Responding Naturally

I was sitting in the plane waiting for take off.  Already my palms were slicked with sweat and my mind admitted its folly saying, “Yes your galvanic skin responses are working beautifully…”  And I told myself to notice the people around me who were calm (to all outward appearances).  I looked at the time that said “Time to Amsterdam” and felt my entire being freeze in my seat contemplating 6+ hours in a plane.  As the plane took off I mentally grappled with every technique I ever learned to allay anxiety.  What had I volunteered to do this for?!

However, in this first flight overseas it became apparent that after a certain point in the air my fears go away without my intervention, and I become accustomed to the sensation of being suspended above the Earth.  It was later that in one of these trips we had a horrendous crossing from England to Amsterdam.  The winds over the sea buffeted the plane as though it were a child’s ball tossed in the air only to be struck again.

And there were my palms sweating again.  Though my interior voice said, “When are you going to get over this!?” another voice answered, “If you did not have these reactions, if you felt nothing and could even control your feelings to the point that no fear or anxiety ever touched your life, you would be a monster rather than a human.”  I found that particular insight comforting to think about.  The nature of my humanity and of accepting my fears became the refuge I needed to find in order to let go (a bit) of those rending fears of flying.

I think a great deal about that process of acclimation which we seem to go through in circumstances which are invariably out of our comfort zones.  At a certain point through all the things in life that have stretched me I underwent a change: a place opened up where I was no longer afraid to breathe lest I breathe so hard that the plane would crash.  It was that way with divorce, losing my vocation, moving away from my son, finding my way through a new way of life, losing my father, losing my mother… Losing.  I have become as well acquainted with flying as I have been acquainted with losing over the years; well enough acquainted to know that at some point I’m going to be able to breathe again, even if I cannot hurry that moment on its way or rush my anxieties or grief to their conclusions.

It’s not a movement away from the grief, but it is a bit of help, there in the midst of those dark waters we tread fearing and shedding tears for what we cannot recover or hold on to any longer, to know that the time when we won’t be in that water draws closer with each second, each breath we take with our heads above the waves.   It makes it easier to go on treading.  There’s no replacing the strength that leeches out of the arms and legs, or warmth to take away the frigid quality of the water we’re in… No.  One can only accept such things, just as one must accept that you’ve paid for a seat on a plane so that you can be swiftly transported from one place to another in a flying metal cage, and that cage will be your fearful prison for a time, but that time will end.

I ran into an acquaintance at choir two weeks after we began and she asked how my summer was.  When I told her about my mom’s death she said, “Yes, but I get the vibe from you that you’re being strong about it.  I get a very grounded vibe from you.”  Somehow I always convey this impression and people mistake it for strength.  It may appear as strength, but I don’t know what strength feels like.  It doesn’t feel strong to cry feeling the soft Autumnal air on my cheeks wishing for my mother again so that I can smile at her.  It feels like emptiness, or like having freezing water poured on the soul to sit there and have those tiny (seemingly insignificant) realizations like, “I can’t ever ask my mother for a hug again.”

And yet, I remind myself now as I do in airplanes

If you couldn’t feel these things, you’d be a monster.

So I accept my tears and my sadness as things of this moment knowing that other moments will arrive when those feelings will not bear the presence they do now in my life, and it helps.  The day will come when I can move past this grieving, these feelings, this angst.  The time will arrive when it becomes easier (just as in the plane), when the thoughts of pain do not come so conspicuously into view.

I use this too when I have felt betrayed by others.  I have no solutions in terms of action for feeling betrayed since causing the other person harm to equal what I feel wouldn’t solve anything.  Oh sure.  I’m human (and part monster) and I can admit that the ideas cross my mind the same way a child acts on wanting to lash out at others when they’re hurting.  Some philosophic souls even justify acting on this citing the “natural” tendencies of man, as animal, to inflict harm on things that harm them.  However, I’m also a pet owner.  I treat my cats with gentleness.  If I accidentally step on them, they don’t bite me or retaliate.  I think that if I regularly beat them, I could ruin all the gentleness that has been my reward for treating them well, but what I am driving at is that I do not necessarily believe that retaliation is all that natural.  I think you can teach retaliation, and I think that many do teach it to such an extent that we, as humans, have come to believe in something that manifests as natural through a sheer amount of recurrence.  However, something that appears through a dint of numbers because of enculturalization cannot make it natural.

The first time you beat a child, they cry.  If you keep it up then, yes, eventually they’ll fight back.  Our natural response to pain is to feel it, but retaliation is for our preservation when our experiences have proven to us that we must respond lest our lives be forfeit.  At what point is it justifiable to make retaliation the automatic response to every instance of human-induced pain in our lives?  At what point does it solve our dilemmas with our fellow humans?  Therefore, I never wind up working my way into a successful chain of thought where I can justify being cruel in return.

Especially since I know that all I have to do is wait and the pain will disappear, I will acclimate and my supposedly natural needs to retaliate will be resolved.  Perhaps humanity’s true natural ability in the face of pain is to acclimate and survive.

It seems to me that it solves a lot more without inflicting more damage than has already been done.


~ by Rebecca Erickson on October 3, 2012.

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