Sunday 05 April 2020

Don’t sweat the small stuff

This column first appeared in Sunday’s edition of Malta Today

It’s difficult to write a column at the best of times during the Christmas period, but when Christmas actually falls on a Sunday, it makes the job of a columnist even more challenging.

How do you strike a balance so that you don’t end up sounding like an annoyingly cheerful Pollyanna while at the same time not dwelling too much on the grim realities which face us every time we turn on the news? I can well imagine that when you eventually push away your plate and emerge from the stupor of over-indulgence which is Christmas lunch, the last thing you as a reader want to read are more platitudes as you rifle through the papers. On the other hand, I doubt you want to hear, once again, about what a terrible year 2016 has been.

Many dread Christmas time for its often forced, false merriment, when we are supposed to shake hands and forget all the slights of a whole year – who can forget those obligatory office Christmas parties when colleagues are expected to pretend to set aside their grievances and clink their glasses, or what is even worse, kiss each other on the cheek while muttering that hackneyed Minglish phrase “all the best jekk ma narakx! (if I don’t see you before then)”  On the other hand, if you want to look at it purely from a self-preservation point of view, it also holds true that continuing to hold on to grudges can only result in an ulcer and other health issues brought on by stress. So I guess a perfunctory ‘Merry Christmas’, even to your worst enemy might actually be just what the doctor ordered. You can think of it as a kind of Feng Shui for the soul, where instead of just getting rid of the clutter in your house for the new year, you also get rid of  the old cobwebs of pent-up resentment which are causing you more harm than good.

But, who am I kidding right? Unless you are a real, genuine saint, it is very hard to be so forgiving and simply wave away old hurts that easily. So, to keep things more do-able, perhaps the best thing we can hope to achieve is to close the doors on the chapters of our life which did not work out and people who have let us down, and keep on moving forward.

In fact, the constant, recurring thought which keeps popping into my mind is that we really need to stop sweating the small stuff. I hate to sound like one out of those inspirational quotes, but sometimes nothing else will do. I really do believe that as we slog through life, it’s not so much what happens to us, but the way we react to it, which will determine our equilibrium. This can be applied pretty much across the board – from those social and political issues which make us angry, to the exasperating shortcomings in the country which drive us up the wall, to the dynamics of our personal relationships when something goes wrong.

Of course, if social media and online articles are anything to go by, you can be forgiven for thinking that the whole country is one giant ball of spitting, snarling anger ready to snap and claw at anyone for even the pettiest thing. Yet, what I have often noticed is that once you go outside your door, what you see most of the time is a relatively peaceful people, going about their business and not at all a reflection of the swirling hotbed of emotions we often read online. Maybe we are using our alter egos online in order to vent in a kind of cathartic alternative universe? Or is it simply easier to be snide and rude, aggressive and just plain mean when you are behind your keyboard and, in some cases, behind a fake name?

Having said that, it is also true that there are people who are equally unpleasant in real life – sometimes even more so. The road rage which takes over some drivers when they are stuck in traffic is a particular case in point. And yet here is a classic example of how it is pretty pointless to sweat the small stuff. It will not make the traffic inch along any faster. You will type out a furious FB status from your phone that “something has to be done about this traffic!!!!!” and, come tomorrow, just like Groundhog’s Day, you will be destined to repeat the same scenario.

In fact, I’ve realized that the situations which really make people go crazy the most are those in which they have lost all control and are dependent on the actions of others. Like the afore-mentioned traffic.  Or when they are stuck in a never-ending queue to purchase something.  Or when they are seated at a crowded restaurant where service is slow. Or waiting in the rain for a bus which never comes.  Or having to deal with a spouse who is being unreasonable. Or having to handle a child who does not want to listen.  It’s no wonder that patience is described as a virtue because it really is sorely lacking, and never is this more apparent than when we have to exercise restraint because something is beyond our control.

The huffing and puffing which goes on the minute someone is told (or realise that) they have to wait and the sheer amount of grumbling and dramatic gestures accompanying the waiting, can often be comical.  Maybe it’s because we have become used to everything being done at a snap and we have lost our tolerance for things which require time.  But all of these things I’ve mentioned (annoying as they are) are really, when you think about it, very petty inconveniences.  The queue will eventually move. The traffic will eventually budge. And yes, the over-worked waiter will gradually bring your food.  Heck, even that blessed bus will (one day) appear on the horizon.

After all, in the grand scheme of things, life really is too short to live  your life in a perpetual state of rage and anger.   And yes, that sounded like another inspirational quote. Forgive me, but after all it IS Christmas.

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