It took me years to discover this, but I become really uptight in movie theaters. Usually I’m pretty easygoing, but whenever I enter a room with rows of seats and a large screen, I have an incredibly difficult time relaxing.
It’s as though I develop certain mild mental illnesses as soon as I walk in. Suddenly I have misophonia—I can’t bear the sound of people eating anything, or crinkling packages, even though everyone is eating something, and has every right to. I feel paranoid and persecuted, as though my precious public movie experience will inevitably be ruined one or more persistently clumsy, noisy, or smelly moviegoers.
Even when nobody is doing anything annoying yet, my mind is poised for judgment, almost waiting for a reason to get mad. Undoubtedly, someone is going to talk through the whole thing, explaining to their partner all the references they catch, or asking plot questions the movie itself hasn’t answered yet. Every movie experience begins with a sense of impending loss.
I may be overstating this effect a little—describing the private emotional convulsions of your mind always makes you sound crazy, because we so seldom do it—but there’s no question that my capacity for judgment and indignation mushrooms at the cinema, regardless of what’s actually happening around me on any particular visit.
I think this location-dependent uptightness happens to everyone, in some form. For each of us there are a few semi-regular situations that make us a little (or a lot) more reactive than usual. Maybe for you it’s driving on freeways, standing in queues, or visiting malls. What actually happens there has less of an effect on you than your expectation that it will be (or could be) an unpleasant or infuriating experience.
A common “agitation zone” seems to be the inside of airplanes, especially if that plane is not moving. People seem to be generally less patient, less charitable and more prone to blame others during airline experiences. My friend who is a flight attendant has confirmed my suspicions that many otherwise laid back people go at least slightly mad on planes.
Human beings are certainly capable of being rational and equanimous, but maybe only in the same way that the Pacific Northwest is capable of being sunny. For the most part we are emotional creatures, prone to frequent and dramatic losses of perspective.
I don’t think we quite appreciate how normal it is to be nuts much of the time. In his speech about modern love and dating, Alain de Botton suggests that when we meet a prospective partner, one of the first things we should find a way to ask is, “So, how are you crazy?”
Presumably we should have already asked ourselves this question in private. And if we don’t fully grasp how we are crazy, simply knowing where and when we tend to lose our grip on patience and rationality can be tremendously helpful.
While you’re under its spell, it’s hard to detect your own mounting unreasonableness. Indignation always feels justified to the person feeling it. Simply knowing when it tends to happen to you allows you to game-plan for it.
My cinema craziness began to fade the moment I recognized I had cinema craziness. I learned, for example, to consciously allow the odd handbag thump the back of my head as people fill in the row behind me. After all, the bag itself doesn’t actually harm me; the pain of it is all in the reaction. Even the odd mid-film cell-phone ring isn’t nearly as disruptive as the internal sermon we unleash in the minutes following.
The effect of this basic awareness is profound. What a gift it is to simply recognize our favorite kinds of indignation, even if that doesn’t give us the power to stop them from welling up. Our reactivity can only reach mood-ruining levels when we’re unaware we’re being reactive.
That simple knowing—I tend to get uptight right about here—shifts the focus to your own contribution to the problem, allowing you to recognize that the outside world might not be entirely responsible for the dark turn in your current experience, removing the sense of powerlessness from it.
For years my commute included a merge onto a busy boulevard. For those of you who don’t know (and I gather there are many who don’t) in order to merge cleanly with a busy street you need to match your vehicle’s speed to that of the busy street’s traffic. Out of survival instinct I suppose, many drivers slow down to a near-stop in the merge lane, which means they have to wait for a relatively huge gap in the traffic before they, or anyone else, can go. If you keep up your speed, you only need a few car lengths.
Most mornings, when I came up to this particular intersection, somebody was in the middle of botching the merge in this way. And off my mind would go, ranting to itself about proper merging procedures, and maybe morphing into a related tirade on city planning, continuing until I got to the office and some other crisis took over.
All of this reacting was useless—regardless of how other drivers acted, I’d get to go when my chance came up, and my scowls and mutterings didn’t influence anything outside of my own car. But there’s something gratifying, even addictive, about slipping into a favorite rant, at least until we start to see how tired and predictable a pattern it is.
One day, I felt that familiar indignation right when I turned onto the quiet feeder street, still five blocks away from the merge at the boulevard. My face was beginning to harden, my lungs preparing to let out an impatient sigh, when it occurred to me I was nowhere near the intersection, or even any other drivers.
It was like my brain was saying clearly, “Okay David, here’s the part where you very predictably lose your mind.” And for the first time, I didn’t.