Gladly would I have spent a lifetime confined to the Lake Districts or the New England coast, traveling no further than Newport or Oxford once a year by carriage, hearing only of the Orient or the American West through the overwrought traveler's tales that found their way into my library, had I only been fortunate enough to be born in a time before the airplane was invented to blight mankind's existence. (The fact that violent, painful, and horrendous death was in all other respects far more prevalent in those same years did not affect my calculations -- I pled in a kind of bargain-making with the universe: I can handle anything you throw at me, honest -- bears, disease, a lack of anesthetic -- so long as I don't have to get on a plane. Or a boat, as it soon became. Or a subway car. Or...) It got so bad I even developed a most unexpected soft spot for America's one-of-a-kind lunatic crypto-fascist, Lyndon LaRouche, when I learned that one of his current cockamamie schemes involves building a global high-speed rail system linking all the continents. I could visit New Zealand without ever boarding a 747, or even leaving the soft touch of God's green Earth! This is just not playing fair when it comes to pandering to my niche voting bloc, the scaredy-cat constituency.
And it all happened so fast, and as if by the hand of another. I, who had flown as far as Tibet and Istanbul as a teenager and child, simply could not get on a plane again.
That's the story, at any rate. It's not exactly true, though perhaps it is "spiritually true" or something to that effect. In reality, I disliked flying for years before this happened, for the same reasons most people dislike flying. In flight, one is crowded between strangers, pressed and pressurized into a tiny bus-like structure that then hurls itself into the upper atmosphere using a device of mechanical propulsion that, being made by human hands, suffers from the inevitable fact of our mortal fallibility. One is not in control. One is subject to the schedule of the airport and the airline; one has to go where they want one to and do what they say. One is not important, or particularly noticed. The precious, beautiful, center-of-attention millennial golden child that perhaps one's environment has otherwise encouraged one to be is suddenly shown to a line and told to wait in it -- just like everyone else.
Nobody likes flying. I certainly never did. That's not what changed in 2012. What changed was the fact that, up until the summer of my twenty-second year, I was sufficiently persuaded that, regardless of my personal feelings in the matter, I still had to do it. I had no choice. Your physical location -- whether anchored to the Earth or suspended in the air -- isn't really left up to you when you're a child. Your body doesn't really belong to you until age 18, and then for several years only as a legal fiction. I, like many others in my late-blooming generation, did not truly slip the "mind-forged manacles" until the summer of 2012, the great months of emancipation -- the most miserable taste of freedom anyone's ever had -- when it finally occurred to me that, in fact, no matter what anyone said, I did not have to fly.
"But you need to," I was told, mostly by my parents. "There are so many important opportunities that are only available through flying. What if you have a job that requires travel? You clearly have to fly."
Except I don't. I'm a free man. I'm an adult. "I don't have to do nothing/ but eat, drink, stay black, and die," as Langston Hughes writes in "Necessity"-- and one of those four was not an option in my case. True, the speaker in the Hughes poem ends up confronting the livelihood problem that this formulation leaves out, to which my parents were also alluding, but leave that be for now. The point is that the fear of flying was for me -- in its own timorous, self-defeating, mouse-that-roared sort of way -- a kind of delayed adolescent rebellion. For less closeted souls than myself, this revolt might have taken more vivid and interesting forms -- drug use, sexual experimentation, etc. For me, by contrast, the great striking out of my will for independence and adulthood, the flaming up of my opposition to the benign parental government, took the form of being afraid of something. Putting it like that conveys in verbal form the same effect as the sound of a large balloon deflating, but it's the truth.
One of my earliest memories of being on an airplane, after all, is of my dad patiently explaining all the reasons not to be afraid of them. "They can land one of these things even if the engines break down," he said. And: "Turbulence is never dangerous. No plane has ever been knocked out of the sky by turbulence." And: "The wings on these planes are built so that they could bend to a ninety-degree angle and still not break." To this day, such truths remain some of the only things I know about aviation safety.
But at age twenty-two, one suddenly starts to wonder whether they really are truths after all. Sure, they may have gotten one through some rough patches in the open air, but suppose they were only good for that -- for being useful fictions -- and will turn out to be as illusory when it really counts as so many of the other things one believed as a child -- that the United States has fought on the good side of every war, say, or that one's moral beliefs are self-evident, or that one's own motives in life are selfless, or that America ended racism in 1964, if not in 1863. At twenty-two, one is enough of an adult to realize that all the things one used to believe only because they seemed necessary to happiness, in fact cannot be believed on this basis, because there is always that pesky question: but what if it isn't true. At twenty-two, one is adult enough to finally consider the possibility that Bertolt Brecht was right: "When the errors have been used up/ As our last companion, facing us/ Sits nothingness" (Hamburger trans.) But one is not yet adult enough to assume one's own responsibility in the social business of maintaining illusions, of shouldering the burden of insisting on that which is necessary to live. It's all lies! one is forever shouting at the world at age twenty-two, having not yet realized the series of lies that is logically necessary even to accuse another of dishonesty.
At twenty-two, though, I was still smashing idols in the temple. That soothing drawl that the flight attendant or captain adopts on the intercom, for one. "Wellllllll-we're-expecting-just-a-little-bit-of-in-flight-turbulence-here-won't-be-for-very-long" -- But what, sir, is your definition of "for very long"? And suppose that my definition and yours are not in agreement! I started telling myself that I refused to be duped, to be taken in. I was no longer one of the sheep, who could be lulled into servile placidity by false promises of hope and safety. I'll make up my own mind as to whether this is safe, damn it! I would no longer worship at your altar, Southwest; your chipperness and peanuts fail to move me!
Thus it was that at twenty-two, I liberated myself through fear. Fear was my Moses, my Spartacus. Fear gave me courage -- the courage to finally say, I don't have to fly. I have a choice! I have a choice about everything I do!
My first paragraph, however, should have already alerted you to the fact that fear is an untrustworthy emancipator. Like Rumpelstiltskin or Mephistopheles, he may help you out in a pinch, but he always comes back in the final scene to collect his wages (though, like both of the others, he can also be cheated of them by the cunning). Fear broke the chain that was binding me to the thought that I have to fly, I have no choice. But no sooner was I free of that one than I found that I had been bound in my sleep to another, no less onerous: I can't fly -- even if I want to -- it's too terrifying!
So, in the summer of my twenty-sixth year, I felt need of a new birth of freedom.
It started when my family concocted the scheme of taking a trip to Iceland. This was one of many invitations they had made to me over the past four years to join them for a collective outing that would require -- barring the fulfillment of my cargo ship fantasy -- at least some amount of time in the air. These invitations had become increasingly dutiful in tone, as the expectation that I might actually say yes gradually diminished. By this point, my family was tiptoeing around the subject of flying in my presence the way one would inch across the Hall of the Mountain King. The slumbering troll could awaken at the slightest false step, and this was how I saw it too. I had developed ever more "rules" for myself, an ever greater number of things that must not be allowed to happen, or else all would be lost forever. I couldn't fly for now, but I'd especially not be able to fly, I thought -- ever -- if people started talking about flying in my presence. Because that would be a trigger, and we all know how those work - it would plainly set me back by decades, render me gibbering and helpless at once and for all time; I'd simply never recover. (As the narrator of Sassoon's "Repression of War Experience" unhelpfully reminds all us trigger-phones, "it's been proved that soldiers don't go mad/ Unless they lose control of ugly thoughts/ That drive them out to jabber among the trees.")
But though they offered the Iceland invitation without, I believe, much hope that I'd take them up on it, I realized as soon as it was offered that I actually wanted to go. The fact that there was no pressure to do it made it seem almost possible that it could be done. And I found that I actually keenly missed our family vacations in foreign countries, both for the company of these people whom I love and for the chance to see the world. But just as I was ready again to march toward freedom, there was that shackle of fear to which I had unwittingly bound myself. Oh no -- I was finally ready to fly and found that I couldn't!
After a few nights of episodic sleep spent fruitlessly straining at the invisible fetter, I gave up and began entertaining the old questions again. How can I get out of this? How can I convince people not to make me fly? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I could get out of it quite easily, and with minimal cost. I knew the tickets could be refunded. I knew that my parents and sister would not stop loving me simply because I failed to go on the trip. I knew my relationship with them would survive. So I could just tell them I was not going to Iceland and that would be that. But this insight failed to fill me with the relief that it used to, in my twenty-two-year-old days -- because again, while I did not have to go to Iceland, I still wanted to. I had the freedom to skip out on the trip; but did I have the same freedom to take it -- or had I deprived myself of that permanently by my over-hasty pact with the fear-devil?
Suddenly, I felt the same kind of bittersweet longing for Iceland that had been filling me for the last four years every time I thought about certain parts of rural England that figured in literary or religious history or that otherwise touched me as Romantic -- Pendle Hill, say, or the sign marking the exact origin of the Thames. It stung me with the pain of mild grief that I was now barred from ever seeing these places, simply because I was captive to fear. Fear capered around me and laughed -- I own you now, it said -- you requested my services and this is your payment -- and I felt quite the miller's daughter trying to guess its name.
The legends all reassure us, however, as mentioned above, that the devil can be outwitted, the magic name guessed and the demon exorcised. You can marry the king, have the straw turned to gold, and keep the first-born -- you can have it all. So, still rather sleep-deprived, I set out to find a way to outfox the fear.
It occurred to me that the place to start was to figure out what I was actually afraid of (a name-the-demon-to-tame-the-demon kind of thing). What did I actually think was going to happen on the plane, and how could I convince myself in each instance either that it wouldn't happen, or that it wouldn't be so bad if it did?
This proved to be a false step. For the person with chronic anxiety, such list-making becomes a hopeless game -- something like plugging one hole in a rotted hull only to have ten more split through the floor due to the displaced pressure from the one you just managed to cover. There is an infinite regress of potential disaster scenarios in one's mind. If I am afraid that the engines will suddenly die on the plane in mid-flight, and I then read up a bit online and manage to convince myself that what my dad said to me as a child is true-- that the plane could land even in the unlikely event of a total engine failure across all four engines -- well, then I just move on from the engines and start worrying about the wings -- suppose they shear right off the plane while we're 30,000 feet above the Earth? I've never heard of this happening, and again, the internet assures me that airplanes are built to specifications that ensure this will almost certainly not come to pass -- again, as my dad once said -- but this is still less than the absolute certainty that the anxious person craves. It also doesn't do much good to explain to the anxious person that: sure, it's possible that you could die in an airplane crash, but you're so much more likely to die driving to work today on the highway or being trampled at a crowded concert. For such as us, this is only all the more reason to add concerts and highways to the growing list of forbidden places, alongside airplanes and freighters.
Having gotten this far, one realizes that the root of the problem is that the airline -- however good its safety record -- is not able to promise you categorically that you will not die. To solve the problem of my fear of flying, therefore, it occurred to me that I had to solve the problem of mortality itself. I had to no longer fear death, in order to get onboard an airplane.
It's not a problem that was invented by aircraft. Conquering the fear of death is a goal one must of course have encountered previously in reading the great sages -- something like the moral-philosophical equivalent of finding the philosopher's stone or squaring the circle. Yet one finds one tackles the effort with renewed vigor when there is a five-hour international flight in one's near future, and one is emotionally convinced that one will not survive it (because one might not survive it, in some sense of the word "might," and this to the anxious person is much the same as certainty of death). Ecclesiastes and the rest suddenly take on a new and special urgency in such a scenario. So how was it to be done, this acceptance of one's own mortality?
It might seem over-thorough to list the reasons why people are afraid of dying, but it's not an entirely unhelpful exercise. It occurred to me that I was afraid of dying for one because of the loss to myself it would entail -- the fact that all the things I was excited about doing at some point in my life -- being a crusading attorney, learning enough about economics to read Keynes's General Theory and actually understand it, seeing whether Jon Snow does in fact sit upon the iron throne -- will not happen if I die in a plane wreck on the way to Iceland. I'd even have to forego all those ordinary thoughts one has in the course of a week ("oh, I'll call that person back on Monday; oh I'll respond to that email Tuesday"), until, at least, I had safely returned from Iceland and knew that I would have some other Mondays and Tuesdays to come. I am reminded in thinking of this of a particular ghastly and heart-breaking moment in Stephen Crane's short-short story "Manacled," in which the narrator, an actor who has been left accidentally chained to a prop wall while a fire consumes the theater, thinks to himself as he is about to be engulfed that he will have to remind the prop people to make false chains next time-- forgetting for a moment that there won't be a next time -- and thoughts of this kind of incomprehensible finality -- the remorselessness of extinction -- fill me with an unbearable pity for the mortal condition that hurts far more than the fear. I start wildly casting around for a way out of the trap. I need to ensure that I will have next times to come, that I will have more Mondays and Tuesdays on which to put off my unsent emails. And if I can't ensure it, then at least I don't have to get on a flight that is almost certain in my mind to result in my death. As Sylvia Townsend Warner writes of Mr. Fortune, when he too is trapped in the presence of encroaching flames, "The struggle reminded him that he was a human being [...] a creature defenselessly sentient that must perish. [...] fear came on him, and self-pity, and with it a sort of pique." That is something like the course of my emotions when I get to feeling caged.
So that was one source of the fear of dying. I was also afraid at the thought of the pain my death would cause (I flatter myself) to people who know and care about me. And I was afraid (I really flatter myself) at the thought of all the presumably great work for humanity that I was meant to accomplish that would be left unfinished by my untimely demise. It's the old "when I have fears that I may cease to be" problem that besets the quietly megalomaniacal (who tend to write in their spare time).
So let's actually turn to Keats and the other wise ones, I thought -- if they're so clever -- and see what answer they have to give. I opened up my Keats.
When I have fears that I may cease to be, he starts.Uh huh, uh huh.
Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,
Before high pil`d books, in charact'ry, Hold like rich garners the full-ripen'd grain;Right, I hear you Keats, that's the trouble right there.
When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face, Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance, And feel that I may never live to trace Their shadows, with the magic hand of chanceCouldn't have said it better, Keats. But what are we to do about it? And here we are confronted with the terrible temptation of bathos. So many a promising poem laying out the essential trouble of human life has been spoiled by a tidy solution at the end. How is the poet to live up to the immensity of the task he has set himself, the vastness of the problem he has described so poignantly? It is artistically a better choice by far to attempt no solution -- to end, say, where Heine's "Morphine" does -- with the conclusion that it is "best of all never to have been born" -- but this would never do for me in my present circumstance, when what I needed was advice, not art.
Here's what Keats gives us:
—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think,
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.
Well, that wasn't working at all! I scarcely had time to achieve the mystical submersion of the ego in the immutable face of nature within the few weeks I had left before the flight. Besides, it is the living consciousness alone that is able to think and thereby achieve such self-transcending thoughts in the first place. I had to look elsewhere.
Soon everything I came across in the past few weeks' scattered reading was pressed into the service of solving this riddle. When Wordsworth's "Female Vagrant" crosses the Atlantic and mourns those killed in the storm along the way, she forebodingly declares that "soon such anguish must ensue, /Our hopes such harvest of affliction reap,/ That we the mercy of the waves should rue." Okay, great! So maybe I could work against my fear by reminding myself of all the suffering I would not have to endure nor live to see if my story ended, like these unfortunate shipmates of hers, somewhere in the dark and tempest-tossed Atlantic. I would never live to see a President Trump, for one. I'm not being entirely facetious when I say that this argument carried with me a certain weight -- but not enough.
Then there was the wealth of theories of personal immortality, none of which I've ever found persuasive or philosophically coherent. Next!
The real trouble with all these proffered solutions, however, was that I had asked the wrong question. I had gone searching for a way to accept my imminent death, and the sages have offered the best of what human wisdom has far come up with thus far on that score (and it's a pretty poor showing, isn't it?). But what I really wanted was not to make my peace with the slide into oblivion -- I will save my mysticism for my twilight years, thank you, and turn then to D. H. Lawrence's "The End, the Beginning" to see what wisdom can be gleaned from its lines. What I really wanted in the summer of my twenty-sixth year, though, was not this, but to be reassured that I would not in fact die on the way to Iceland or back -- that, in truth, I could take a simple airline flight the way millions have done before me and thousands do every day and come out of it unscathed, just like all the others.
I guess, then, that like Edna St. Vincent Millay, "I am not resigned" -- and surely all these other people who are able to fly -- surely my own self, prior to the age of twenty-two -- are not resigned either. I firmly expect they have not to a person achieved some rapturous unity with all being or the annihilation of the ego through a Buddhist awakening by the time they board each flight. Presumably they are not prepared to die, then-- yet somehow, they are prepared to fly. So how did they do it? How, how, have they achieved this extraordinary act of courage and will?
Except -- one knows how. Because one didn't really believe oneself would die either. And as soon as I am honest with myself, I know that I knew this too. If one actually had so little faith in airline safety, for one thing, one would spend far more time and energy worrying about all one's friends and family members who take trips routinely by means of mechanical flight. One would not surrender then so willingly to the bowls of the flying tube if one actually thought there was a statistically significant chance they would not emerge from it alive on the other side -- one would instead barricade one's father or mother or sister at the terminal door.
It is true that the anxious person may believe himself to be specially cursed. He may believe that dangers lie in wait for him alone that he knows will never harm the blessed non-anxious ones. The anxious person even thinks that his fear somehow empowers the dreaded outcome. The plane will disintegrate mid-flight precisely because I thought it might do so, he thinks, whereas if I had not been so afraid, if I had been calm like everyone else, it would have spared us all. See number 12 on Dr. Martin Seif's list of anxiety management techniques for dealing with this one. It turns out that the important thing here is to remember what one already knows -- that this whole idea is ridiculous, that one is, in fact -- regardless of one's internal anxiety levels -- safe on an airplane -- as safe (Seif?) as one can be in most places one finds oneself in the course of the day.
Seif, by the way, is the Obi Wan of this story. I will not plagiarize any more of his insights -- I got them for free from the PDFs he makes available on his website, so I owe him doubly, I feel -- first for helping me out by his words, and second for offering them without charge. Just check them out for yourself if you are struggling with this or a similar phobia and feel the need for some sound advice. And if you are not equally persuaded, I will simply have to fall back on the final line of defense in our therapeutic culture: "Hey, it worked for me!"
Let me just say that the trick for me involved realizing that there was no trick. As the immortal lines from Lawrence of Arabia have it: "Doesn't it hurt? Yes, but the trick is not minding that it hurts." It was a matter really of giving myself permission not to freak out. If all this sounds insufferably gnomic, let me add that the insights don't mean much anyways without those changes in behavior everyone's talking about.
Not that I have yet been to Iceland and back -- that happens in a couple weeks. But in preparation for the journey I asked my sister if she would be willing to join me for a round of self-guided ersatz exposure therapy -- starting with a helicopter and ferry ride and working my way up to "graduation," which was a day-trip to Baltimore involving a morning and an evening flight. It all happened as planned. We returned at one in the morning last night from Baltimore after our flight home was delayed for about four hours. Did I mention that I owe her big?
Returning to the airport after four years without stepping past the security line is a strangely Rip Van Winkle-esque experience, I must say. One finds oneself wondering what has changed while one was away. Do they still not allow liquids? (Correct -- but at least now you can use your cell phone while taxiing to the gate.) I felt too a degree of nostalgia I had not expected, even after being packed between two fellow passengers in the seldom-coveted middle seat. It is a unique and to me familiar world -- the world of the airport and airplane -- carrying with it the sticky, humid, and pleasant-feeling residue of all those times from childhood when I looked out over the lights in Tampa or Dallas as we were touching down and realized that I was about to be home, even though I had been someplace far away only a few hours before.
And yes -- there was, too, that feeling of freedom that people talk about -- the sense that there was now officially no geographic limit of the range of my mobility on this Earth (though I pray they never invent commercial space travel while I'm alive) -- and that I had done something -- and it didn't even feel that bad -- that I had spent four years telling myself could not possibly be done.
Now that I am able to fly again without much turmoil or incident, I feel as if I have closed the book, in a way, on my young adulthood's long experiment with mental illness. The dictum that "I will never set foot in an airplane again" was -- I think -- the last of the big "rules" that I had developed for myself from my time as a post-collegiate with an anxiety disorder (yet another one of those-- we are so many, so very many). Now I have violated that rule and have shattered the other tablets as well (apart from the prohibitions against, say, roller coasters and sky-diving, but I'm not sure I see a good reason for those ever to be a part of my life -- do you?).
After living for eight years or more with the shape-shifting symptoms of this disorder (first it was fear of vomiting, then it was fear of social embarrassment, then it was fear of flying and on and on), I've found, not that the adult world is actually a more comfortable place than it seems -- but that one doesn't have to expect comfort always. In some of Carrie Fisher's writings about her long experience with alcoholism and drug addiction, she writes that her core problem was that she had grown into adulthood believing that she was supposed to be happy all the time. (Indeed for many of us, this comes to be seen as a positive obligation in this society.) Once she realized that it is actually possible to accept a certain degree of unhappiness for the sake of her goals, the need to chemically anesthetize herself at all waking moments began to dissipate. In both our cases, this problem no doubt has a great deal to do with privilege. Those who recognize from a young age that the world was not designed to ensure anyone's total peace of mind at every instant -- was not, in fact, designed at all -- would not grow into adults who, so soon as they were legally emancipated, felt that now was the moment in which they could finally claim total happiness and would never set foot again in those places they found unreceptive to it.
So I didn't abolish discomfort in order to get on that plane. Lord knows I still hated being caught in turbulence on the flight out to Baltimore yesterday and resented greatly the four-hour wait in the airport on the way home, even if neither led me into a panic attack. I'm going to go on being uncomfortable and unhappy for a good part of every day. But the anxiety fades from me a bit more every time it happens, because I see that that's all it is. The fact that I'm uncomfortable is not a sign of impending breakdown or a heart attack or stroke; it's not the beginnings of some crescendo of pain that will push past the limits of all tolerability -- it's just discomfort, which is universal, and which I experienced even in my halcyon pre-anxiety days, lest we forget.
And I find that this realization actually makes me calmer than I was before I had ever thought of myself as a person with a disorder. The discomfort, when it comes, is therefore something I have grown to look forward to. It will prove to my anxiety once again that it has been afraid all this time of nothing, and thereby will break one more link in the chain. It's a kind of purging fire -- "redemptive suffering," as a fellow divinity school grad wryly put it to me when I explained all this. Dialectical behavioral therapy as the Way of the Cross.
Hear me out though. Peter Gay recounts -- in a biography I started but have not yet finished -- a story about Freud seeing William James at Clark University in Worcester. The two men met very close to the end of James' life, when he was battling serious heart disease. In the course of his and Freud's walking together, James suddenly stopped, clutched unexpectedly at his heart, and then calmly asked Freud to continue on without him until he had managed to weather the pain in his chest. Freud was reportedly astonished at James' evident Stoicism in the face of death.
What intrigues the reader of James's other work about this story, however, is that the author's abject terror with regard to his own mortality is one of the most striking features of the Varieties of Religious Experience -- etched especially vividly in the chapter on the "Sick Soul". The fact that he managed to persuade Dr. Freud that he had no fear of death comes as a great and almost incredible surprise.
Or maybe not so incredible. Perhaps, one likes to think, James needed to pass through his purging fire of anxiety in order to become an unusually calm and clear-headed older man. Perhaps the anxiety needed to assume exaggerated forms, so that he could eventually see that the world as it actually exists, while far from perfect, is indeed tolerable by comparison to his dark fantasies, and actually contains great possibilities for joy. The anxious person thus has the makings within her or him of the most placid sage; she or he is the one who is truly good in a crisis, because all their life has been a preparation for the crisis. As Samuel Butler puts it, in The Way of all Flesh: We, when we become old, "have so long found life to be an affair of being rather frightened than hurt that we have become like the people who live under Vesuvius, and chance it without much misgiving."
At the end of it, I'll be so calm on an airplane I could explain to a child sitting next to me:
"You know, the wings on these planes are built so that they could bend to a ninety-degree angle and still not break." And believe it.