I’ve been traveling incessantly these past few months, spending hours in airports and hotels and zipping around by train, plane and automobile. I’ve always been fascinated by how human beings approach travel, and what it reveals about who we are and how we choose to show up in the world.
Many of us are not at our best when we’re traveling—to say the least. Like, if someone was following us around recording our behavior with a video camera, we would probably be embarrassed. We’re impatient and stressed out and easily annoyed, ready to assume the worst about anyone who gets in our way. We arrive at the hotel, to rent a car, or go through the TSA pre-check lane and there’s a line a mile long (we like to exaggerate our plights, of course). Then we start looking around to recruit fellow travelers we can commiserate out loud with: Can you believe how disorganized they are? What is the problem? This is ridiculous. Somehow this makes us feel better, but it’s short-lived: the newly elected committee of complainers just increases our irritability and negativity.
I’ve been guilty of doing all of the above. But I really don’t like myself, or the feeling I get when my soul is contorted with irritability. And I know that negativity is contagious—the more negative energy we put out, the more it spreads. But kindness and generosity are contagious, too. And I want to be a part of spreading positive energy. I don’t just want to say I’m a good person; I want to behave like one.
I want to get to the airport earlier enough to be so relaxed that I can smile lovingly at the traveler who somehow doesn’t have the 3-1-1 TSA rule for liquids down yet. I want to be the one who sees the frantic-looking business traveler and says, “Hey, are you running late? You want to go ahead of me?” I want to have time to notice that, actually, my gate isn’t always the one farthest from security, in spite of what I tell myself. And when I’m coming home from overseas, I want to be able to wait patiently in the tax refund line behind dozens of people looking bewildered by all the forms, without rolling my eyes and attempting to push them forward with my Jedi mind tricks, because I’m worried I didn’t leave enough time to get to the gate.
Which is why I’ve started going to the airport earlier these days.
It may sound crazy, but what I’ve discovered is that when I have extra time, it’s easier for me to be my best self. It’s easier for me not to demand perfection from other people (which, when you think about it, is an insane thing to expect) while being blind to my own imperfections. It gives me the emotional space to be generous to others, and offer them something akin to “traveling mercies”—a term originally used by Christians to describe the prayers for missionaries about to undertake a long journey.
And this applies to more than just airports: Leaving early helps me keep my more charitable self in the driver’s seat in traffic, too. I’m so sweet to others when I’m not in a rush—’cause I’m a nice lady, right? But when I’m late, other drivers’ needs seem like character flaws: What’s wrong with this person? Everyone knows if you want to turn left you need to be in this lane. Now they want to get over into my lane? I’ve never been the type to yell or give the finger, nevertheless, I find myself inching my car up to close up any space in the left lane instead of letting that other driver come over.
I also finally had the revelation that understanding the connection between lateness and lack of empathy is different from actually changing one’s behavior. Doing that takes conscious choices. Every decision I make—choosing not to gas up the car the night before, hitting the snooze button too many times, even staying up way past my bedtime—is a decision not to be emotionally available to be merciful to others where the opportunity presents itself.
So these days, I try to do what’s necessary in advance to lay the groundwork for “traveling mercies.” I’ve started thinking about the people I’ll encounter on my travels—the Uber driver, the desk clerks, the many strangers—BEFORE the journey starts. I finish my packing earlier. I lay out my clothes the night before. I make sure I have small bills in my wallet so I can’t rationalize away leaving a tip for housekeeping at the hotel. (“I can’t possibly leave a whole twenty—I’ll skip it just this once.”)
Of course, not everything is within our control. Even when we’re thoughtful about how we act when we travel, things don’t necessarily go as planned. There’s an accident or the TSA pre-check lane is closed or the cash machine is out of order. We’ve misplaced our ticket and are holding up the line; we’re lost and making erratic moves in traffic; we’ve left our computer in the bin on the conveyor belt and are frantic about getting it back, irritated at everyone we encounter (all things I’ve done).
And then what? Well, then we are the ones who could use some grace and mercy. So if more of us could make the time to show up in our most compassionate selves (which, for me, requires showing up early too!) there would be more mercy to go around when we’re the ones who need it.
Mercy is “compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.” It’s the thing that bridges the gap between what we plan and hope to be, and the reality of our human frailties. Mercy is about cutting others slack even when they don’t “deserve” it. These days, I’m also acknowledging how much slack others have given me when I’m not at my best, and what a difference it makes. So I’m learning to say thank you, and reciprocating by paying it forward, sowing some grace into the universe whenever I can—especially when I’m traveling!