Sitting on the Tarmac in The Land of Stoicism

By Vitaliy Katsenelson

I recently took Jonah and Hannah to NYC for a long weekend. Jonah was leaving for Israel that Sunday and Hannah and I decided to join him for the weekend to inhale the art and culture that New York has to offer.
However, this trip to NYC started with me practicing a bit of Stoicism.

At the end of May, I took my son Jonah (21), his girlfriend Molly, and my daughter Hannah (16) to New York City for a long weekend. Jonah and Molly were leaving for Israel and Hannah and I decided to join them for the weekend to inhale the art and culture that New York has to offer.

However. This trip to NYC started with me practicing a bit of Stoicism. We had tickets for La Boheme at the Metropolitan Opera on Friday night. Our plane was supposed to land at LaGuardia at 5pm. LaGuardia was about 40 minutes away from our hotel and the opera house. We were going to have dinner at 6:15 and go to the opera at 8.

Men make plans, the universe laughs.

Our plane took off and landed on time. So far so good. However, after we landed the pilot notified us that because of thunderstorms in the NY area, the airport was on lockdown and planes were still at their gates. We’d have to wait for a gate to open up. He said he’d inform us every fifteen minutes on progress, implying that this might take a long while.

I’ve been to many opera houses around the world, but this was my first time at the Metropolitan Opera, and La Boheme is one of my most favorite operas. Most importantly, I wanted my kids to experience La Boheme. It was Jonah’s girlfriend Molly’s first time at the opera, and I was really excited for her. I had got the best tickets the opera house had to offer, which were about to turn into a pumpkin at 8pm if we kept vegetating on the tarmac.

I could have gotten upset. The pre-Stoic version of Vitaliy would have. I have just written a book, Soul in the Game – The Art of a Meaningful Life, where I spend a third of the pages discussing Stoic philosophy and how I apply it in my daily life. Now, I had an opportunity to apply three Stoic philosophy exercises at once: dichotomy of control, reframing, and negative visualization.

Let’s start with the dichotomy of control. Epictetus says that some things are up to us (they are internal to us) and some are not (they’re external to us). Most things in life are external; we have no control over them – the weather, how other people behave –actually, almost everything. I have control over how I behave and how I interpret the situation I’m in right now.

As Marcus Aurelius succinctly put it, “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” I could have thrown a fit, complained, gotten agitated. Other than losing more of my hair (which is already facing imminent extinction) and ruining the mood of my kids and everyone around me, I wouldn’t have changed anything by such behavior. The gate would open when air traffic control decided it was safe for other planes to take off. We would either go to the opera or we wouldn’t; either way, the money I spent for the tickets was already gone.

Reframing allows us to embrace life as it happens to us and to color the events that happen to us from a palette of our own choosing, instead of having life randomly choose colors for us.

At first, I reframed our predicament as an opportunity for more focused time. Another Stoic, Seneca, would remind me about the shortness of our time. I would not get this time back. I did not want to waste my time worrying about things I could not control, so I kept my headphones on and went on working on an article on my laptop.

After thirty minutes or so, I put my laptop away and focused on my kids, who had an innate stoical attitude toward missing an opera: Jonah and Molly were watching Netflix. Hannah was reading a book. Some would argue that a 16-year-old and two 21-year-olds would definitely prefer sitting for hours in cramped seats on an unmoving plane to hearing “fat ladies sing.” There might be some truth to this. Maybe they were being polite or did not want to hurt my feelings, but all three were telling me how much they were looking forward to the opera. We discussed what we could do that night in place of going to the opera. NYC offers plenty of other nighttime activities.

I reminded myself to visualize that things could have been so much worse. Stoics call it negative visualization. Instead of safely sitting on the ground, we could have been… I let my (negative) imagination run wild, which is easy. We could have been in Eastern Ukraine, bombed by stepmother Russia. The list of bad things that could have been happening to us was unendingly long. By comparison, sitting in an air-conditioned plane for a few hours and missing an opera did not seem so bad.

Negative visualization is a powerful tool because it puts most problems we encounter on a daily basis in the proper perspective: They are not problems; they are just life happening not in precise accordance with our expectations. As I am writing this, I am reading about 19 kids who senselessly died in a Texas school shooting. The parents of these kids would have given anything to spend an extra 30 minutes stuck on a plane with their kids. That is not the negative visualization I want to go to too often, but it does put a lot of my everyday noise into a proper perspective.

We sat on the plane for almost two hours. Once we got off, while we were waiting for our luggage, I started to formulate a plan. We would go with our luggage directly to the opera. I called the opera house. I explained our predicament. They politely explained that they had no place for our luggage. We’d have to go to the hotel, which was a mile away from the opera house, and drop off the luggage first. I don’t know if it was my positive attitude, the lady on the phone taking a pity on us for our predicament, or just the opera house’s policy, but I was told that if we didn’t make it to the opera before 8pm, I should call back and they would either give us a credit or refund the money.

The story doesn’t have a traumatic conclusion, and that is a good thing. NYC had a bit more traffic than usual, and we arrived at our hotel at 7:50. If we had 20 extra minutes we would have made it to the opera. The opera house kept its promise and refunded me for our tickets.

We went to dinner and did the most touristy thing – we went to Times Square. Hannah’s dream to play a NY street chess hustler came true – she played one. She got very close to winning, but came out with a draw. Over the next two days we walked in Central Park and even rented a boat and spent an hour on a lake in the park. We went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, saw Phantom of the Opera, ate a lot of terrific food, and my kids and I hosted an IMA client dinner.

Hannah, inspired by her “almost win” in Times Square, wanted to play more street chess. We spent an afternoon at Bryant Park (which is now my favorite place in NYC), where both Hannah and Jonah played chess. Jonah, who is a big fan of Lex Fridman’s podcast, ran into Lex next to our hotel. They had a short but pleasant conversation. Jonah, who is a proud son, quick on his feet, took this opportunity to pitch me to Lex as a guest for his podcast.

Despite spending two extra hours on the plane and missing La Boheme, this turned out to be a great trip. Life will often go according to its plan, not ours. We should look at these moments as little Stoic tests, or even better, opportunities to practice Stoic training. It’s training because, by constantly practicing these Stoic techniques, we can reprogram ourselves, and by doing this we’ll reduce the negative volatility of our emotions and thus make our days a bit brighter.

I’ll conclude by quoting what Marcus Aurelius said in his Meditations: “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”

If you liked this personal article about practicing Stoicism, you might like my book, Soul in the Game: The Art of a Meaningful Life. It’s a book of inspiring stories and hard-won lessons on how to live a meaningful life. Part autobiography, part philosophy, part creativity manual, Soul in the Game is a unique and vulnerable exploration of what works, and what doesn’t, in the attempt to shape a fulfilling and happy life. You can order it here.