The volcano in Iceland is spewing ash, and European travel is choking. The poor air quality is grounding planes, and many travelers, as well as those expecting their arrival, are prone to murky moods, dark as the deep grey smoke. What to do?
Weather, like volcanic eruptions and wind patterns, is way beyond our control. But, what we do, in response, is up to us. And, individuals' attitudes may well influence their experience with grounded planes, canceled travel, and poor air quality more than just about anything else.
Let's be clear: the fallout from Iceland is proving to be a major inconvenience, and lots of people are having difficulties -- with just about everything -- as a result. But have you noticed that the volcano isn't the only thing erupting these days?
When you read the blogs or listen to the newscasts, you'll hear lots of human spewing. People are venting, big time. The most spectacular events consist of diatribes about the volcano's impertinence. People are asking, "What's up with that volcano? How dare it erupt and dash all of our rational expectations about routine and predictability?"
I'm wondering, "What's up with that question?" I mean, no one asked for these clouds of ash and smoke. Of course not, just as no one asks for the other kinds of thick, dull clouds which descend on our lives from time to time. They come, without invitation, but with a formidable challenge. They ask (yes, really, the dark clouds do seem to ask), "So, what are you going to do, now?" Here's my 3-point response:
Strategy #1: Face reality. Whether you're dealing with a large-scale volcanic eruption, or a small-scale storm in your personal or professional life, taking stock in what's happening is the first step. Take breath, and cultivate a little mindfulness. Just notice what's going on, without doing anything about it (at least, for the moment). Then, squint hard and see if you can find a little silver lining under the dark grey clouds. After all, that silver lining is also part of reality.
Strategy #2: Cut your losses. Bad weather happens. Other bad stuff happens, too. Either way, you usually can't change the objective events that make up the external part of your reality. But you can work with your subjective experience, which constitutes the internal part of your reality. The point is not to compound difficulty and, whenever possible, maximize something positive. If your external reality really stinks, your internal anger, frustration, pessimism or self-pity is sure to make you feel worse. Not to say you aren't justified in feeling whatever you're feeling . . . you probably are. It's just that letting these kinds of uncomfortable emotions take over simply isn't constructive. I'm not advocating emotional falsehood or somehow forcing yourself to "feel better." It's just that managing our emotions is useful, and doing so helps us recognize our negative emotions rather than become them. When angry, it's usually a whole lot healthier to "feel angry" than to "become the anger."
Strategy #3: Help someone else and focus your mind on something other than yourself. It's all too easy to feel that my misery is the greatest misery or my inconvenience is the worst inconvenience. When those thoughts emerge, it's best to catch them quickly and redirect your attention. We tend to use up a lot of energy when unconstructive thoughts, like "I'm so frustrated about . . ." circle and cycle in the mind. Ruminating mentally is like going round and round inside a metaphorical dark cloud: you won't get anywhere, and what with the poor visibility, you might not see that there are other approaches. In contrast, one of the brightest, most powerful directions is offering help to others.
Research shows that cultivating compassion, empathy and kindness make us feel good. Really. And, if you think about it, common sense reinforces the same thing. Giving is often sweetest for the giver, and rejoicing in another's happiness is often more satisfying that achieving one's own pleasure, alone. It's totally fine, and healthy even, to feel annoyed, angry or frustrated when things aren't working your way. If you doubt whether there are lots of people in that mental space right now, just ask some of the people whose plans have been completely derailed by the volcanic ash. But, it doesn't help to believe that being annoyed, angry or frustrated is all that you are, or have become.
We are more than our emotions and we are more than our current experiences. And, fortunately, we have the capacity to change which means that feeling miserable overall can transform into feeling basically okay albeit in a miserable situation.
So for those of us stuck in airports, waiting to get somewhere, waiting at home for someone to arrive, or living under any type of dark cloud, I hope these three strategies will be of use.
- Remember to remind yourself of the obvious: viscous, smoky clouds often cause trouble.
- Manage your emotions: because your anger isn't going to clear the air.
- And, give of yourself to make a bad situation better.
You don't have to do any of this, of course, but these strategies are well within the range of our control and they're generally much more constructive (and successful) than the alternatives. None of us can banish the clouds outside on demand, but, we can find clear, brilliant sunshine, within.