It’s not as easy for me to get on a plane as it once was. I don’t unequivocally love flying anymore. Why? Because there’s always a little bit of fear packed in my carry-on.
Fear: It is an emotion that I would like to feel less often. I imagine that if ever I’m given the ability to assess the sum total of my life, most of my regrets will be my fears and the experiences those fears held me back from.
When I was younger, I loved biking down hills. It was a thrill. Now I can’t purely enjoy the sensation of speed. There are also thoughts and worries. What if I loose control? What if I fall? What if I get hurt?
It is much the same way for me with travel. Flying used to be a delight. At every stage, I savored the experience: choosing my travel outfit (which almost always consisted of something new), packing, sitting in the airport watching other travellers and imagining their stories, the tiny silverware that came with my complimentary meal, the destination itself, and then the anticipation of returning to my home and its comforts.
Now travelling is excitement but also effort. Certain niceties are disappearing in coach (or come at a price now). Flying for five or more hours to the Caribbean? You may or may not get a complimentary meal or checked piece of luggage. Travelling with a companion? Some airlines will make you pay for the privilege of choosing your seat and ensuring that you’re not separated.
However, all of these headaches are nothing compared to the fear that travel now inspires. And the fear that I feel when flying grows a little bit bigger every time a flight doesn’t make it. My fear is not a pervasive or crippling fear, but it’s there. And flying in the face of that fear takes a certain amount of mental energy—personal pep talks and the like.
I worry about the implications for my family if my flight should meet a grim fate. I worry about the fear I’d feel if I knew we were going down. I see certain people get up and walk toward the front of the plane when the bathroom is in the back, and I wonder (worry) what he or she is up to.
Flying has been stripped of some of its luster. Turbulence is one thing, but now every step of the security process is just a reminder of what could go wrong. From taking off my shoes to not being allowed to bring a full-sized container of toothpaste, perfume, or shampoo in my carry-on to standing in that machine with my hands above my head, how can I not think (even if only for a minute) of why these screening processes are now necessary?
Statistics are still in favor of flying, but fear is rarely influenced by data. Fear gets its information from the news and other obsessive-compulsive forms of media. Fear clings to the qualitative. Fear sees magnitude before it sees probability.
Flying in the face of fear is difficult because my fear has found some solid ground. Terrorism continues to hit closer and closer to home. Tragic violence is being perpetrated everywhere (whether with knives, bombs, or guns). Things are not just exploding in far off places that I can only vaguely imagine on my mental map. They are happening in countries I’ve visited and love. They are happening in cities in which I’ve lived or slept. Innocent lives are being cut short just because they crossed paths with someone who is immersed in hatred or blinded by prejudice. You don’t have to be on a battlefield to be confronted with weapons of war. You can be in your office building, in the town square, or shopping in a mall.
So when my husband and I (along with a friend) made plans to visit Paris, first I was entirely excited. I had recently begun (again) trying to learn French, and preparing to travel to France gave me a renewed motivation to stick with my studies. And then certain events happened. Suddenly some of the sparkle on my anticipation began to dull. Then more events happened. And now it wasn’t just me and my doubts. Others were questioning the prudence of my plans to travel. In fact, the day before we left for Paris, as we sat in a restaurant in London, our waitress admitted that she’d cancelled plans to take her sister because she was too afraid now.
Instead of “have a great time” people told us “be safe”—as if I were considering other options. I tried my best to keep their fears from running rampant in my mind. Horrible things happen every day. They occur all over the world and will never be completely eliminated. If I stop doing things because I could get hurt (or worse), then I’ll have to spend the rest of my life at home (as if nothing bad ever happens in a house).
I can’t let fear hold me back from living life and having new experiences. Quite often fear is really just the admission that I’m not in control of everything (or anything, really). And sitting in my fear is not going to change that reality. Sometimes all fear does is rob a moment of its potential for joy. Sometimes fear is just a lie (or exaggeration) dressed to look like power or prudence. But the truth is, fear alone protects us from very little. Fear cannot prepare us for every worst-case scenario.
So, I set my fear aside. The three of us went to Paris, and we had a great time. We even sat in a certain café for dessert and coffee. Why? Because fear alone is not a reason to do anything (or nothing). Just because violence was visited on a location, doesn’t mean it’s any more dangerous there. I can’t treat places where something bad happened as if their condition is chronic or contagious.
The second tragedy of terrorism (after the loss of lives), is that it convinces some people that they aren’t safe anywhere. That isn’t quite true. There is a difference between admitting that bad things can happen anywhere and feeling like they will happen everywhere. Terror and fear are corrosive, but instructive forces. They erode the illusion that we are completely in control of our environment. And once you admit that you can’t isolate yourself from everything that could bring you harm, you begin to realize that you might as well go about living your life and doing what you want.
I could have let fear cancel my travel plans. I could have stayed home and felt safer. But I would have missed out on an amazing adventure: great food, lots of laughs, beautiful places, and speaking another language.
Certainly there is something to be said for prudence and foresight. Part of being an adult is an appreciation of risk and danger. And sure, I’m not rushing into any countries that are at war or experiencing civil unrest. But I’m also not going to let the fear implied by “what if” con me out of every experience. Fortunately I don’t just have fear; I have faith as well.
I want to travel—to set foot on as much of the world as I dare to see. There’s no point in harboring a fear of being killed if I’m too afraid to live.