Shirley has been a flight attendant for 40 years.
When she was very young and new on the job, she was badly hurt in some turbulence. She was afraid to fly for a while after that experience.
One day a passenger noticed her fear and asked her about it. She admitted to being afraid and told him what had happened.
He spoke with compassion. It didn’t rattle him that his flight attendant was afraid to fly. He didn’t judge her.
He spoke kindly, one human to another. He seemed to be looking beyond her temporary thoughts and feelings and into her; the human her that was essentially the same as the human him.
And, he happened to work in the airline industry himself so he knew a few things about how planes and flight and turbulence work.
He likened turbulence in the sky to waves on the ocean. An airplane in turbulence was like a boat on the ocean hitting some waves. Seeing turbulence as “waves” in the sky made sense to Shirley. That felt better than the way she had been thinking about it.
Knowing a thing or two about how airplanes are made, he also told her that the plane was actually safer flying through the sky than it was sitting on the ground.
Shirley heard something in what he said. How he said it helped a lot too. She deeply saw, through the combination of his facts and his kindness, that she was safe. That her fear was unfounded, swirling, whirling thoughts that no one could blame her for having, but that was not an accurate or helpful lens through which to see things.
Shirley realized that she loved her career and that if she wanted to continue working as a flight attendant (which she did for another 30+ years), it would be to her benefit to see things in a new way and leave the fear behind.
After her conversation with the passenger, she was no longer afraid to fly.
When Shirley told me the story of losing her fear of flying, it struck me how it was a metaphor for the things she and I had been talking about more recently.
Things like fear and dissatisfaction with the aging process. Like a habit of hoarding some old objects that she identifies with herself and her youth. Like seeing herself as a bunch of things that aren’t her at all.
Her entire experience with aging and hoarding and misidentification is just like her fear of flying was. It feels really true and looks really true, but deep down she knows it isn’t true.
Just like science shows us that airplanes in the air are quite safe despite how it may appear, Shirley knows that is not her youth and that physical objects have no inherent meaning…despite how it may appear.
She knows she’s dialed into seeing things in a particular way, and that’s the only source of suffering. The way she’s seeing things feels limiting and heavy, but it is not The Truth. It’s simply the way she’s seeing things.
My role in her life is very much like the kind stranger who helped her with her fear of flying. Kindly, compassionately, patiently point people toward a more accurate understanding of how things work, and in that understanding watching them wake up and step away from what doesn’t fit.
Human to human. Looking beyond the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are inherently meaningless, and toward the health and resilience that is Shirley.
It is everyone, turbulence and all.