There is no shortage of things we all know we should be thankful for in late November. Here’s a less conventional one: annoyance. When the cable goes out during the game or the cornbread gets burned or Uncle Sheldon shows up late and then tells the SAME boring story he tells every year, let yourself be annoyed . . . and then feel blessed.
While I’ll admit that I’ve never been that fond of Thanksgiving as a holiday (sorry turkey-lovers), I have always connected with the principle of gratitude. This year is a particularly tricky one as, save for the one-year anniversary, the holiday marks one of the largest and last sad milestones (e.g. “first [blank] without . . .”) in the first year following the tragedy in Sandy Hook. While hardly a silver lining, the opportunity for a perspective check is not to be neglected here.
I have noticed a change in myself this year, and though I wish more than anything that I could undo the circumstances behind it, it’s not in and of itself a bad thing. For starters it is worth noting that I am fairly easily annoyed. Here are, off the top of my head, some things I find really annoying:
– Having a stray ball roll onto the tennis court, interrupting an otherwise good point
– Being stuck in traffic after choosing a particular route in order to get somewhere faster
– Having plans cancelled after putting in time and effort to prepare
– Incorrect use of the apostrophe (“Peach’s on sale today for $1.49/pound”)
– Rushing to meet a deadline and then waiting for feedback only to rush again for the next step
– “Cleaning” that simply re-distributes the mess so it’s someone else’s problem
– When students don’t practice and then feebly try to BS me about it
– Machines (appliances, electronics, cars) breaking down at inconvenient times
– Slow internet connections that render it impossible to watch tennis highlights properly
– Getting a stain on a new shirt
– When somebody indignantly insists he or she will do something and then doesn’t
– Playing a tender ballad for a chatty audience
This scratches the surface of my annoyance. One moment a little later in December, though, I found myself having a parental moment of annoyed impatience, and I noticed that Kate was responding very calmly to the same situation, even though she was as sleep-deprived and reamed out as I was and the situation REALLY was annoying. A moment later I thanked her for being so calm and asked how she pulled it off. She looked me in the eye silently and then said “she’s alive.” At that point my neurons shifted and they haven’t really shifted back since then. We all know intellectually, even morally, that we should be grateful for the things we have. And yet it took this for me to fully own that.
The strange thing that followed was that the triviality of annoyance became more and more apparent. Notice that I am NOT saying that I became immune, far from it – the items on the list above still annoy me. What changed was how I processed the annoyance. Before, I would vacillate from being consumed by annoyance on a bad day to achieving a measured and deliberate sense of perspective on a good day. Even on the good days, I would have to remind myself not to get too worked up (“okay Noah, you know this isn’t that big a deal). After December, though, I found that I would observe my annoyance in a fairly disaffected manner, not unlike a dull but unobtrusive ache in my toe. If I paid attention, there it was, but I could also just as easily put that attention elsewhere and go about my life fairly unimpeded. I found that what used to be the “good day” perception (e.g. forced perspective) had become the “bad day” (e.g. tired, emotionally depleted or otherwise close to the limit of my stress threshold). On the good days I actually relished the annoyance. Not because I was a glutton for punishment, but because I was liberated by realizing that although I was getting ticked off (say, that the purportedly time-saving self-scanner at the grocery store wasn’t working), the feeling really wasn’t that bad.
Allow me to clarify before concluding that I don’t equate all negative emotions with annoyance. I am still dealing with plenty of grief, and that stuff is no joke. If I perceive a threat to my wife or one of my kids, then the resulting anger and/or fear is intense. If someone I trust goes two-faced, I will feel betrayed. None of these things are “annoying,” and while I may have improved at keeping things in perspective, my responses to genuinely intense emotions haven’t changed much.
Likewise I am not encouraging passivity where action is appropriate and dignified. If I have a meeting with someone who clearly didn’t read the pre-briefing notes, my annoyance may be inert, but that doesn’t mean I won’t strategize on how to connect more effectively with that person the next time around. If I’m comparatively immune to the frustrations of being stuck in traffic, it’s still sound practice to check what’s going on with I-95 and the Merritt Parkway before deciding which one to take to get home from NYC.
So is keeping annoyance in check a moral obligation? Perhaps, but that’s not where I’m coming from. Personally I do think that letting annoyance turn into outrage and loss of the ability to self-regulate (“I can’t BELIEVE I have to wait another day for my transmission to be fixed!! This is the worst thing ever!!”) is fairly distasteful when there are people around experiencing “real” adversity. But I don’t claim to have much objectivity there at the moment, and besides, who am I to judge one person’s adversity against another’s? It is a moral obligation only in the sense as you may feel we are obligated to maximize our resources and not waste energy fretting unnecessarily – that energy could be used to actually do good for your loved ones or community. Or if you don’t care about that, the energy could at least be stored up for when something genuinely hard occurs or used to grieve something that already has happened. This I do believe strongly – it’s just common sense, really, and you don’t need to be thrust into grief to embrace the concept.
If this sounds at least somewhat sane to you, I suggest a simple exercise. Pay attention the next time something annoying happens (which, if you’re like me, will likely be soon). Don’t try to stop the annoyance, but take a breath and tell yourself that feeling annoyed is a luxury. You don’t even have to get bummed out thinking about how much worse things could be. Just breathe and remember that you’re okay and that being annoyed just isn’t that important. Your nervous system and heart will thank you, as will the people around you (assuming they aren’t invested in having a rant-fest with you). And if you do really care about all those who have lost somebody and for whom Thanksgiving will thus be like a knife in the heart, then the benefits of this sense of perspective become a no-brainer.