In fifth grade I walked home every day from my elementary school. I was a shy, anxious child and the throngs of kids let loose when the last bell rung easily overwhelmed me. Shouting, running, throwing books up in the air and catching them, they were releasing all their pent up energy from a day spent sitting impossibly still. Though their rowdiness was never really directed at me, I was perpetually nervous that it might combust into something more aggressive.
One day, it did. I didn’t see how it began but two boys got into a fight just ahead of me and the other kids, excited by the spectacle, began to gather round in an amped up mob of support for one or the other. Cars zoomed past on a busy road to my right, a fence blocked my left, and the rambunctious mob pulsed dead ahead. I felt trapped. Irrational fears bubbled up quickly. How will I pass? What if I can’t pass? What if they push me under the pile? I was frozen in place.
My neighbor, several years younger than me, came up to me, crying. “I’m scared,” she sniffed.
This is one of the most important moments of my life.
I wrapped my arm around her shoulder and told her, “It’s nothing, just stay close to the fence and we can squeeze by.” I made her turn to face the fence and hold my hand. We squeezed through past the crowd of cheering on lookers and in an instant were free on the other side of the sidewalk. How easy it was!
This morning I had an epiphany that brought me right back to that strange moment. I am on a plane headed to San Francisco for four days of indulgent book writing and date-having with my husband who is there for work. The thing is, the older I get, the more terrified I become of flying. (Since having children it has gotten exponentially worse.) Waiting for take-off I begin to feel those irrational fears bubbling up again. Will I get sick from the turbulence? Is the pilot drunk, stupid, tired, or otherwise flawed? Who will take care of my children if I die? Will my husband remarry and how long until that happens??
In my mind, I try replaying a timely fact I heard last weekend. If all the planes flying in and out of Chicago O’Hare airport were safe 99.9% of the time, there would be two crashes there per day. That is how good we are at air travel.
But logic has never had much luck overpowering fear.
In the row ahead of me are two young boys, softly arguing over rights to a Nintendo DS. Next to them is an elderly woman. Across the aisle sit their parents and younger sister.
I realize that if something bad were to happen, these parents will be out numbered. So I find myself identifying the weakest member of their group (the younger boy, I think) and then I imagine strapping on my oxygen mask, and leaning over the row to help him with his. I see myself poised in crash position for landing, then grabbing his tiny hand and scooping him up to my hip as we push our way through the crowded aisle and onto the safe and sun-drenched tarmac. In this worst-case scenario I am strong, quick, and decisive. There is no time to be afraid. Someone needs me.
Last week I watched the film, Miss Representation, and was struck by something Katie Couric said. To paraphrase: If women would spend the same amount of time helping a neighbor or volunteering at a charity that they spend worrying about being fat, I’m convinced we would solve all the world’s problems in a matter of months.
I’m certain no one who is engaged in the act of saving someone feels helpless or fat or ugly or stupid. Whatever ails you today, whether you are feeling weak, afraid, doubtful, fat, shy, dumb, overwhelmed, stuck, in debt, or confused… find someone who needs you and get to work. In no time, you will be flying over, and in spite of, your fears.