Wee dawn. The airplane rages down the runway toward a Mojave Desert sunrise beckoning orange and purple and other colors of hope. To this day I retain a boyish fascination with aircraft, face plastered against the window, still astonished that metal can fly. The Boeing 737-700 series has 4 more feet of wing than its predecessor, ending in a dipsy-doodle spoiler. The lift is supernatural. When the pilot lifts the nose of this beast, the plane doesn’t so much climb as levitate. It nestles in the palm of God and rises like an express elevator.
Crosswinds swirl, and sublime transforms abruptly into an Old West stagecoach ride pulled by a team of 500 horses. I close my eyes, lean back, and deploy the mental tricks and breathing exercises they taught me at Fear of Flying years ago. It was a great course. My favorite part was the presentation by two pilots titled, “We Really Want to Live.”
You gotta love highly motivated airplane pilots.
My fear is a circus lion and I am the lion tamer, cracking my whip, shouting commands until, reluctantly, growling and snarling, my anxiety surrenders and sits, eyeing me, atop a four-legged stool.
I’m, what, a billion times more likely to die in a car crash than a plane crash, right? So why, when I crawl behind the wheel of my car, do I not feel afraid? Indeed, so confident am I driving a car that I afford myself the luxury of eating and driving, juggling CDs and driving, launching antagonistic diatribes against idiot drivers and driving, and yes, I confess, talking on my cell phone and driving. Texting and driving? I decline the question on advice of counsel, and because my mother will have my hide if she knows I text and drive.
The difference? When I’m driving, I am whatever combination of in control and working illusion of being in control. Those are my hands on the wheel. When I’m flying, I’m just another Vienna sausage stuffed inside a can hurling through the air at 38,000 feet. That is, I control nothing at all save my overhead light, fan and “ding” button.
We descend over the Rocky Mountains and into Denver. Not so much descend as fall down an escalator. Yee-haw.
It’s all a pregnant metaphor. I take control by giving up control. Choosing to step on this plane is an act of self-determination that surrenders self-determination. For a couple of hours, anyway, two pilots, anonymous air traffic controllers and airplane mechanics will determine things for me. At least all the things that matter.
Being here today will change my life forever. And I have no idea how. Really I don’t. But every now and then you take control by giving up control. You jump. You do the thing you can never undo. You say the thing you can never unsay. You let go of a safe place to which you can never return. You reach shamelessly and blindly into the universe for meaning and richness and joys knowing full well there is a more or less equal chance of stumbling over nemesis and pathos.
You are never more utterly yourself than when you pull the release lever for the tow rope on your glider. Then there is nothing but silence and wonder. You trust in something invisible — air — which will only help you if you are willing to fall into it. Move through it. Then and only then will it befriend you. Lift you.
Will you get to where you want to go? Maybe or maybe not. Maybe your “wanting” is a mere distraction. A triviality. Maybe the currents imagine places more beautiful than you can imagine. Maybe your glide will be bitterly brief, dull and uneventful. Maybe disastrous. But you won’t know until you pull the lever.
So pull the lever.
The most beautiful and profound human experiences cannot be accessed through striving, effort, exertion, grunting and grasping. Being born, being a mother or father, finding true vocation, healing, being reconciled, reconciling, great intimacy, friendship, great love, great sex, soul-shaking laughter, soul-cleansing tears — these things require us to surrender control.
We don’t live exceptional lives by force of will.
Touchdown. I make my exit. I’m in it now. I’ve pulled the lever for the tow rope. I have never been in control of less, certain of so little, nor been any freer and grateful than now.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling Wellness Center in Las Vegas and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at email@example.com.