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September 10, 2020

Where will you land if Everything Falls Apart?

The day before yesterday, my daughter in Southern California sent me a map of California covered with red dots, along with the poignant question, “It’s going to be all right, isn’t it, Mom?”

I wrote back and asked if the map was showing COVID-19 or extreme heat.

She wrote back and said, “Neither.” It was fire and smoke.

When, in my 77 years, could the map have referred to this many crises? She said the smoke was apocalyptic. The sun wasn’t visible. She’s making dark jokes about locusts and frogs dropping from the heavens.

I felt like crying all day, since I couldn’t guarantee that everything would indeed be all right. I don’t feel that safe myself.

So, my question is, how safe do you feel right now?

I’m in the process of revisiting the seven “Flying Lessons for Life” I wrote about some years ago, and #1 is “Know Where You’re Going to Land.” In the metaphor of aviation, this refers not to knowing your destination, but to knowing how to put the plane on the ground safely if the engine should fail. Part of the requirements for becoming a pilot is responding to emergencies with practiced maneuvers—rather than my preferred technique of whimpering all the way to my death.

In life, most of us have run inner fire drills, rehearsing what we would do if the “engine” were to give out in some way. Maybe you’d rely on your bank account, or your friends, or family, or partner, or job. But we’re currently being shown that all these are unreliable when life turns upside down.

So what is your safe landing place now, if things really do fall apart? I’m hoping you have one that can’t be taken away from you.

Viktor Frankl survived a concentration camp where his family all died. He credited his survival to finding something of meaning, regardless of what was happening around him. The power of finding meaning was so life-changing that he founded a branch of psychology known as logotherapy—the therapy of meaning.

Everything could be taken from him except his inner knowing, his ability to frame his own experience and to choose his focus. That ability to change the lens he was using was his power, his human gift—and it is ours too.

When I practiced emergency landings in flight training, my instructor would pull the power off at an unexpected moment, over a safe practice area, and I would be expected to go through my litany of procedures without freezing or having a panic attack. The first step would be to look around me and pick out the flattest, longest, most unobstructed place within gliding range—and head there.

One day, after I thought we were through with the simulations, I was flying us back to the airport with my sweaty shirt stuck to the seat back, thinking about an iced latte. On downwind—parallel to the runway—Clio pulled off the power. I froze. I mean, I could remember nothing. And when she asked me where I was planning to land, I had no clue. Fear blinded me to the big, long, concrete runway right next to me.

Has fear ever blinded you to the safe landing place you probably have right inside you? It’s easy to go blind when we’re terrified about the latest wildfire, or case of COVID-19, or fierce heatwave—or all three—and feel like we’ve entered some terrible Orwellian nightmare. Where is the safe landing place?

Debriefing in Clio’s office after my undeniable freeze, I protested tearily that I didn’t have it in me to be a pilot. She responded evenly that I was doing fine. It was all just a matter of practice.

I love the Sufi practice of remembrance. Just try putting your hand over your heart and becoming aware of it—both physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The miracle of it. The love and courage you carry. The faith in whatever you honor that is larger than you—nature, the cosmos, an angel, or God. When you remember, doesn’t fear at least soften?

We forget that if we return to just this present moment, we can usually reach that secret place inside the heart where all is well. We forget that at the very moment of our terror, we are probably afraid of losing something or someone we love. Which means at least we do love, even then.

On one hand, it’s hell, and on the other hand, heaven. We humans live in a state of paradox. If we’re going to choose heaven, we’d better practice making that choice, over and over.

The safe landing place inside doesn’t erase all there is to fear and dislike about the crises we’re experiencing. It’s just that for me, like Viktor Frankl, the saving grace is remembering that I have a choice about what I want to claim for my story of now. It’s just a matter of practice.

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Pamela Hale  |  Contribution: 6,225

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Editor: Catherine Monkman