A few days ago, I suffered through a full hour of repetitive digital music (if you could call it that) while I was on hold with AT&T. Like a recurring nightmare, I got switched from person to person four times, retelling my story to each one, being put back on hold, and never getting the issue resolved. I’m not taking it personally. It happens to all of us and it’s profoundly exasperating when we hear, “Due to heavy call volume, there will be unusually long waiting times. Please go to our website.” Or “Due to Covid…” and it’s clear that COVID has nothing to do with it.

“Hurry up!” we’re saying to ourselves. And then, when we actually get a human being on the line, they say a hundred words instead of the ten words that are required. Or we get cut off and we’re left with the drone of a dial tone that invokes rage and disappointment.

I just did my fair share of complaining in the paragraphs above, thanks for indulging me, but I promise that part is over. This blog is not a lament or a whine. It’s about something else – finding a way to use those maddening experiences to take a pause, to breathe and to become more mindful. Or at least to try. I read a lecture by a popular Indian guru (I forget which one) who suggested that when
we run into obstacles like red lights, bumper to bumper traffic, telemarketers, robo-calls and being put on hold, we can use them as opportunities to wake up and de-escalate our anxiety. We can bring our attention back to our breath instead of deciding how much Xanax to take.

I noticed that after my call with AT&T, my breath had become shallow and my anxiety had spiked. I had sacrificed my peace of mind and clarity to something over which I had absolutely no control. I felt like people were wasting my time and I just wanted them to hurry up. I wanted them to be who they weren’t and make them wrong for it. I wanted them to be smarter, move faster and treat me better when I wasn’t being particularly kind or smart myself. Stating calm in these situations is a tall order, I know, and I can’t say I’ve gotten proficient at it, but like I said, I’m trying. I’m searching for a way to turn my impatience into something that doesn’t stress me out and turn me into a human cannonball.

Some years back, I was trying to get reimbursed for an ambulance fee, about $1,500.00. I called weekly and they kept saying it would
be paid in ninety days. This went on for close to a year. It appeared that they didn’t want to pay me and they were trying to wear me down and when I said as much to one of the agents, his silence made me think I was right. But even if I was, that was irrelevant. No matter someone else’s intentions, I was allowing my frustration to fester with each phone call. In fact, I could feel my anxiety rising as soon as I picked up the phone, before I ever punched in a number or spoke to anyone. Just imagine if I had used that time to breathe. To become calm. To slow down. Just think of all the meditation I’d have gotten under my belt. By the way, they finally paid me but I lost in the end because I had been at the effect of so much stress and anger for so long. Getting back the money they owed me paled in comparison to how much of my wellbeing I had given up.

Living in the world requires patience a great deal of the time. It requires us to wait when we don’t want to, to tolerate things and
people we don’t like and to be kind to people who infuriate us. I think about the current adage, “It is what it is.” And there’s nothing I can do about it. I find that if I manage to be gentle with the anonymous voice at the other end of the phone, if I treat them with respect after I’ve been on hold for a long time, they are far more interested in helping me with my issue. I can either lose my temper or play the cards I’ve been dealt with some grace and acceptance. I can gentle myself through it or I can become enraged, which causes me even more stress and anger, just what I don’t need.

Anger invites more anger. Shallow breathing invites upset and disorientation. Frustration invites stress which eats away at our bodies and our mental health. The next time they put me on hold or I get stuck in traffic winding up the canyon to my home, I’m going to do my best to remember to breathe deeply and keep my anxiety in check. It’s a challenge but if you agree to practice it, so will I.