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2013 Winter Issue 3 (February 1, 2013)

Urback: Flying Fearless

February 2, 2013
By Stuart Urback

I love flying.  Adore it, actually.  Going to the airport is like walking into an amusement park for me, which I’m pretty sure is not how most people feel at the thought of spending two-plus hours of their life in an airport.  According to Orson Welles, writer of the dissenting opinion, there are only two emotions a person experiences while flying: boredom and terror.   

For me flying is wonderful, an airplane wing is one of the ten most beautiful objects, and the act of flight itself is an almost sacred beauty.  But when anxiety started becoming a major factor in my life, I got to experience the other side of flying.  One of the interesting things about stress is that it is simultaneously more and less aware.  It becomes possible to focus on intimate details that you were never aware of, but it is impossible to focus on anything besides those things.  

I began to see how the beauty of the airport masked danger.  Apparently, being strapped to a multi-ton metallic object hurtling above a massive planetary body is not what humans were designed for.  The sheen of flying wore off and the fear crept in.  Flights became hours filled with waves of stress, panic, and weariness.  I would notice the small details, the slight shudder of the plane, the passenger that was lurking for a seemingly endless amount of time, or the baby screaming in the background.

Even as the stress took over my conscious thoughts, some of the beauty remained.  I would still catch my breath at the views, the takeoff, and the landing.  But the stress also transformed my relationship with the experience of flying.  I began to realize that being strapped to a massive metallic object, hanging between the heavens and death had its advantages.  Commercial air travel became an act of forced meditation.  Force and meditation are not words that tend to go together with one another but there it was.  Previously, my only experience with meditation was the fads and health material that recommended meditation as a stress-relief method.

While on a commercial airplane, meditation isn’t something you blithely choose to do because it might be a good idea.  Meditation is something you are forced to engage with to push out the other stressors: the screaming children, the annoying passengers, the turbulence, and the kid who keeps kicking the back of your seat.  And the fact that I was, rather forcibly, strapped to said hunk of metal, it restricted me from running away from the anxiety that often haunted me.  I couldn’t escape the waves of stress as they approached me.  I had to wait, brace myself, and maintain composure as they broke across me.  

Although it was shocking at the time, the waves would break around me and I would be left with the peace and beauty of flying that I had once had.  As with any journey, it came to an end with the slow descent to the airport, back into the world of signs and lines, rules and structures.  Flying helped me overcome my stress.  It didn’t cure it, but it significantly changed the way I thought about it.  

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