Like allergies, paranoia tricks our human bodies into hyper-reaction. Sometimes it even overrides legitimate threats. Take the recent decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement. Climate change is scary, but for some reason I’m just not as scared of climate change as I am of getting on an airplane–at least not in the muscle-clenching, hyperventilating, sweaty-palms sort of way. There’s not much gut-level alarming about the numbers and graphs of weather patterns and climate data. There’s no footage where we can watch climate change crash into a building and kill thousands of people. Yesterday Trump held up his tiny “squish your head” fingers to illustrate what little impact he thinks the Paris Agreement would have. Let’s disregard for a moment how he based his statement on a drastic misinterpretation of an MIT study’s findings (their words, not mine). What those fingers really represent is the minimization of imagination, the dismissal of reason, and the fear of what it takes to make a better world. Change is scary, hard, and full of risks. But it’s easy to throw out politically and financially motivated assertions about abstractions. Glossing over scientific truths that don’t connect viscerally with our intuition is the counterpoint to how our fears are exploited and manhandled by bastards with a lust for power, money, and empire. However you feel about the Paris agreement, this dropout was based on fear… fear of changing industry, fear of competition in the energy market, fear of short term losses, fear of sacrifice for the greater good, fear of unfamiliar and creative solutions. Ironically enough, fear of so much even conservative America stands for. Of course, you could argue the agreement itself had a basis in fear, but a fear based on reason, evidence, and a virtual consensus carries far more weight than the marginal fear of being taken advantage of. Yes, that’s right, one of the main justifications for ditching a vast, multi-national humanitarian partnership is the fear that “they’re laughing at us.” Is there even a more textbook paranoid phrase? Take it from a genuine paranoiac.
I’m scared to death of flying.
I don’t usually talk about my fear because according to the batshit crazy voice in my head the more I talk about it the more likely the worst case scenario will become a reality.
Here’s an actual thought I had yesterday, while waiting for my plane: If you post about your fear online, your plane will definitely crash.
I think jinx is the word. The irrational belief that a facebook post can bring down an airplane. And it just gets weirder.
Recent events have convinced me that the chorus of irrationality singing songs of paranoia in our heads needs to be addressed. Everyone has the right to be superstitious, or religious, or live with whatever magical thinking helps them sleep at night. The problem is when this right infringes on the freedom of others, when it influences policy and paves the way to dire consequences. Or when an irrational fear forces us to make stupid decisions.
My terror of getting in an airplane kept me grounded for over 10 years after a horrible flight experience on the way back from India to the US in 1999. Since then I’ve taken 36+ hour train rides and 20+ hour bus rides JUST to avoid a few hours in the air. This hasn’t always been a bad thing. It often allowed me to see corners and pockets of the world I would have missed. I could go on and on about the romantic and experiential value of overland travel, and while there may be truth in it, I have to admit it all started from fear.
And for a decade I allowed this fear to paralyze me and prevent me from doing what I knew I desperately wanted and needed to do: get out into the rest of the world and dig my teeth in deep.
Here’s a brief description of a little of what goes on inside my brain when I sit down to plan a trip:
1) I try to find out if there is alternate transportation.
2) I try to convince myself that I really don’t want to do the thing I want to do.
3) I check the price, the date/time of departure, and the flight number. I then compare those numbers to certain superstitious numbers my personal brain associates with death and bad juju. If the numbers feel wrong, I might change my plans. I might not take the trip at all.
4) I endure endless lecturing from the bastard in my brain about how, okay fine death by airplane is actually statistically extremely rare but it does happen sometimes, so then I tell myself the story about how my plane is the one out of a zillion that’s gonna go down. These stories are elaborate, dramatic, realistic, and terrifying…and because I’ve spent most my life training my mind to tell stories, they are extremely convincing.
I don’t think I need to convince anyone how dramatically fear has shaped the motives of Americans since 9-11. For a while I thought we were getting better. It isn’t that what we fear has no basis in reality. It’s more that the irrational aspects of the fear disproportionately impact our decisions.
Because see, we don’t always fear what is most likely to harm us. We fear what we don’t understand, and we fear what we can least control.
I’ve never been afraid of driving a car down the wild snowy highway at night, because I knew if something happened I would at least be able to grab the wheel and try to save myself. I knew I’d at least go down fighting. In a plane, if we go down it’s out of my hands. So I let my ego and obsession with control override statistical reality.
As a nation we aren’t really scared of big killers like heart disease, traffic accidents, and alcohol, because we think we have control over them. Instead, we’re scared of the marijuana and gangsters and shadow governments and heathens and terrorists… Terrorism by definition is deliberately designed to prey on our fear of the unknown and the unpredictable. And it works. It disproportionately messes with our heads and uses misdirection to force big power to make big mistakes.
Sometimes fear is a good thing. Sometimes fear keeps us alive. But it’s more often our downfall. Fear can drive us into the jaws of what we fear most. We’ve all heard FDR’s famous words. I’ve used the phrase “scared to death” since I was a child. Many possible deaths await us at the end of fear’s path: death of the spirit, death of desire, death of the imagination, death of potential.
About halfway through a flight I adapt and my panic starts to subside. When I land I always wonder what the hell I was so scared of. Our human default reads like this: react passionately and then fall asleep once the alarm bells fade away. It’s only natural to respond most strongly to whatever’s inside our personal bubble. Until I suffer the effects, or at least can get a visual on Youtube of someone else suffering the effects, it’s not my problem. But we don’t have to succumb to irrational fears at the expense of what really matters. We have rational and time tested tools to help us reach beyond our experience and intuition and determine what is threat and what is not, even if the answer flies in the face of our feelings.
I can’t help it. I’m scared of flying. I may never get over it. But I’m no longer allowing fear to stop me from going after my goals. I won’t be manipulated by my fears, and I refuse to allow the fear of death to keep me from living.