Thursday, January 8, 2009

On Fear and Flying

Is anything more counterintuitive than boarding a metal tube with 300 strangers and shooting yourself 30,000 feet in the air at 800 mph? Maybe sailing around the world in a single mast sailboat, or climbing to the top of Mt. Everest with only an apple, but not much else. I'm preparing to go to Kripalu this weekend to teach for a week on Writing Begins with the Breath. Kripalu is located in Lennox, Massachusetts. There will be snow (see pictures above of Kripalu in winter). There will be cold. Really cold. Last week it was cold in Prescott. It was 45. The folks at Kripalu have not been really helpful when it comes to winter fears. "Dress warmly!" they said. Whatever. What does that mean to a person who has spent her entire 40 years in a warm climate? It means wear socks. Did you know there are different kinds of socks that do different things? Gloves too. Did you know the cute ones (socks or gloves) don't really do anything? Yeah. Sigh. But I digress.

I am afraid to fly. I don't know when this started. I used to be excited to fly, but sometime in the last decade, I've gotten really skeptical about our ability to do this. Math is likely involved in the success of air travel. I want to be at Kripalu, but I don't want to fly to get there. All week I've been going through all the possible disaster scenarios. Chuckling bitterly at the ridiculousness of putting on a seatbelt only to die in flames upon impact. Wondering just what that little oxygen mask is capable of doing. I know flying is the safest way to travel (but I don't understand why.) Keith keeps saying to me, "NBA. Think about how often the NBA travels." I think about how much Barack traveled during the campaign. How much Clinton and Stacy travel for What Not to Wear. How many pilots and flight attendants have long careers flying five days a week. Doesn't matter. My teacher, Cain, says no one can die before their time. I'm still on the fence with that one.

In yoga tonight, I thought about (besides the fear of a fiery death) why I don't like to fly. The first thing that popped in my head was the lack of control over the aircraft. We were doing hip openers when I laughed at myself. Yes, I have no control over the aircraft. But I also have no control over my car (which feels so much safer to me, though I know the odds of an accident on the drive to Phoenix are greater than falling out of the sky). I have no control over anything. What I have when I drive is the illusion of control, and that illusion, at least for me, is stripped when I board an airplane. Flying makes me stare into that abyss while collectively agreeing that it is possible to travel in a tube safely at 30,000 feet. Of course, if I follow this thread, I have to recognize that the pilot has no control either, which is less than comforting, so I'll stop now and say that I am getting on the plane Saturday morning and I am flying into the great white north where apparently it's OK to put big flat snowshoes on your feet and go walking for fun. My contact at Kripalu told me cheerfully, "Make sure you make time for snowshoe hiking!" Ah, she doesn't know me. I don't make time for hiking on flat surfaces when it's 68-72 degrees. But she meant well, and I'll take pictures of people having "fun".

But, since I am getting on this plane, and it does run counter to my intuition, I thought I'd post a list of the things I will miss when I die (which hopefully will not be on an airplane in the next ten days).

Note to Cain: If I die this weekend and it is NOT my time, I'm coming back to haunt you something fierce.

When you think about what you'll miss, you naturally move into a place of gratitude for what you've experienced and what you have. I think that's a pretty fine place to be in when you board the metal tube. Here, in no particular order, is my list.

- honeysuckle
- Carolina pulled pork BBQ
- sleeping with cats
- watching a student have a breakthrough (or a breakdown, which usually leads to a breakthrough)
- listening to my characters
- kick ass really beautiful sentences
- the way my mother looks when she's asleep in front of the TV
- the sound of an acoustic guitar
- old-time gospel music sung by African-American soloists
- the blues
- autumn
- the smell of Keith's neck
- crying at the end of a novel
- discovering something new
- the full moon rise
- Wrightsville Beach
- the MUNI in San Francisco
- office supplies (especially pens and notebooks)
- coffee
- Warrior 2 pose
- sunflowers
- putting together awesome outfits!
- velvet
- the way my teeth feel under my tongue
- color!
- pine cones
- my Mac computer
- the New York Times Book Review
- touching -- human skin to human skin
- tomorrow


Capt Tom Bunn LCSW said...

Hi Laraine,

The problem with flying is this. We all get a certain amount of ability to calm ourselves. This ability is built inside us very early, and research I've looked at leads me to believe the ability to self-calm comes as a result of a mother who truly tunes into us during infancy and responds. That brings security, and the understanding that we can be responded to in the world in general.

In any case, the ability to get "reved up" is fully developed at birth, but the ability to self calm only BEGINS to develop at around eight to ten months. That is due to the fact that it is only then that the part of the brain that is the "computer" that does the calming develops at eight to ten months.

But it is like being given a computer with no software. You sort of download the software to run your "self-calming computer" from your mother - or from whomever your primary caregiver is.

Obviously mothers are different. They, themselves, may not have been given good "software". So a lot of us do not get as much ability to calm ourselves as we would like.

By the age to three, we have all the self-calming ability we are going to get. The game thereafter is to compensate or to develop strategies for dealing with uncertainties by using, like Linus, various security blankets.

Three common security blankets are control (to make sure things work out alright), reassurance (don't worry; your investment is secure), and escape (in case things don't go OK).

That helps on the ground. For example, when driving, we have control of the car, and control of the car gives us control of emotion. Never mind we don't control the other driver, which makes flying about a hundred times safer than driving; the feeling of control is more important for many people than the additional physical safety flying - without question - provides.

But people who fear flying do question it. It is really difficult to understand that our feelings and reality may be that different, when it comes to flying. Good research shows that 10.8 miles of driving is equal to the risk of a flight from New York to Tokyo!

If emotional safety is more important than physical safety, OK. But don't let your rationalization confuse the two. Flying IS physically safer by a factor of around one-hundred.

The reason flying is emotionally "unsafe" is this. When you board the plane, you give up your three security blankets. You don't control the plane. You don't have adequate reassurance. You can't escape. (At least you can't escape then, so you escape flying now by refusing to do it.)

Please have a look at the video I put together at because it explains how all this works. We really didn't understand nearly as much about how the brain works until the functional MRI was developed. That has made it possible for flying to FEEL as safe as it really is.

Laraine Herring said...

Wow, Tom. Thank you so much for posting this. I do "know" flying is safer, but it feels like I have to trick myself to believe it. I had a security blanket like Linus growing up. It's still in my house now in a closet. My mom tried to throw it away once for a "new" one ... Yeah, it was ugly! :-) Thank you again. I'm going to go watch the video now.
All best,

Fledgling said...

I would be damn upset if anything happened to you.

Thanks for sharing your fears...honor them and pay attention to them then put them in your pocket when you are flying. You can take them out and look at them again when you land.

My feelings of flying are different. I was always taught that flying was a way to freedom. When I sit still for hours at a time I don't feel free.

On the other hand flying has been a portal to new experiences...kind of like birth.

The people you will teach are honored to have you..Your gifts will make room for you...even in the trip itself--this is how I see it anyway...snowshoes or no snowshoes, you have the ability to light the lanterns that are ready.

I am learning and growing-- 45 days is the longest that I have ever been away from home alone. Good stuff.

I am constantly amazed at the people who talk to me--I can't think of a better gift--outside of being able to find my writing voice. The soldier's emotional life is consipated by design sometimes it takes a while for the medicine to work.

Bless you even in your fears

Bless a thing and it will bless you
Curse a thing and it will curse you
Bless something long enough and it will lose its power over you.

Grace and Peace
Write on.
Larry AKA Remaine Nameless