Waxing Existential: Flying the friendly skies
I happen to be on a plane right now bound for New York. I’m trying to figure out what it is that I go through every time I choose to get on a plane. Flying is very necessary for me. I won’t stop doing it. I need to go visit my family and friends wherever they may be. I would rather be beamed to my destination, however. Somehow, being transformed into particles that get transferred from one location to another is less frightening to me. At least it’s almost instantaneous and there’s no security line. I’m waiting for that invention patiently. That, and the one that can make food and drink appear on command. Think, “Earl grey, hot.” But I digress.
This is not a new fear. It did not begin with watching those planes destroy the twin towers ten years ago, yet it was escalated. I have been afraid to fly for as long as I can remember.
I start having anxiety well in advance. It’s not something that just keeps me up the night before. I go over it and over it in my head. And, as I alluded to, I am a seasoned flyer. I scoff at travelers in the security line who are still thinking they can get away with bringing a full-size shampoo in their carry-on. Days before I travel, I go over and over the scene: What I need to do before I go, what I need to bring. What it’s going to be like taking off…
The existential dilemma of the inevitability of death enters my thoughts, and then the catastrophizing begins. I start with one “What if…” and I proceed with the others, like a cascade of darkness that descends upon me. I’m Eyeore, but not as cute. I’m Pigpen, only the cloud of dirt around me is negativity. I become a little girl, whining to my husband to give me guarantees. I begin my rituals and my bargaining with God—whomever or whatever God may be. I bring on-board all types of resources, like downloaded books about overcoming fear of flying, mellow, good-feeling music, and chick flicks. My clear plastic bag is stuffed to the gills with one-ounce bottles of calming elixirs like lavender oil, and chamomile tincture. I have a neck pillow, shawl, and cozy socks. I am as prepared as I can possibly be. I start my breathing exercises. I have psyched myself up. I remember what pilot friends of mine have told me in the past. They are triple prepared for anything that might happen, and Bernoulli’s Principle hasn’t changed, so… it’ll be fine.
Just an hour or so ago, when they announced that they were closing the doors and were ready to taxi to the runway, I felt my body and mind start to slip. Here it is: the anxiety I cannot escape from or try to calm. Here is the existential anxiety looking at me square in the face. Trapped? In here? For 5 ½ hours? No. Thanks anyway, but I don’t think so. I need to get off this plane now! What if I go insane? What if my heart stops? What if a bird flies into the engine? They do that sometimes, you know! What was I thinking when I reserved this flight anyway? It’s not just the inevitability of death that has every existential fiber in my being pulsating with desperation. No exit. There is no exit! (Sartre was on to something, wasn’t he?) Sure, they’re marked. Yes, I’ve identified the nearest one, but I can’t use it! There is no escape from my anxiety in the here and now. I’m not going to make it. It is not going to be fine. I’m all alone. No one knows me here. No one understands. The huge desire in me that needs control is actually controlling me at this point. No, the paradox is not lost on me.
I tell the flight attendant who’s passing through the cabin, “I’m a little anxious.” This is an understatement, to be sure, but I didn’t want to overwhelm her. Sometimes it works to reach out, sometimes it doesn’t. Once, I told an attendant that I “wasn’t doing too well…I’m not a good flyer…I get nervous…” He handed me a garbage bag. Yes, that’s what I needed, a garbage bag! That took all my fear away instantly. Today, the attendant was great; she was very reassuring and helpful. I started talking to the passengers next to me and they were nice as well. Being able to connect with others made a difference, and I think this gives a glimpse into something very elemental about humanistic psychology. They were strangers, certainly, and it was doubtful I would see them after disembarking, yet their kindness and presence was a comfort. So simple.
I could start breathing now, and contemplate why this happens to me EVERY TIME I FLY.
I wouldn’t call myself a control freak, but maybe no one who is would admit to it…hmm. It’s human to respond in some way to fear and not feeling safe, and although I don’t want to blog about why I feel unsafe at times in my life, I will share that when I don’t I like to have the semblance, albeit the illusion, of being in control. However, nowhere is it more obvious to me that I have absolutely no control when I am on an airplane.
I can accept that only have control of myself and my thoughts and actions, yet as I said, anxiety makes this seem null and void. So how can I let go? How can I just let go? Well, the answer is not just to switch anxiety over to calm, or trade in fear for courage. It’s not that easy, and not really effective in the long run. For example, an affirmation that invites me to think the opposite of what I am feeling in order to feel something different bypasses what can be useful and important, namely my experience. I am anxious. I don’t like flying. I may never like to fly, and that’s ok. I experience tremendously strong feelings of dread and fear. But here I am and I have to get through this, so I do need to calm down and get as comfortable as possible. I am affirming of what is really and truly going on, and that helps me to accept myself, and all my feelings, not just the positive ones. In finding some peace here, I am relinquishing some of my anxiety, and in turn I am letting go of some of my need to control. It’s enough to get me to New York.
-- Sibel Golden