07 September 2010

Civility -- Lost Art or Loss of Connection?

I read today that Steven Slater, the Jet Blue flight attendant who left his job with a seemingly whimsical leap down the yellow airplane emergency slide--beers in hand--will undergo a mental health evaluation as part of his plea deal for the events of that day. Mr. Slater, it appears, had been under some stress.

When the story first broke, almost everyone I encountered was exuberant about Mr. Slater's courageous exit, his f-you to his job and to the rudeness of a particular passenger. And I felt it too. How many of us have wished that on our last day at a detested job we too had had a slide for our exit, had taken control in that way, spoken our mind, said what's true. It seems so heroic, romantic even.

But Mr. Slater obviously, to use a clinical term, flipped out a bit. He has been under tremendous personal stress and the final straw arrived that fateful day in the form of a "rude passenger". Even though we are much more likely to have been in her shoes as a passenger, none of us relate to her, we all feel for Steven.

But what if she had been the one who, in the face of a rude steward and a full plane, had jumped out of her seat, taken the drink cart by storm, deployed the slide and said "to hell with this!" over the intercom. Then she might have been the one cheered as all of us related to her as she was frustrated--as we all have been--by perceived bad customer service, long flights, small seats. It's all a matter of perspective. And our perspective is skewed by who we think we are, and who we wish we could be.

In my experience as a therapist, one thing overrides all others: we are hardest on ourselves. And when that doesn't immediately show, when we seem harder on others, chances are it is because we are so hard on ourselves that we can barely speak of it. At the heart of this is the fear that we are different from everyone else: everyone else has it figured out, they are fine, they are making it, they are doing great.

This delusion is one reason we love a good celebrity free fall. We want to look away from the unsightliness of it all, but part of us feel reassured, "See, she wasn't perfect, he doesn't have everything."

But, as much as we like to think of ourselves as separate, when we work to understand ourselves and truly enter into the heart of our own life, we discover the rest of humanity there too. We lose the tendency to think that we are fatally flawed and different and outcast. We see that suffering is universal, as is redemption and compassion. And in this discovery is freedom.

My heart goes out to Steven Slater. And to that passenger. May we remember that we are both of them. Our ability to relate to and judge others comes from one thing: our knowledge of ourselves. We cannot see something in someone else that we do not have inside of us. We are both exasperated employee and rude customer; villain and hero. And we all get a little stressed from time to time.

A great opinion piece about the Steven Slater incident inspired my musing today:
The Lost Art of Simple Courtesy
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