A couple of weeks ago, I was on my way home from a writers’ retreat on the big island of Hawaii. In the last leg of my flight, from Sydney to Melbourne, I heard a repetitive chant being played in a foreign language. I turned around to see a middle-aged Asian woman sitting directly behind me. She was leaning against the window with her eyes closed and a tiny portable radio wedged in the crook of her neck, between her temple and her shoulder. The volume was audible, but not loud.
“I hope that doesn’t go on for the whole flight,” I thought to myself. In my body, I began to feel hints of annoyance and panic – at the thought of having to bear this for an hour and 20 minutes. To the lady in my row, sitting in the aisle seat, I whispered, “Can you hear that?” “Yes”, she replied with a sparkle in her eyes and her eyebrows raised.
I was fishing for her opinion, so I said, “I hope it stops soon.” Smiling, she responded nonchalantly, “Oh, don’t worry about it. Just ignore it.” A pause as I thought about this, and took in her easy-going nature. “She’s probably scared of flying,” I offered. “Yeah, true. It’s probably a good thing then – her chants might protect us all,” the lady offered back.
The trait this lovely woman was displaying was forbearance – a good-natured tolerance to minor things like delay, incompetence and ignorance. In the Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin writes that forbearance is a form of generosity. I would like to posit that it’s a form of kindness, too. Generous because you know their behaviour is not about you and so you can easily forgive a fellow human being. And kind because you really don’t know what’s going on in their lives, so you give them (and yourself) the grace of not losing it.
I could take a few leaves out of my plane buddy’s book. I’m sure many of us could. The thing is we humans are great at banding together to fight against great injustices – such as domestic violence, terrorism, treatment of asylum seekers and marriage inequality – but we can become indignant about the small stuff.
Like when someone accidentally bumps into us and doesn’t say sorry. Or when someone abruptly stops in front of us on the footpath to check their phone, or cuts us off while we are driving. We take it personally. We react impulsively. But if you think about it, this is also ‘ignorant’ behaviour. I’d like to insert a pause in between the trigger and my reaction, so I can choose how I respond.
I know that practicing forbearance can be challenging, especially if we’re tired, busy or in a hurry ourselves. Well, at least for me. But if we cultivated it – what kind of world would we live in? Perhaps there would be fewer injustices to fight against because we were kinder to each other? It’d definitely be a happier, more positive place to live in.
While the Asian woman did turn off her portable radio when we took off, I don’t know how I would’ve fared if she played it the entire flight (hopefully simply put my headphones on and listen to music).
Nevertheless, I will always remember my plane buddy – how calming and kind she was, so much so that she was able to instil the same in me at that moment – as a reminder to be more forbearing towards my fellow human beings. Because I know I would be grateful if they afforded me the same.