This I believe…
I believe in the power of fear. When I was an 18 year old flying home from a Christmas visit with my college roommate’s family, the plane hit an electrical storm somewhere over the Mid-Atlantic States. The lights dimmed, the plane rocked and bucked. Prior to that moment, it had never occurred to me to fear flying – I was young, eager to see and experience the world, and an airplane was nothing, if not a vehicle to the wider world. And yet, here I was, on a plane, completely alone, terrified. We approached Boston, but instead of landing, made a steep ascent at the last moment. The pilot’s voice floated through the cabin, telling us that the landing gear had been damaged in the storm, that we were to assume the crash position and that, out of fuel, he would attempt to land in the Boston Harbor. People around me screamed, sobbed, someone started praying. I hugged my legs, closed my eyes and my mind, usually so nimble and busy, became a blank, white landscape. The terror wiped out all thought, and I waited, numb, for what was next, not knowing how to conceptualize what might be next.
Somehow, despite his dire prediction of a watery landing, the pilot managed to land on the airstrip. How? I don’t know. The airport was dark when we got there, apparently shut down. My parents had been told that no flights would land, so they had returned to New Hampshire, and I found myself alone, with no resources. This was in the days before credit cards were issued to college students as a matter of course – and it was pre-cell phone as well. So I stood for a moment, already doubting that I’d had the experience I’d just (miraculously) survived, getting my bearings, looking for a pay phone, feeling more alone than I’d ever thought possible.
Most of the time, we avoid wading into our every-day fears. Will I keep this job? Be able to pay my mortgage? Will my daughter do well in school? Be confident and happy as she grows? Will I stay healthy? Will the people I love? And yet, it is really only when we appreciate the fear, its relentless return to the abyss, that we are fully engaged. The sense of reassurance, of control, are the illusion and each of us, from the moment we wake up, are on a solitary trip in a dimly lit plane whose landing is uncertain.
My 6 year old daughter asked me this spring if we could fly somewhere – “Please, Mama,” she begged, bright-eyed, clearly enthralled with the thought of gliding above the ground like a bird. And of course I had to say yes, because part of the immense power of fear lies in the strength it bestows upon those who overcome it.