Collapse of a World

I'm struck by the similarity of the feelings of instability in the world now with how we Pan Am employees felt as our company began to fail.
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"After this, nothing happened."
(Plenty Coups, the last great chief of the Crow
Nation, on the disappearance of the buffalo)

On December 4th of this year, former Pan Am employees all over the world sadly acknowledged the twentieth anniversary of the death of their beloved company. And on December 21, they, along with the families and loved ones of the victims of Flight 103 that exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, will be remembering that sad day when their lives were forever changed. For Pan Am employees, that day 23 years ago has been called, "the day that the heart of Pan American died" (Gandt,1995).

As a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist for 25 years, and former Pan Am stewardess for 20 years before that, I'm struck by the similarity of the feelings of instability in the world now with how we Pan Am employees felt as our company began to fail. Americans appear now, as a society, to be in a new Age of Trauma, mirroring the collective trauma that Pan Am'ers endured for so many years. Nowadays, fears about the global economy, the environment, terrorism, loss of jobs, and the astonishing collapse of formerly stable companies has spread and touches everyone.

Just as years ago, we Pan Am employees were aghast at the prospect that the number one airline in the entire world -- second only in brand recognition to Coca Cola and first in almost every new achievement in aviation history -- could collapse. Everything else in the country seemed to be booming, and Americans hardly blinked when Pan Am went out of business in 1991.

So what does this all have to do with the Crow Indians and the disappearance of the buffalo? Jonathan Lear (2006) vividly describes how the world can lose its significance as a result of the collapse of a communal way of life, thus illustrating collective trauma on a cultural scale. At the turn of the 18th century, the Crow were a nomadic, hunting, warrior tribe. To survive, they had to be good at hunting buffalo and beavers, as well as protecting themselves against rival tribes.

Everything in tribal life was organized around hunting and war, but when the Crow were moved onto a reservation in the 1880s, hunting and war became impossible. Not only had their way of life come to an end, but they no longer had the concepts with which to understand themselves or the world. The concepts that shaped their identity -- what they intended to do, hoped for, and desired -- had gone out of existence. All that was left was a ghostlike existence that stood witness to the death of a way of life. The Crow world was shattered. No wonder a witness to this might say, "After this, nothing happened," because their whole framework of significance collapsed.

For those Americans who are now feeling the loss of their companies, jobs and way of life -- as well as their belief in the country as Number One -- there is simply no better contemporary example of how one's world can collapse than the Pan Am story. Americans seem to be feeling a growing dread that the ground is crumbling beneath their feet, which completely parallels the collapse of Pan Am. Let me explain.

One of Pan Am's jingles was, "Pan Am has a place of its own. You call it 'the world.' We call it 'home.'" Pan Am was the airline that explored the routes and opened up the globe to air travel. As employees, joining Pan Am meant that we were given access to that entire world, and we felt a sense of personal ownership of it. We all thought that Pan Am would forever be the world's most fabulous airline, just as we believed that America would forever be the world's number one superpower.

Moreover, within our unique Pan Am culture, we embraced difference regarding race, culture, background, and belief systems; in fact, the more exotic, the better! No matter where we came from, our lives became large and global, and working for Pan Am was a way of life -- never a job. And, like the Crow, we too were a nomadic tribe who lived with concepts that shaped our identity, as well as how we saw ourselves, our role and what we hoped to achieve.

When I refer to the Pan Am "world," two very different meanings emerge. One meaning of the world pertains to geography, and of course, this was very significant to our peripatetic lives. Globetrotting was our lifestyle, but very few of us ever got over the thrill of taking off on a brand-new adventure.

But there is an important other meaning to the word "world," and that refers to the context of human significance through which people make sense of their lives. Many Pan Am employees have described their relationship to the company as "a love story." Pan Am felt to us as if it had a living, breathing soul, and so the company's essence was much more than a merely practical world. It was a very emotional world, and Pan Am was much more than a mere company. A job with Pan Am was a passport to the world with unlimited horizons, and Pan Am employees shaped their lives around the framework of the Pan Am culture. Every trip was a "happening," that is, a meaningful event.

That Pan Am culture had its own special flavor. From the beginning, we were introduced into Pan Am as "family," strongly bonded and loyal to each other. We became deeply invested in helping our company be the best, and while some people outside our "family" saw that attitude as arrogance, we saw it as striving for excellence. We were trusted by the company to come up with creative solutions to problems as they emerged when we were far away from home, and were not expected to check in with headquarters anywhere.

Moreover, we had our own unique language and understandings, our own special knowledge of the world handed down over the generations from the world's most experienced travelers. We shared some of our special secrets with passengers, and kept some of them strictly for ourselves; for example, the best shopping bargains and the most unique little restaurants. We had each other's backs, and we never, ever told on each other. Like the Crow, we were a tribe with our own rituals and understandings, quite unlike the other tribes (airlines).

For many reasons, which I have discussed in other blogs, Pan Am had been struggling to survive for years, but in 1988 the company looked like it was going to make it. And then there was that horrible day, December 21, 1988, when Clipper Maid of the Seas was blown out of the skies, and 243 passengers, 16 crewmembers, and 11 people on the ground suffered a nightmarish death. The Pan Am world and Pan Am family were shattered, and many knew that the end was only a matter of time.

Like the Crow Indians when the buffalo died, Pan Am's passengers went away in droves and never came back. Overnight, many people didn't want to fly on an airline that was the prime target for terrorists. As Pan Am's route systems were sold to other airlines, some flight attendants and pilots decided to go to work for those airlines, in an attempt to preserve some security. The problem with that, however, was one of trying to blend very different cultures -- like melding the Crow and the Apache tribes together. The airlines all had their own way of doing things.

So for the most part, those displaced Pan Am personnel can be compared to the Crow when they were moved onto a reservation. Their world of significance in belonging to Pan Am was shattered. They lived now in a practical world, but not an emotional one -- in other words, their jobs became "just a job." They could still be out in the world of geography, but their world of emotional significance died with Pan Am. Going on a trip ceased to be a "happening," and trips that used to be rich in meaning in the Pan Am world, became mere events. The "tribe" scattered and settled into various "reservations," leaving many Pan Am employees disoriented and traumatized.

I write this as a cautionary tale for those of you who are losing your companies and your jobs (airlines and other companies), as well as your way of life. This experience can be deeply traumatic, leaving painful feelings in its wake -- depression, panic and dissociated states. The collapse of one's world is the essence of trauma.

In that case, the most important requirement for emotional well being is to have a place where your emotional pain can be held and understood. Former Pan Am'ers have been very wise. We have constant reunions, travel opportunities, websites and Facebook groups, as well as many newsletters -- in other words, a constant sharing of our joyful memories and our painful losses. We have found an emotional home for our tribe.

In conclusion, sadly, in tribute to our Pan Am family, I will list the names of our heroic crewmembers of Flight 103:

Captain: Jim MacQuarrie
First Officer: Raymond Ronald Wagner
Flight Engineer: Jerry Don Avritt

Mary Geraldine Murphy Milutin Velimirovich

Elizabeth Nichole Avoyne
Noelle Lydia Berti
Siv Ulla Engstrom
Stacie Denise Franklin
Paul Isaac Garret
Elke Etha Kuhne
Maria Nieves Larracoechea
Lilibeth Tobila Macalolooy
Jocelyn Reina
Myra Josephine Royal
Irja Syhnove Skabo


Skygods: The Fall of Pan Am, Robert Gandt
Trauma and Human Existence: Autobiographical, Psychoanalytic, and Philosophical Reflections, Robert D. Stolorow
Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, Jonathan Lear
World, Affectivity, Trauma: Heidegger and Post-CartesianPsychoanalysis, Robert D. Stolorow

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