Falling and Flying

I’ve heard that the fear of heights is, for some people, the fear of jumping. This idea speaks to me. When I stand on a high balcony, my primary concern is that I might jump. This is not from a desire to do self-harm, but more the ability to imagine what it would be like to jump and fall. There is temptation to do the forbidden and outrageous. Jumping requires crossing such a delicate line. A small twitch and I immediately wonder if I almost jumped. The sensations of almost-jumping and falling wash over me, wave after wave. Not surprisingly, these episodes inevitably end with an overwhelming need to go inside.

Related to a fear of heights is a fear of flying. Like when I stand on a high balcony, I have repeated sensations of falling when I fly in an airplane. In fact, I can’t sleep on an airplane without jerking awake, scrambling for a handhold and feeling certain that I’m falling from the air.

A fear of flying is more complicated for me that a fear of jumping, and adds the fear of a complete loss of control. If something went awry on an airplane, I would be unable to take the controls to save everyone. In almost every other facet of my life I feel I would have some measure of control in an emergency: grab the steering wheel, forage for food, build a shelter. When I was fourteen-years old, I flew a four-seater airplane for a moment. My dad was taking flying lessons and the flight instructor let me try. I steered the plane and decided to try to elevation controls which frightened the instructor and had me quickly sent into the back seat. This was certainly a thrilling experience but nothing that would allow me to pilot a jet. Flying is the ultimate in a loss of control. I am completely helpless on a plane, and I struggle with it and what it says about my personality.

I’ve played mind games with myself over the years in attempts to overcome my fear. I like traveling. More accurately, I like being places. I love driving long distances, but driving is land-locked. Flying makes the Earth smaller. Flying is a fear worth overcoming.

  • My first tactic involved imagining the plane on a very tall stick, like a plane-lollypop. As I was flying, I would visualize the stick – not air – under the airplane. Turbulence was rationalized as bumps on the ground. In my mind, the stick has spring to it as it rolled over the terrain, but mountains made for a bumpy plane-lollypop ride. My dedication to this fantasy took me through more years of flying than you would believe.
  • In the days that I was studying Lakota spirituality, I found a rock with an unmistakable, distinct image of a bird on it. I saw in the rock the reminder that birds trust in the wind and aren’t afraid to fly. I wore the rock in a pouch around my neck and took it out as I flew around the country to visit graduate schools. I would gaze at the strong, defiant hawk image on the rock that told me to trust in the wind. The imagery helped and enabled me to enjoy a few fear-free flying experiences.
  • I tried taking anti-anxiety medication when I flew but was never able to get the dosing correct. The concern of being improperly drugged while in an already stressful situation caused even more anxiety and this tactic was soon dropped.
  • Recently, I have taken the scientific approach. I’ve read about Lift and the physical basis of how planes fly. Now when I fly, I imagine air molecules coasting under or above the wings at different densities. Lift = big metal thing in the air with me inside.

My nephew is former pilot and an air traffic controller at a major airport. I occasionally ask him to explain to me why I shouldn’t feel afraid to fly. He explains that humans aren’t evolved to fly at 500 miles per hour, five miles above the Earth and so it feels unnatural. Flying doesn’t feel like something we should do, but it’s safe regardless of how we feel. I love this explanation. A rational reason my instincts fail when I fly. Sometimes my instincts are wrong and I fear something just because it doesn’t seem like something I’m meant to do. That doesn’t mean it’s unsafe to do or that I shouldn’t do it. He indicated that pilots remain calm in a crisis is because they’ve practiced countless landings in crazy scenarios on flight simulators. Pilots have seen pretty much any emergency that one could imagine. I tell myself it would be acceptable to hand over control to someone so experienced for a short while.

In addition to contemplating Lift, the best calming tactic I have now when I fly is my children. They take me outside of myself, pull me out of my swirling mind. I look at them and hold them. I feel that they are meant to be safe on the flight. And if they’re fine, then I’m fine too.

Most of the time, parents care for the child, but sometimes the child cares for the parent, just by being there.

Our instincts can fail us. Sometimes the most rational thing one can do is to give up control and trust the wind.

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