They say that if it’s worth the going, it’s worth the ride. I’m currently in Alaska, so in my case that means being here was worth the drive to Boston, the overnight in an overpriced park and fly hotel, moving with the two luggage racks full of baggage (including a box of live lobsters) in the airport plus my three year old nephew and his car seat and my physically disabled mother, not to mention10 hours of flying that included two take offs, two landings and a four hour drive out of Anchorage once we landed. Spelling it out like that makes it sound like a day (or two) from hell, but the reality was that at the end of it all, I was astonished how easy it was to get on a plane in the morning in Boston and step off one at the end of the day and be in Alaska, several thousand miles away. No big thing at all.
Which is not how it felt going into it. You see, I have a love/hate relationship with flying. I love to travel and get to new places, but I hate the physical sensation of take off, and the rabbit hole of fear that you go down if you let your mind ponder the fact that you are sitting 34,000 feet in the air in a tin can. Maybe that is a fun thought exercise for some people, for me, it is not. I never had any close calls or bad experiences on a plane, and have strong positive associations from various flights (the nearly empty plane that brought me back from my semester abroad in Ireland is one example, with entire rows of empty seats, I scampered around the plane looking out the windows at the Labrador coast after we crossed the Atlantic.
This was in pre 9-11 days, and I went up into the cockpit and hung out with the pilots for a bit, and learned that they have the best view, by far, on the plane…). I don’t know when my fear of flying started, but I know it followed a pattern of crescendos, the first flight would be ok, the next would be tense, the next would be unbearable, and then I would have to stop flying for a year or so and the pattern would start over. Then, flying just became too much. I still did it, because its hard to get a lot of places in this world (quickly at least) without flying there, but I did it under duress. I turned to Big Pharma for help, thinking a milligram or two of Ativan would help calm my nerves (when I told my mother I would be taking drugs when I flew, she exclaimed, in the post 9-11 world “But Sarah, you won’t be able to fight off the terrorists!” Thanks for that vote of confidence Mom!). It turns out, Ativan just makes me nauseus and stupid, no less afraid, but too dense, too spongy headed to get too upset most of the time. I used it, as a resource, as a token of control I could take of the situation, which gets to the heart of the matter with my fear of flying.
My fear of flying is all about control, and any psychiatrist, psychologist, therapist, or remotely thoughtful or observant person could have told you that. Up in the air, my life is utterly and completely in the hands of some one else. In reality this is no different than riding in a car some one else is driving, of going under anesthesia, but the stark physicality of your vulnerability high in the air is hard to deny.
My strategy has been to suffer incredible stress (I have been the passenger hunched over in their seat weeping during takeoff), medicate, distract as much as possible (word find anyone?), and avoid altogether, none of which are winning strategies.
This trip, I really wanted to start to deal with this fear. I figured this flight would be different, because at least if the plane went down, it would be taking most of my family as well as me with it. Comforting? No, but a different kind of tragic story than me lost in a plane crash on my own. But that wasn’t really it. I came to realize that my fear of flying was exposing a huge lack of integrity on my part. You see, I am a scientist, a biologist really and an observer of nature, and as such, there is no theme more central than the “circle of life”. Yes, a joke, ha ha, thats just the circle of life kids, but no, really not a joke. Everything dies, and everything is a resource for everything else. There’s a meme that has been circulating on the internet for a couple of years, the one about how you want a physicists to speak at your funeral, and it gets to the heart of this issue. All of the atoms that are of you at this moment, when you are done with them, they will continue to exist, to be incorporated into other plants and animals and into the air and soil, and even eventually rocks and water. That’s the circle of life. So if the plane crashes into the ocean, I will have the honor of feeding the zoo plankton, and small fish, and big fish, bottom feeders and scavengers. If we go down over the mid west, my atoms will make their way into the corn and soy and wheat of the American diet. I will be able to experience the circle of life in a way that the modern death industry prevents most of us in this country from doing. Do I really believe in the Circle of Life? Do I really believe the world view of my stated vocation and avocation? If I know this is how the world works, isn’t it a little absurd to think that the rules that apply to every other living thing on this planet don’t apply to me?
This space is about getting grounded and sane, in the face of the ungrounded and insane forces at work in the world. To me, there are few things as literally ungrounding as getting on a plane and flying across the country, or the world. By getting real about aligning what I believe in one part of my life, the most important, grounded, non crazy part, the part most rooted in the beauty of this world, with the brittle fear filled corner of my life, I think I am making steps towards making flying less unpleasant. We’ll see. We fly home tomorrow. I plan to still take the Ativan, but hopefully less of it. I’ll still focus all of my energy during take off on my word find book, and thank the Federal Aviation Agency that the rules have changed and I can listen to music during take off. I don’t want to leave this world and this work, not yet, but I’m not actually in charge of that. I never have been.