I have flight anxiety.
What’s that? Priests are not supposed to have anxiety? Well guess what? We do. Or to be more specific – this one does. I’m fine with the takeoff…..well actually, I don’t like anything about the experience. I do not like the security lines, I dislike being shoved into a miniature seat that makes me feel like I am sitting on the lap of a stranger. I am uncomfortable with surly flight attendants who treat me as if I am being sent to the principal’s office. I don’t like not being able to stretch or move about on a five hour flight and I am deeply suspicious of the cleanliness of the space I am occupying. And I shall not attempt to describe the experience of a man six foot three inches tall squeezing into what passes for a restroom. However, all of this is manageable compared to the sensation of the plane in turbulence.
I do not wish to be grounded. I don’t drink and cannot imagine a medication that would calm me during the flight and return me to normalcy immediately upon landing. So this brings me to the core of my problem: I hate turbulence. I know! I KNOW! I understand how the plane works and the pitching of the airliner in mid-air is merely a “bump in the road.” I have been educated in the knowledge that I am safe and that statistics demonstrate that I am in greater danger crossing the street than zipping across the heavens……but once that shuddering and dropping begins – I feel panic. Not distress. Not discomfort. PANIC!
So two weeks ago on a flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles we entered into some prolonged bumpy weather. I practiced my breathing. I refreshed my meditation. I began to pray the Rosary. But while all these tools brought a modicum of comfort, I knew I was inexorably slipping into a major anxiety attack. At some point in the middle of the pitching and praying it occurred to me that this feeling must be akin to being told one has inoperable cancer. This could be the exact way a parent feels when told their child is in danger. Free-falling. It’s terrifying to plunge into an uncontrollable situation. However, are we ever truly in authority of any circumstance? Is the mirage of control so seductive that we believe that it exists? After all, it only takes a bleak diagnosis, a negative performance review or extended turbulence to face the shattering realization that control is an illusion.
Perhaps we are free-falling all the time with only brief intervals of groundedness. I began to wonder: what if life is actually all about the free-fall and how we handle it? If life is intended to be a cosmic classroom for learning lessons and the most profound teaching comes from adversity, is it conceivable that we are meant to learn stability through repeated episodes of turbulence and the episodes of calm are merely re-fueling stations where we catch our breath before the next drop? Like a student of martial arts who learns to fall safely after being tossed into the air, what if the meaning of life is not comfort but an on-going exercise in stabilization in the midst of turmoil? What if, after a lifetime of turbulence, we finally learn there is nothing to be afraid of?