On fear and flying

I’m writing this blog entry on a plane from St. Louis to Detroit. By the time you read this, I’ll have copied and pasted it online, but right now it’s nearly 11 pm. We’re running late on our return flight home after a short but, as these definitions go, long weekend in St. Louis. I’m finding myself feeling a little anxious as the plane bumps along the clouds and it occurred to me that there’s comfort to be found in writing about it. I’ve actually been thinking a lot about fear, lately, since that’s really what my “anxiety” is. There was a time when I was so terrified of the idea of flying that I simply didn’t do it – probably from the time I was 15 or so until I was 26. Since returning to the friendly skies nearly 11 years ago now, I’ve had an interesting journey – if you’ll pardon the travel pun – when it comes to my fear. Generally speaking, it has ebbed as I have traveled more and more, as I have become used to both the notion and practice of air travel.

Also playing a significant role has been my evolving spirituality, if you will. For me that’s less about feeling a connection to a single higher deity than it is about developing a sense of my place in the world, my connection to the things around me, my acceptance of not being in control of everything and, frankly, my dwindling need to be in control of everything. Whether or not I believe in God is both boring and, really, neither here nor there.

Suffice it to say that a lot of experiences I’ve had in the past decade or so have helped me arrive at my own version of faith. After all, even in the direst of circumstances, I can’t deny that I have always been okay, that my needs have always been met – whether or not I realized it at the time. Or whether or not I agreed with that assessment at the time. It doesn’t mean that things haven’t been awful or difficult or scary or any of those negative things – just that I have always, always been okay despite all of that.

Over the years, as I quietly built my little "spirituality" sandcastle over in the corner, I’ve heard it said many times that fear is the absence of faith. There are times I agree with this statement and times when I’m not sure, but I think there’s truth in it, and that’s what has me thinking tonight, as my stomach does little hurdles when the plane bounces even a tad. Does my fear mean I don’t know that I’m going to be okay? Is that, in essence, what fear is? And why am I sometimes perfectly fine when flying and, at other times, prone to anxiety that feeds off itself and builds until I’m clutching Chris’ arm and making him tell me again and again that we are okay.

That last sentence would seem to suggest that, yes, fear must be the opposite of knowing that I’m going to be okay, since that’s what I’m asking Chris to tell me. (And by tell me, I really mean that he should be able to guarantee this which, as a man who is both wise and well-versed in air travel statistics, he feels pretty confident doing.) So why am I able to feel sometimes that I’ll be okay and other times that I’m not? Why does the very act of sitting here, laptop propped open and tapping away at the keys seem to help mitigate the effect of the turbulent air that’s shimmying the plane ever-so-slightly from side to side as we go through some cloud cover?

I know that it has something to do with how I feel physically. I’ve learned that if I’m tired (which I am) or if I’ve had too much caffeine (which I have), I’m prone to feelings of disquietude and jitteriness. And that those things suggest to me that I’m not okay and then that recognition turns on itself and I seem to hover on this very tenuous line between this side, on which our heroine will be okay and behave like a grown up, and this side, on which our heroine will give over entirely to the very physical sensations of fear and devolve into a blubbering, inconsolable mass certain of doom until the moment the wheels touch the tarmac at the other end.

In these circumstances, my fear presents itself to me like a temptation. Or maybe even like a fact, gnawing at me from the inside, aching for recognition, waving its arms and knowing that if I will just give it the nod, it can and will, in seconds, take over my entire being. As embarrassing as it is to admit this, my inner mantra in these situations very much relies on trying to keep fear at bay. “I will not give into fear,” I tell myself, over and over again, interspersed with, “I’m okay right now.” Believe me, I’m as embarrassed to admit that as you are for me in reading it. But while I’m at it, I might as well note that it doesn’t always work very well, largely because I consider myself a pretty unreliable narrator. I hear these things in my head, in my own voice, and some other part of me thinks, “That’s rich, coming from you. You’re a wreck!”

I’ve tried very hard to dissect my fear of flying – or, more accurately, my sometimes-fear-of-bouncing-a-lot-while-flying because it seems to me that it’s something that should improve consistently on an upward trajectory. The more I fly, the more I land safely, the less fear should even be an option for me in these circumstances. I should know better. Would that it were so easy. When fear takes over, what I know has little bearing on the panic party taking place in my brain. I’m not absent faith – just faith that I’ll be okay. I seem to have a lot of faith that I won’t. What’s that about? It’s all so, so hard to say. All I know is that now we’re much closer to Detroit and even if that means it’s been a long, long blog entry for you, my gentle reader, it’s been immensely soothing for me.