The Tao of the Middle Seat
At the end of my trip to Egypt, I checked my ticket for the 5-hour flight to Morocco. Window seat, yes!
But when I reached my row, there was an older woman in traditional Muslim dress parked in my goddamn window seat. In the aisle, an older man.
Anger rose in my chest.
We all know how this story ends. I clear my throat, and say, excuse me, you scoundrel, vacate my seat or I will punt you to Hippocamp, the smallest moon of Neptune!
But does it have to?
Obviously, a visit to Egypt means a Culture Shock Soufflet.
Any time you get a serene second at the Pyramids, an Egpytian tout ruins the moment and shoves some shitty tchotchke in your face. You tell him you don’t want it, so he drops it in your hand and goes, gift! Then he demands money anyway, and doesn't give up until you’re uncomfortable and pay him, or stare into his unwavering eyes for 30 seconds … when he moves on, and another person replaces him.
You quickly get hardened to it all and tell them to screw off, with no remorse, even if you consider yourself a friendly, patient guy.
But this one time, this guy won’t leave you alone, and he pretends to be your friend, like they all do. But this fucking guy, he reaches out and tries to shake your left hand.
You weren’t born yesterday (you were born ~9,271 yesterdays ago). You know that in Arabic countries, shaking with your left hand is an insult, because that’s the hand with which he wipes his ass.
Again, anger rose in my chest.
Again, I fantasized punting him to Hippocamp.
But after a deep breath, I noticed that his other arm was just hanging there.
After another breath, I realized his arm was gruesomely broken and he clearly hadn’t gotten it fixed. No cast.
After talking to a few locals, I realized the Egyptian economy had tanked in recent years. Tourism was the lifeblood of the economy, and after the 2011 revolution, it was decimated. (I was there in 2016, when tourism had dropped 69.6% since its peak.)
Locals told me that healthcare was never good, and now it was nonexistent for average citizens.
There I was, complaining about someone with an unhealed broken arm trying to make a living. There I was, acting like his daily work activities were such a hindrance to me, on a leisurely trip to Egypt, staying at a nice hotel with a view of the Pyramids.
While the beautiful people around me were doing their best to weather a recession … there I was, acting like an ungrateful buffoon.
Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements smacked me in the face with wisdom.
Specifically the second agreement, “Don’t Take Anything Personally."
At first, it sounds ridiculous.
Then you think of the “asshole” hounding you for money … and realize he’s working his butt off in a dying industry … with a broken arm he can’t get fixed.
It’s never personal.
"Whatever people do, feel, think, or say, don’t take it personally. If they tell you how wonderful you are, they are not saying that because of you. You know you are wonderful. It is not necessary to believe other people who tell you that you are wonderful. Don’t take anything personally.
Even if someone got a gun and shot you in the head, it was nothing personal.”
Even if someone steals your middle seat.
Now, I’m not saying not to stand up for yourself.
I’m not saying that if someone tries to steal something from you, you shouldn’t take it back or call the authorities.
What I’m saying is: On a full plane, someone always has to sit in the middle seat. 33% of passengers on a typical plane, in fact.
It reminds me of Ryan Holiday’s rule that you should never recline your seat on an airplane.
"But reclining your seat on a plane is comfort at the cost to someone else. It’s a thing that the vast majority of people do not like having done to them (and here’s a question: Would you prefer the person in front of you recline or not recline their seat? It’s an easy answer), that comes at a minimal cost to you, and therefore we should commit to not doing it.
It’s really that simple.
So stop. Please.
If you don’t, some hero might slap you. "
You don’t have to give your seat up. Hell, Egypt is probably the only time I’ve done it. I’m no saint. But eventually, you’re gonna have to sit in the middle.
It will be your turn, and you’ll have three choices.
- Steal someone else’s seat.
- Stew silently in anger and have a miserable flight.
- Smile, because your sitting there means someone else doesn’t have to.
Number three is the Tao of the Middle Seat.
This isn’t just about airplanes.
Whenever you’re hit with some minor annoyance — whether it’s being assigned the middle seat … your burger being overcooked ... or a poor Egyptian man with a shattered arm yelling at your to buy his ugly, plastic Pyramid … try to smile and assume the best.
It’s never personal.
It may feel like they’re slighting you … but perhaps that small win will be the thing that turns their day around. The thing that makes them realize that they, too, can subscribe to the Tao of the Middle Seat.
It’s never easy. A few times a day, I want to grab strangers by the neck, compress their bodies into footballs and punt them to Hippocamp.
But I try my best to harness the Tao Te Ching, as it’s explained in Stephen Mitchell’s translation:
“Lao Tzu’s central figure is a man or woman whose life is in perfect harmony with the way things are. This is not an idea; it is a reality; I have seen it.
There is a time for being ahead, a time for being behind; a time for being in motion, a time for being at rest; a time for being vigorous, a time for being exhausted; a time for being safe, a time for being in danger. The Master sees things as they are, without trying to control them.”
And a time for sitting in the middle seat, wearing a big, dumb smile.
98% of the time, I fail at this.
But that one moment on the plane in Egypt … instead of punting that old lady … I didn’t say a word.
As one of the most privileged people in the world (a white, male, straight American), I simply sat down, took a deep breath, and enjoyed a rare, five hours of minuscule sacrifice.
Embracing the middle seat is the least I can do. Literally.