"Life is continually presenting us with surprises, many of them unpleasant. People who like to plan and manifest a certain rigidity do not as a rule tolerate change well. We all know those who are easily thrown off stride by the unexpected. This trait is frequently correlated with a high level of impatience and irritability. In some ways a lack of flexibility can be seen as a relatively minor fault, except it expresses a great deal about such values as optimism and tolerance. It can also produce an atmosphere of tension in the people closest to us.

"If it is true that 'life is what happens while we're making other plans,' finding ways of dealing with the unforeseen is helpful. Airports are good places to observe how people cope with unanticipated change. No one who has watched a long-suffering airline employee threatened with legal action by a disgruntled passenger can fail to be amazed at the inflexibility and sense of entitlement of some people. I always come away from observing one of these minidramas wondering how such a person would respond to really bad news.

"Watching rigidity in action can teach us a range of undesirable traits: poor control of anger, an unattractive tendency to bully others, an inflated sense of self, and a lack of empathy for other human beings trying to do their jobs. If the hotel doesn't have your reservation, it is going to be difficult to assign responsibility for the mistake; however, the fault is unlikely to reside with the desk clerk whom you are berating. If your steak is not done to your satisfaction, by all means send it back, but insulting the waitress is unnecessary. If the person you are with has a tendency to do any of these things, think how he or she is likely to treat your mistakes over the course of a long marriage.

"We want our partners to have a firm grasp on reality. In this case the reality is that life seldom goes exactly as planned. Things are lost, objects fall to the floor and break, children find ways to frustrate us. How we respond to these situations says a lot about us (not to mention the effect it has on the developing self-esteem of our kids). None of us wants to be hard to live with. Our capacity for flexibility has a lot to do with the way we are seen by others in a world of frequent frustration.