I am on a flight to St. Croix for a long scuba diving weekend. Feeling basically very peaceful and calm. Yet just 45 minutes into the flight I’ve encountered a couple of flare ups of annoyance (one in which I became annoyed, the other in which it was a young woman seated a couple of seats away). The interruption of my own calm, standing in sharp contrast to my basic mood, plus observing the other passenger’s upset, provide me with an ideal chance to dissect the phenomenon.
The trigger to my annoyance? The numerous flight crew announcements that are interrupting the breaking news regarding the manhunt for the Chechneyan terrorists. The other? The woman, seated just a couple of seats away from me, is being bothered by something so disturbing that she asks the flight attendant if she can switch seats (turns out that a neighboring passenger is “continuously passing gas”). “Some people just have no consideration for others,” she mutters as she squeezes by me, pointing to a man seated in the row in front of us.
The value of annoyance is that it will prompt us to examine possible courses of action that can end the annoyance and allow us to get back to a calm feeling. It mobilizes us. That is all well and good when there is in fact a course of action that, if followed, can end the annoyance. But more often than not no such course of action will alter the annoying trigger. As much as I might fume and rage, the crew will continue to make interruptive announcements until they’ve completed their assigned scripts. As much as I might hate all the pollen in the air at this time of year, there it will remain. As much as I might hate the music blaring from the convertible that is stopped alongside of me, unless i want to risk getting shot by requesting that he lower his volume, the music is going to continue. As much as I cant believe how slow the checkout person is at the Safeway, it will take exactly the time needed to complete the task, no matter how furious I become.
In contrast, the woman’s request to change seats was action that did indeed remove the trigger (or, more accurately, that distanced herself from the trigger).
These two stories dramatize the basic message of the super simple, super useful Serenity Prayer, the prayer that God grant us the strength / courage to change the things we can, the serenity to accept the things we can’t change, and the wisdom to know the difference. As I remind myself of this message I find I am able to dial down my annoyance – perhaps in part because I know and accept the truism that “arguing with reality” is a no- win proposition. Then I contemplate annoyances that can be handled in either way: striving to accept the way things are, or striving to alter situations so that they are less disturbing. More and more I tend to prefer the former course, in part because practicing and bringing about cognitive/emotional modulation is an empowering experience when well executed, and partly because taking action is a more involved process, requiring more time to achieve the desired result than does shifting our cognitive/emotional landscape.

When annoyances happen (and they always do) try first to increase your tolerance of the situation – it provides wonderful mind training.

I couldn’t fail to notice that a significant part of the woman’s annoyance came from the meaning she attributed to her gassy neighbor’s behavior. The actions of someone who has “no consideration for others” are going to be judged more harshly than the exact same actions undertaken by someone whom is perceived to be considerate. I imagine that if the offending passenger had turned around and apologized, perhaps mentioning his intestinal flu, the woman, while not pleased with the odor, might have tolerated it.
One final note: a tendency to become easily annoyed is at least in part genetic. If you’re one of the unlucky ones who got the “overly sensitive” gene, understand that undertaking the kind of cognitive/emotional work I’ve outlined here will be particularly challenging – but also particularly valuable.