I went to the Post Office the other day to ship some books. I had about 20 large, padded envelopes, each going to different locations. As each envelope was being weighed and stamped, I noticed how embarrassed I felt about making all those other people in line wait for so long. Yes, I was that guy who makes everyone else wait in line!
One guy shifted back and forth repeatedly, looking at his watch as if that would make the line move faster. From the glare on one woman’s face I could almost see her blood pressure rising. But one man smiled at me and just stood there looking calm and collected. He certainly made me feel better.
They were all in the same situation, but different people handled it differently. I checked the time and noticed that it actually took about 3 minutes for all those packages to be processed. I bet that three minutes felt like an eternity to the shifting man and the glaring woman. But it probably felt like nothing at all to the man with the smile.
We’ve all been there. Think of all the moments throughout a regular day when you are forced to slow down or stop for a few moments. How do most people feel during these moments? Frustrated, impatient, annoyed, stressed? Does the stress make the post office, grocery store, or airport security line move any faster? Does it make the elevator arrive faster or the doctor invite you right in? Not really. It just makes the time feel longer.
Most people say that if they added all these moments up in a typical day, the total would be anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour, maybe more if you spend time in traffic. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could have an extra hour every day to relax? But you might not use that extra time to relax, especially if you have a habit of being in such a rush because of all the things that keep slowing you down!
Actually, you do have that time to relax available! It just doesn’t happen all at once. It is spread throughout the day in all these little moments when you are forced to stop and wait. You don’t have a choice about whether these moments happen; your only choice is what you will do with that time. Nothing about the way you feel is going to make the situation change faster. But you could do something that makes it seem like it moves faster. Unfortunately, what most of us do is literally practice being more stressed and upset.
Paul Solomon once said, “Why should I be in a miserable situation and be unhappy? Being in a miserable situation is bad enough!” So instead of practicing being stressed, why don’t you use the same time to relax and enjoy yourself? Take a few deep breaths. Smile for no reason. Look for some humor in the situation.
At first it may not seem to make a significant difference, but look at it this way. Throughout the day we go from one little frustrating situation to another, adding a little more stress, until by the end of the day we have built a momentum of unconscious tension so it is difficult to get to sleep. What if instead we went from one situation to another just pausing, relaxing, breathing, and smiling? We could be releasing little bits of tension throughout the day, building positive momentum. If we can’t do this during the elementary-school lessons in life, like waiting at the Post Office or at the stop light, how can we do it when faced with the graduate-school lessons, like being fired, losing a loved one, or facing an illness?
I know this sounds simplistic. But that doesn’t meant it’s easy! One of the activities in my book is to start by making a list of all the moments during your day when you are forced to pause or stop even for just a few minutes.
Begin to look forward to each of these moments. When you realize you are in the middle of one, stop, take a deepbreath, look around you at other people and see how they are responding. Step away from your automatic stressful reaction and give yourself a chance to change your perspective. Then put a smile on your face and relax (listen to Stephen teach you how). You’ll be amazed at how quickly the time goes by.
Begin practicing during these elementary-school lessons so that when the graduate-school lessons come—which they will—you will be ready
 Paul Solomon, The Quest (Master’s Press, 1985).