My board­ing zone said, “Basic,” which is Delta’s way of say­ing “dead last on the aircraft.”

There were 12 rows on this com­muter to Columbus, and I was seat­ed in 11A by the win­dow. As I walked down the aisle, 11B glanced up from his lap­top and glared. I could tell he was hop­ing I was sit­ting in 7D, the only oth­er emp­ty seat on the plane. He got up reluc­tant­ly to let me in. But not before I heard him sigh heav­i­ly and caught him rolling his eyes.

Not to hum­ble brag, but I am a love­ly per­son to sit beside on a plane. I wasn’t cough­ing or car­ry­ing a wail­ing infant. I’m small, and I nev­er use the arm­rest. If you’re a talk­er, I’m hap­py to swap sto­ries. And if you need to bang away on your lap­top for the dura­tion of the flight, I’m equal­ly hap­py to lis­ten to an Audible.

I smiled, but this guy wasn’t hav­ing it. I peeked at his lap­top, sur­mised he was a claims adjus­tor. His shirt was embla­zoned with Westfeld Insurance Group, and his com­put­er screen read, “Insurance Claim Denied.” So I popped in my head­phones and closed my eyes. Neil Gaiman start­ed to whis­per Norse myths in my ear and I drift­ed away.

Soon enough, we were air bound. I felt the steep incline of the plane, then a very sud­den drop, fol­lowed by some alarm­ing tur­bu­lence. A mes­sage came over the inter­com, but I still had my head­phones in and didn’t hear it. My seat start­ed buck­ing as if the bolts were com­ing loose. My eyes popped open to see the flight atten­dant run­ning down the aisle. My heart froze in terror.

I yanked out my head­phones, turned around to see the woman behind me in con­vul­sions. Her knees were kick­ing my seat so hard it threw me forward.

“I’m a doc­tor!” one man yelled. “Is any­one trav­el­ing with this woman?”

A younger ver­sion of the woman hav­ing a seizure made her way to the back of the plane, tears stream­ing down her face. “I’m her daugh­ter! She has brain can­cer! We’re on our way to James (Ohio State’s famous can­cer cen­ter)!” Another stew­ardess brought the oxy­gen tank from the front. We all felt the plane bank sharply, then the pilot announced we were return­ing to the gate.

I do not want to type the exact word that man beside me uttered. But it start­ed with an F.

Twenty min­utes lat­er, we were back on the ground, and para­medics were wheel­ing the lady down the aisle to the wait­ing ambu­lance. I silent­ly sent out a prayer to the poor woman and her family.

While we wait­ed to take off again, the man to my right texted furi­ous­ly, then made a call and told some­one that he would be about an hour late. Then he looked at me and growled, “I did not need this incon­ve­nience today.”

I took a deep breath and held his gaze with a steely one of my own. “I’m guess­ing,” I said slow­ly, enun­ci­at­ing each word care­ful­ly, “that she prob­a­bly finds brain can­cer to be an incon­ve­nience too.” Then I smiled sweet­ly and turned away, com­plete­ly fin­ished with this awful man.

Westfeld Insurance Group didn’t rec­og­nize the dif­fer­ence between an incon­ve­nience and a prob­lem. Unitarian min­is­ter Robert Fulghum writes, “If you break your neck, if you have noth­ing to eat, if your house is on fire, then you’ve got a prob­lem. Everything else is an incon­ve­nience. Life is incon­ve­nient. Life is lumpy. A lump in the oat­meal, a lump in the throat, and a lump in the breast are not the same kind of lump. One needs to learn the difference.”

I don’t ever want to become a per­son that val­ues my sched­ule over someone’s life.

We do not choose our thoughts, but we do choose what we do with them. Noticing that you feel incon­ve­nienced is com­plete­ly nat­ur­al. Choosing to feel angry and vic­tim­ized when someone’s life is on the line is just a bad habit. Thoughts of all sorts arise spon­ta­neous­ly, but we decide how long they stay and how we respond to them.

When angry, take a breath. When incon­ve­nienced, take a breath. When hun­gry, tired, late, over­whelmed, scared, doubt­ful, ner­vous, or upset in any way, take a breath. Slowing down to breathe can be hard in stress­ful sit­u­a­tions, but it helps us dif­fer­en­ti­ate between real prob­lems (like brain can­cer) and minor incon­ve­niences (like a delayed plane).

  • Erin Skinner Smith

    Erin Skinner Smith wants every­one to slow down, eat real food, move their bod­ies, go out­side, and hit the pil­low a lit­tle ear­li­er for a more pur­pose­ful exis­tence. She is a pub­lished writer, yoga teacher, and mind­ful­ness coach. When she’s not stand­ing on her head or typ­ing on her trusty lap­top, you’ll find her read­ing, play­ing gui­tar, enjoy­ing a glass of bour­bon, or snug­gling on the couch with her peo­ple and pets. Send her a dig­i­tal high five at erintheomplace.net.