Touching Grass in the Sky
Written on June 7, 2023
Posted on June 12, 2023
I recall my first flight ever. I was in fifth grade, flying alone from Amarillo, Texas to Aurora, Colorado.
I was anxious, because I’d seen plane crashes on shows and movies, as I wasn’t certain that was how I wanted to die. To ease an obviously nervous child who gripped tightly a blue stuffed dinosaur, a flight attendant pinned onto my shirt a pair of plastic airline wings.
That began the first of many flights I’d take throughout my lifetime. As a Marine, I’d fly to many destinations across the country and partially around the globe.
Still, I don’t remember being anxious or afraid of flying beyond my first experience. Perhaps my acceptance of the potential for catastrophe that manifested in adolescence afforded me an opportunity to enjoy most of my experience in the sky.
Rather than disturbing myself with irrational beliefs about how life must not abruptly end, it was likely that my loud snoring on many flights gave other passengers plenty of content over which they could disturb themselves with inflexible beliefs. Regarding others, I’ve enjoyed paying close attention to behavior exhibited by people when in airports and aboard planes.
Irate passengers, screaming babies, passive-aggressive flight attendants, smug pilots, and the occasional physical assault have all been available to my curious eyes. Likewise, I’ve witnessed acts of kindness, giggling children, affectionate embraces, joyous fliers, laughing passengers, and compassionate flight crews.
I recall prior to 9/11, when friends and family members would walk me to my departure gate at the airport. When missing a flight to Okinawa, Japan, I once spent the night sleeping on a row of seats in a Seattle, Washington airport.
Though I’m prepared to expire whenever that time may come, I’ve thankfully never been involved in any serious accidents involving airplanes. However, having worked on a flight line aboard Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, San Diego, California, I’ve seen the aftermath of a fatal airplane crash.
As well, having worked near an airport in Amarillo, I was acutely aware of a “broken arrow” incident during which a military aircraft pilot reportedly landed a jet at a civilian terminal with nuclear ordnance attached. All sorts of things have occurred when reflecting upon my airport experience.
Currently, I’m drafting this entry from an airport in Dallas, Texas. I look around and see people reading, chatting with one another, watching content on their smartphones, people-watching, eating, tending to small children, approaching their respective gates, sleeping, and one individual sitting next to me who just used the word “accoutrements” when offering her acquaintance breakfast items from an airport fast food eatery.
All the while, it occurs to me that some of these people may be terrified or anxious. Have you ever stopped to think about what it is that causes such a reaction?
I suppose it’s tempting to perhaps instinctively say, “Well, some people are afraid of flying.” For the particularly astute reader, one may quip, “It isn’t the flight that people fear; it’s the sudden impact of a crash which causes terror.”
Considering an answer to the posed question, I use a Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) perspective. Rather than thinking in Action-Consequence (A-C) connection terms, I understand the Belief-Consequence (B-C) connection. This is an approach to getting better, rather than merely feeling better, illustrated by the ABC Model.
REBT uses the Stoic wisdom of philosopher Epictetus who suggested it isn’t what happens to us that leads to suffering, though what we tell ourselves which causes distress. To demonstrate this, consider the following example that uses an A-C connection:
John Doe is sitting in a Dallas airport (Action) and he’s terrified, his heart races while sweat coats his palms, and his legs are rapidly shaking (Consequence). Does sitting in an airport cause John’s reaction?
If so, how come other people aren’t are seemingly relaxed? It isn’t as though there’s a nerve agent present in John’s immediate vicinity, as he’s somehow uniquely impacted by fear-inducing exposure.
Could there be another explanation for John’s emotion, bodily sensations, and behavior—other than an A-C connection? Are you willing to entertain that what John Believes about his pending flight is the mechanism which creates his Consequence? Let us now examine the B-C connection:
Action - John Doe is sitting in a Dallas airport.
Belief - John assumes, “I must be safe on this flight, because I can’t stand the thought of dying!”
Consequence - Because of his unhelpful belief, John is terrified, his heart races while sweat coats his palms, and his legs are rapidly shaking.
The Action and Consequence didn’t change in either example. Moreover, it wasn’t the event that led to John’s reaction.
Indeed, it was what John Believed about the Action that caused his Consequence. Since John created his uncomfortable experience, it is John who can alter the outcome he manifested.
With few exceptions, we rarely can control or influence Actions to which we remain subject. However, we can alter the Consequences we create and this may be done by Disputing the Beliefs we maintain.
Still, there’s another REBT technique John can use to reduce suffering. This one relates to unconditional acceptance.
These rigid requirements also come in other varieties. John could declare, “I better not die, people have to make me comfortable, and the world doesn’t need to be as unsafe as it is.”
When using inflexible demands towards ourselves, others, and life, the conditions we maintain don’t necessarily require detailed challenging in a Socratic manner. Rather, a shorter path to success exists in the form of accepting what is without demanding that things ought to be another way. This is akin to David Hume’s is-ought problem.
When accepting what simply is, it’s important to remember that no condition is necessary. For instance, suppose John inflexibly tells himself, “I will only accept this flight if there is no turbulence.”
What then happens if John experiences a bumpy plane ride? With his condition having been violated, John will self-disturb—likely manifesting in a full blown panic episode.
However, suppose John uses unconditional life acceptance (ULA)—admitting the universal truth that suggests he has zero control over most things in life, to include weather patterns. John could then flexibly reason, “While I’d prefer to have a smooth flight, there’s no such guarantee, so I can tolerate a bumpy flight.”
I imagine someone reading this and pushing back on ULA. Some skeptical reader may retort, “Deric, people do die in plane crashes, you know? Isn’t persuading people to accept a miserable end to life kinda something mental health professionals aren’t supposed to do? Rather, isn’t it your job to help John feel better about flying?”
One key distinction about REBT practitioners is that we’re trained not to help people feel better, thought to help them get better. Sure, I could lie to John by endorsing the illusion of safety and validating his self-disturbed emotions.
Undoubtedly, a surprising number of non-REBT psychotherapists provide exactly this sort of “care.” Of course, I’m unconvinced of just how caring it is to collude with someone’s delusions while keeping the person ensnared in emotional disturbance and behavioral discord.
While I do aim to persuasively offer remedies to the people I serve, by inviting them to challenge intolerance to stress and unconditionally accept reality rather than idealism, I tend not to shy away from existentialist practice, as well. The world isn’t a safe place and none of us are getting out of here alive.
I don’t find these truisms to be worrisome. As well, I suspect that if you do, it is your Belief about what I’ve stated—and not the statement itself—that leads to an unwanted Consequence.
Presuming the reader understands what I’ve written thus far, I now return to my scheduled trip. As I write, I’m heading from Bat City (Austin, Texas) to Bomb City (Amarillo) to see my friend “Jammies” and promote my psychotherapeutic practice while there.
No longer sitting in the airport, I’m in the sky while heading to touch grass. The plane is shaking as I type, I’m a bit tired from having awoken too early, and throughout the cabin I can hear faint whispers from other passengers.
Currently, I’m altogether at peace with myself, others, and life as a whole. Though not immune to irrational beliefs, I’m well-suited to Dispute my assumptions and accept my circumstances.
How about you, dear reader, what is the experience of air travel like for you? Do you self-disturb in regards to turbulence, crying children, or snoring passengers?
Do the Beliefs you maintain about flying cause unpleasant emotions, bodily sensations, or behavior? If so, would you like to know more about how to address these unhelpful self-narratives? I may be able to help.
If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.
As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.
At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!
Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW
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