Ever since I was young, I’ve been afraid to fly.
It’s this thing that happens to me almost automatically. As we’re taking off, I feel my nervousness spike. My hands start to grip the seat and turn all sweaty. My heartbeat smashes like a jackhammer.
Each bump scares me. I grip harder. Each bit of turbulence causes me to imagine our plane crashing towards the ground. Every weird noise makes me jump.
This is a very physical fear. It’s not logical. I know all the stats about how safe planes are. How getting in a car is much more likely to leave you dead than getting on a plane.
I long ago gave up on that logic with myself. It’s not about that. It’s something deeper.
You might want to go into talking about phobias. Or maybe anxiety. Panic attacks?
But there’s a part of me, a part I’ve only recently come to believe is real, this part that knows that there’s something about flying in a plane that makes absolutely no sense.
There is something so bizarre about taking a small, limited human body, and shooting it up into the air. Our bodies were never designed to feel those speeds. And if any of us did, it was probably because we were hurtling to the ground to our deaths.
In other words, flying is a most inhuman activity. It’s bizarre. We go above the clouds. Like those things that seem so far away from us when we’re all just chilling down here. Those things. Up there.
And all this is happening in a (relatively) tiny tube of metal.
I guess that’s why I’m always amazed at the people around me when I’m having my panic attacks on the plane. Every now and then I’ll peek up, my heart still beating out of my chest, and I’ll notice that no one around me is freaking out. They’re reading. They’re chatting (or even laughing!). Some are sleeping, the lucky bastards.
This has always struck me as even more bizarre than my panic. In fact, anxiety seems like a much more logical response to taking off in a tiny metal tube into the sky, up in those clouds.
In my mind, if the world made any sense, most people would be freaking out when they were on a plane. They’d be all looking at each other and saying, “Oh my gosh, this is so bizarre.” Their eyes would be bugging out, and they’d be holding each other’s hands in sheer desperation.
But no. There they all sit. Reading Skymall.
There’s only one other time in my life that I have experienced this sort of panic and anxiety.
It’s when I think about death. Well, not just death. Everything. Nothing. Existence. Nothingness. Infinity. Finitude.
I used to stay up all night thinking about these things. I would let the thoughts roil and roil until I had the same reaction I have on the plane: my hands sweating, my heart beating hard, my eyes popping out.
And, you know, it’s funny. I have the same reaction to people in the world. Because they’re just going about their lives. They’re not all looking at each other and going, “OH MY GOSH! WHAT THE HELL?!”
Nope. The vast majority are the equivalent of people reading Skymall on the plane: just living their lives like everything is normal. Like all this makes sense.
This just makes no sense to me. It makes no sense to me that everyone in the world, billions of people, are able to get up, go about their days, and pretend that everything is normal. That it doesn’t drive them nuts that they could walk outside today, get hit by a car, and that would be it for their physical existence. Gone.
Or that it doesn’t drive them nuts, this idea that they even exist at all. Like, why doesn’t anyone say to themselves, “I’m this miracle, I exist, and I’m concious, and yet, here I am sitting on the toilet. And I spend a lot of my life doing this. That makes no sense.”
And lest you think religion has provided me with all the answers, Chassidic Judaism is very clear that although we know the meaning of life (To create a dwelling place for G-d down in this physical world), we have no idea why that’s the meaning of life (Well, it’s, like, what G-d wanted). The beauty of my religious path, I would argue, is that we accept that some of this just makes no sense (although we’ve been gifted a lot of the stuff that we wouldn’t be able to understand otherwise).
But that leaves me back to wondering about planes, death, and existence. And, more specifically, about how everyone just thinks these things are normal.
And I’ve come to realize in my life that the truth is, eventually I think of these things as normal too. I can’t live my life in a state of constant mind-blowedness.
If I want to fly regularly, I need to start thinking that the weird one is me for looking at everyone so calmly sitting in their seats. I’m the only one freaking out, and so I am nuts. And my job is to make flying normal. It’s simply the only way I’ll ever be able to fly.
(Note: I flew calmly for the first time in years on my latest trip, thanks to Xanax, new Southwest rules that allowed me to listen to Levi Robin as we took off, and calmly relaxing myself and my breathing).
Same with life. If I allowed myself to keep thinking the way I would at night, I would go nuts. I wouldn’t be able to function or leave the house.
So, I just kind of have to accept it. Go with it.
But the beauty of all this is that, thanks to that Chassidic perspective I mentioned, I’ve learned to keep a part of myself remembering that I’m right for thinking everything is insane and backwards. I’m the normal one. I’m the sane one. My insanity, my panic attacks, and anxiety, they all make sense in a world that is so impossible to comprehend from our limited perspectives.
And just as I can now reflect on how insane flying is while I’m on the ground, I know one day will come when I will be able to calmly reflect on the beautiful insanity that is life, existence, and death as well.