I’m sitting at the Little Bakery, waiting for Marlena to meet me for lunch, and my cell phone rings.
“Hi, it’s me.” Marlena.
“I’m here on the Beltway, not going anywhere at the moment,” she says. “So, I’m going to be late.”
“No problem – I’ve got something to read.”
“I’m really sorry about this,” sounding stressed.
“Don’t worry about it,” I say, “Just be safe and get here when you get here.”
Twenty minutes later, she is here, looking frazzled. We order at the counter and sit down at a table by the window (too hot to sit outside).
“You ok?” I ask.
“Oh yeah. I just hate sitting in traffic. I just keep thinking, ‘Come on, let’s go. What’s the holdup? I don’t want to be here – let’s get moving.’ I don’t blow the horn, but I feel like it sometimes. Oh, and I hate being late, too – so sorry.”
I am seized by a sudden burst of curiosity. “So, what was that like, sitting there with stationary cars on all sides of you?”
She looks at me funny. “What do you mean, what was it like? You know damn well what it’s like.” She’s annoyed.
“Yeah, I do know. But I’m starting to wonder, why do we feel that way? What’s at work here?”
“I want to go,” she says, “to be moving. I don’t want to be there – I want to be somewhere else."
“Right,” I say, “but you can’t – you can’t go anywhere. It’s impossible. Well, nearly impossible. I mean, you could call 911 and say someone is dying, or about to give birth, and maybe they’ll send a trooper on the shoulder, or a helicopter. But that’s not such a good idea, if it isn’t true.”
She laughs. “There’s nothing you can do – nothing. You start thinking about all the possible consequences. I was thinking, “He might be mad. Maybe he’ll even leave.”
“Which would not have been the end of the world.”
“True – might have even been a good thing.” She smiles, looking wicked. “But that’s not how I was thinking about it. I was building it up, worse and worse, and feeling awful.”
“Stressful. Keep that up and it becomes anxiety. Not good. Raises your blood pressure, gives you pimples and cancer. There are other situations, too. Waiting for a light to change. Not as bad, but if I’m late or in a hurry, it can be stressful.”
“Or waiting in line,” she says, “at a grocery store.”
“Things you can’t do anything about.”
“Well, you can plan. I could have left earlier. But then, the Beltway could have been even worse. You don’t always know enough to plan.
And some things you can’t avoid.”
“I think the problem,” I say, “is wanting. Wanting something to happen. Something you have no control over. And then the wanting itself becomes a kind of attempt at control: you feel, on some level, that if you want it enough, it will happen – magical thinking.”
“Like when we were kids, my brother and I, sitting in the back seat of the car, stopped at a light. We would say, ‘Change light, please,' hoping that the light would somehow respond. And of course once in a while it would – just by chance – and we would yell, ‘It worked!’”
“Even adults think that way sometimes – though they would not admit it consciously. But it just adds to the stress.”
“So what do we do? These situations are always going to happen.”
“Well,” I say, “if we could somehow stop the wanting. That seems to be the source of the problem.”
“Sitting still on the Beltway, with tons of metal on all side, and not wanting to get moving? How am I supposed to do that?”
“Do things to ‘be in the moment’ – to really appreciate this particular moment in time and the place where you are right now.”
Marlena scrutinizes me through narrowed eyes. “Sounds like some kind of Zen thing to me.”
I laugh, “Yeah, probably is. The first thing is to stop worrying about when you’re going to get to where you were going and what is going to happen when you do – or don’t. That’s totally wasted energy – you can’t do a damn thing about it right now.”
“So ok,” she says, "if I can do that. And suppose I’ve created a big mess – maybe I’d better start planning for it now.”
“Maybe. But most likely not. You don’t really know when you’re going to get there or what will happen, so what are you going to plan? It’s just more worry. Call someone, yes, like you did me – that might help.”
“Okay, so then what am I supposed to do? – to appreciate this god-awful moment in this ugly place?”
“Um!” How about you look around at the other cars and trucks and try to see everything you can that is interesting? Like read bumper stickers and try to imagine what the people in the car are like. Notice everything.”
“Or here’s something else (I’m on a roll now): Pretend you are a painter or a photographer and look all around and try to find things, frames, that you could paint or shoot, that would make good pictures. There always are some. You can do it waiting for a light, too.”
“Yeah, I can see that.” She frames my forehead with her fingers. “Or there’s the more conventional – listen to the radio or a CD, or a book recording. If you’re really stuck, you can read – if you have anything with you.”
“That works too. Or sit there texting people – things you’ve always wanted to say to them.”
So there’s a start – I’m sure you, the reader, can come up with some things, better even, of your own. If you will email them to me or put them as “questions” in the Comments, I will publish your ideas in a later post.
What’s that you say? Nice idea, but the Buddhists thought of it 2500 years ago. Well, “Better late than never.” (which is where we came in)
Mellow for the Road - Tips for Driving less stressed