Little lessons


Every now and then, we get little lessons. Who knows from where. But if we’re not paying attention, they may drift right by us—they’re moments we might not otherwise notice. But they’re a bit of wisdom when we need it most.

I was in St. Croix, and had to take a short flight from one island to another. This is a tiny archipelago of tropical islands, so of course I wasn’t expecting a jet. But when we walked onto the tarmac, I was shocked at the size of this plane. Ten passengers squeezed on board for an absolutely jam-packed flight—with me in the co-pilot seat, my knees against the metal casing of the nose and right in front of the windshield. 


Travel is a constant of my work. But the kind of travel I do—what most of us do—is compartmentalized in my brain from what’s really going on (being tens of thousands of feet high in the sky, moving at 600 miles per hour). I’m watching a movie. I’m ordering snacks and refreshments from the cart. I’m sending emails. My traveller’s perspective is not one of me, sitting in a plane. It’s me sitting in a chair. I’d never thought of the process before. I’d never had to, perhaps because I’d never had a windshield-view. 

The take-off was exciting and loud, with the propellers rumbling to propel us up. But go high enough and on most days, within a few seconds, you’ll penetrate the ceiling of clouds. And from the co-pilot seat, the clouds are a big deal. You venture from blue sky into a white expanse of completely disorienting nothingness—a three-dimensional space with no clear up or down.

When a diver goes deep enough into the ocean, they go from blue to black just as much as a pilot goes from blue to white. In both very hostile and non-human-friendly environments, we are blind. We can only exist there by fully trusting the machines that allow us to exist there. We have to trust the propeller, the oxygen tank. Our senses are no longer sufficient. We are completely out of our element.

I freaked out. I doubt the pilot picked up on my cold sweat, but I absolutely froze. He pushed a few buttons and then looked at me with a friendly but very everyday-routine kind of shrug before turning to his paperwork. Not only could he not see out the windshield, he wasn’t even trying.

IFR in between cloud layers in a Cessna 172 . — source

IFR in between cloud layers in a Cessna 172. —source


Here’s why. He knows IFR: Instrument Flight Rules.

He doesn’t need a blue sky, and he doesn’t need the windshield. Like a second language, he reads the panel and understands how that places him in his environment. He knows how to navigate. What is second nature to him absolute panic to me. This is what got me to thinking. What was making me so frightened?

This is no different than the flying I always do. It’s just smaller. I’m just seeing more of it. 

Thousands of people fly in little planes like this every day all around the world. Flying is safer than driving a car. Heck, it’s probably safer than using a crosswalk, and by a big margin.

As he did his paperwork, the pilot’s knee bumped against mine. Or maybe mine bumped against his, shaking like a leaf. I looked over at him. He yawned.

How can this be no big deal to him, but such a big deal to me?

This is when the little lesson took root in my brain. In a new environment or in changing conditions, we are mercilessly removed from what feels familiar and safe. We can no longer navigate. When our perspective changes—especially if that shift is unexpected, unfamiliar, or out of our control—we resist.

So let’s say you’re right up at a windshield. Things are unfolding in a way that feels disorienting, and even upsetting. Remember these two things:

  1. Of course you’re disoriented, even upset. That’s normal, in not-normal conditions.

  2. While you can’t just switch off those instincts, you can get better at giving over some trust: of the process, the people around you, the language you simply may not understand yet.

The pilot’s lackadaisical manner eventually calmed me down. He dug in his bag for a packed lunch.

Clearly, he does this run ten times a day.

The instrument panel makes perfect sense to him. He can see, no problem. 

The pilot and I share the exact same circumstance, but not the same point of view. He can see when I cannot. Are you in white clouds, like me? Or the pitch-black darkness of serious depth? We may not be able to help our instincts, but we can get better at practicing an appreciation for radically different points of view.