Above the Clouds
So here I was cruising at thirty-two thousand feet on a flight from Atlanta, Georgia to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My flight originally scheduled for this time yesterday was cancelled without notice. A day later, with the sun streaming through the windows of the business class cabin, it is going to take at least an extra half-hour because we have been re-routed. This trip will add an extra two hundred or so miles, but it will get us around weather that might not be conducive to safe, comfortable flying.
The pilot explains that our new plan “will take us north toward Ohio, … and then we will eventually approach our destination from the south-west…” instead of our usual swipe across the Delaware River. Small price to pay, I thought, I just want to get there…and in one piece. In the final analysis we will readily accept changes in our lives, and to our plans, when we realize that we have no viable alternative…and gladly so.
I have grown patient with these delays and re-routings from experience. One kinda has no choice but to adapt, if one intends to remain in a healthy state of mind. I bolster my acquired stoicism by telling myself “safety first”. Yesterday my flight was cancelled because of bad weather, and today I will get to my destination at least a half hour later…because of inclement weather. Ok. Safety first. And besides, what’s a half hour, I have no plans for the evening.
It has become quite interesting to stand by and observe fellow travelers get really angry about these cancellations and delays. To hear them tell it, they have important business that can’t wait. Some rant and rave, demonstrating that aura of self-importance that “indispensables” are known for; but to no avail. To such persons it matters not what the reason for the change is. Come hell or high water, the airline had better find a way to get them to their destination on time.
The seasoned agent behind the counter will patiently listen, knowing full well that there is not a damned thing that will be done to satisfy the demands of angry, disappointed clients. Oh hold on, maybe a free ticket to a destination of choice. Not! Just a new itinerary, a facile smirk, and a not so gracious “thanks for your patience and understanding”. “Now go back home, or go find a hotel room till tomorrow!”. Oh hold on, that last sentence is me thinking out loud. There is such a thing as “an act of God”; the consequences of which we are all expected to share.
I recline my seat just enough to maximize my comfort, without impinging on the space of the passenger behind me. I am always conscientious about that, unlike those who just recline as far as the seat allows. I must confess my annoyance with people who do that. The new Boeing 737-800 series aircraft shears the wind, eliciting an elongated monotonous whistle as it makes its way across the sunny skies over Pittsburgh. I take a number of slow deep breaths as I find myself reflecting on what I have called elsewhere “our fragile existentialism”.
It seems to me the idea that we are free and are therefore ultimately responsible for the choices we make, is a philosophical burden that few of us are prepared to assume. In a world in which it is sometimes convenient to “believe” that “what is to be will be”; we tend to cultivate a certain pathos around the reality that whatever is “to be” is up to us. I have come to believe this. Many of us declare a pre-determinism that assumes that our course in this life has been set, and there is nothing we can do about it. What is to be, will be. Period.
We can agree that there are some things we have little or no control over in our lives; but our fate and destiny are determined by the course that we ourselves set by each decision we make. There are people who will never set foot on an airplane because of their fear of flying. Like bungee jumping, and riding on the latest version of a wild roller coaster, they just wont do it. Our most awe-full phobias are fed by one decision after another not to do something…not to take those steps which will ultimately give us power over our irrationality.
In other contexts in our lives we parrot the dogma “practice makes perfect”, but we fail to see its implication for the “finishing” of ourselves with regards to our fears. Yes, the word “perfect” means “finished”, and it is an often stated fact that none of us are. We are impacted daily by the formative influences of the hands of experience. The perfection that life nudges us toward is a function of the steps we take to overcome our worries and our fears. Sometimes the nudges of reality are painful and unsettling, but they force us to look more clearly at the ground around our feet. They make us look again with more critical eyes at the assumptions in which we have anchored our expectations.
Our fears sabotage every aspect of our existence. They prevent one from asking for a deserved salary increase at the job one has done well for five, six, seven years. It is fear that causes an unhappy spouse not to declare to the world that his or her marriage is a miserable sham that should end. The desire to maintain the status quo at the expense of one’s fulfillment demands unreasonable self-sacrifice. We worry about outcomes that may never be because fear breeds irrationality. My existentialism says, if a thing is unreasonable it is wrong. There comes a moment when we are shaken by the need to right the ship of fear filled living.
My thoughts go by like wisps of cirrus clouds. A multitude of “what ifs” find their way in and out of my mind despite the protestations of my rationalism. I eventually surrender to the moment, recognizing the reality that there are some possibilities that lay on the heap of fate which are out of my control. My mind goes back to something that Cypher Raige says to his son Kitai in the movie After Earth. “Danger is very real. Fear is always a choice”.
I try for a moment to reconfigure the notion… Fear is a response to danger… . My reformulation sounds reasonable, it is congruent with what I have heard others conclude, but I chose to stick with Cypher Raige’s dogma…Fear is a choice. Something about this formulation engenders a sense of being in control. I identify with that. The thought appeals to something in the DNA of my personhood, so I let it soak in. It fleshes out my existentialism, fragile as it may be.
We are forty-five minutes from landing in Philadelphia according to the in-control, well seasoned, reassuring voice of our veteran captain. I hold my head up and briefly, look around. The passenger beside me has had a coca cola and five or six airplane size bottles of cognac over ice. He will be served as much as he can tolerate; drinks being free in business class. He seems in a good mood, gently bobbing his head up and down as he listens to music from his smartphone with his eyes closed. As for me, I have given up on my can of ginger ale. It has gone flat. I’d prefer some water anyway, but I am otherwise occupied, and not really thirsty.
The lady across the aisle to my right is typing away on her laptop, much like myself. I don’t think she is documenting her roaming thoughts though. She seems quite focused, maybe a businessperson catching up on work. Who knows, maybe a writer working on her next bestseller.
It has been a quiet day in business class. Often people meet others on these flights and engage in very audible exchanges about work or their other interests, or both. It can be particularly jarring when someone has had too much to drink, or when some guy is trying to impress the lady he is sitting beside whom he has just met, and with whom he must complete a certain social transaction before landing.