some move away. I watched the woman in front of me leave frustrated, angry and no better off than she was before she came to the help desk. I wanted to have a better relationship with the airline representative than that. She was in a position to help and I wanted to ingratiate rather than alienate. The problem with the planes caused the agent and I to connect, and after the other woman the connection was a positive one.
Finally, there is a shift toward the moment. Seize the day, the opportunity (Carpe Diem, or perhaps Carpe Noche if you are a night owl). Once you have had a difficulty your concentration moves to the moment where your heightened awareness allows you to appreciate every small detail. This is the essence of hope.
While an actual flight couldn’t be guaranteed for me until September 6th (9 days away), she offered me options of flying to another city in the U.S. or trying two days later for standby. Options and hope. I decided to do both. I booked a flight for another city in two days and then decided to take a chance and take my bags to the airport at 6 a.m. that same day for a direct flight.
In the days in between I went to the carnival. It was marvelous.
When I arrived for standby, the gate was already swarming with people, and it was more than four hours before the flight. The woman who waited on me there was the agent I had connected with the other day. She remembered our conversations and we chatted briefly about the task of moving hundreds of thousands of people around the world each day. She explained that the flight was full, and that the only way I could get on is if someone were a no-show.
“Not likely,” she said, “But there is always hope.”
After the last of the passengers had boarded the agent saw me, smiled, and motioned me to the counter with the curl of her finger. When I got there she smiled again, and handed me a boarding pass.
The last one, she said with a smile, and it is in first class.
I wonder how that woman’s chat with God was going.
- 5 Tips for Staying Calm in a Hurricane
- 9 Tips for Coping with a Hurricane
- Tropical depression: Hurricane linked to long-term mental distress
- Hurricane Katrina: Mentally ill and addicts cut off from care
Postscript: Just when I thought I had mastered the adversity thing, I opened the door to my condo to find that the power had been out for three days, the freezer ice had melted and the food had spoiled. Apparently the opportunities to grow are endless.