This is a Ted Talk given by Ric Elias who was one of the survivors of the flight 1549 that crash-landed in the Hudson river January 2009. It attracted my attention for two reasons. First, I am doing more flying lately than I have ever done in the past, and I find that I have a growing fear of takeoffs and landings. Second, his honesty and courage about this experience and how he is trying to talk about it that really resonates with me and this work. I want to just share a few thoughts about this.
1. Flying. For the past few times that I have flown I have felt this intense dread just before the wheels touch down on the tarmac. Once, a few months ago the plane I was flying in did one of those rolling landings where each wheel touched the ground separately and I could easily imagine how the inertia and the velocity might send us skidding sideways, crashing into the ground and into a fiery ball of flame.
Needless to say, my knuckles were a little white. As with all things in my life right now, I try to be curious about what is going on. Why am I so scared? I have flown many times in my life, why be afraid now? I know that flying is statistical safer than driving. Heck, it is safer than taking a shower. What am I afraid of? After watching this video, I think I know what it is. After years of not really being present for my life, years of being asleep, I feel like I am finally waking up. When I pay attention to what is going through my mind as we are landing, it is basically, “Please God, I’m not ready. I have so much more to do.” I’m not exactly sure what that means, but it is helpful to hear his words and realize that the fear I am feeling is more of an existential one than physical. Dying is one thing. Realizing that I haven’t lived is another one entirely. I hope that we don’t all have to crash into the Hudson river to wake up and live our lives. I am grateful that Ric Elias is willing to share his experience so that maybe I won’t have to…
2. “Brace for Impact” Maybe there is something to this in our daily lives. When I work with people on being more comfortable in their own skin and on trusting their own voice, I find that there is this existential fear that blocks us from ourselves. It is as though many of us were always bracing for that impact, stiffening our bodies and hugging our knees, and hoping that if we close our eyes it will all be over soon. The problem is that the impact never comes the way we expect it. Or maybe it is that the fear of it coming is somehow worse than the actual impact?
And what does it mean to “brace” for an impact? A few years ago I was in an outdoor play where I had to fall down a hill at full speed. There were some rehearsals where I did this dozens of times, and I discovered something in the process that surprised me, but is probably obvious to anyone who has had any training in martial arts or gymnastics. The looser I kept my body, the easier it was. If I thought about how easily I could get hurt running full steam and tripping downhill, I stiffened up. If I just trusted that the ground would be there to meet me and that my body knew what to do, I kept loose and surprisingly pain free, even after multiple days of repeating the action.
So, what does this mean to me now? Well there are two things that come to mind. First, there are actual things that one can do to protect oneself from harm before an impact, physical or emotional. It helps to roll with it, stay loose and be aware of your surroundings. (This advice is as true for emotionally difficult moments as it is for physical ones.) Second, it pays to be curious about how often we are bracing for an impact that may never come. What good do I do every time I white-knuckle my seat as we are landing? What good comes of the worry that I put into how someone might receive what I have to say? What is the value added of closing our eyes in anticipation of the bad things that might happen in this world?
Maybe a better way of putting this is to “embrace the impact”? As Ric says in his talk, it wasn’t the dying that scared him, it was the idea that he wouldn’t ever see his kids grow up. What does it say if we survive our kids growing up only to find out that we had our eyes closed the whole time, fearful of what we might see?
Embrace the impact. I will try it the next time I am flying…