If you're like me, perhaps you don't think of yourself as having a certifiable phobia of flying, yet you spend a good portion of every flight contemplating your own death.
If you're feeling particularly vulnerable, you may even imagine your way into possible death scenarios: What would it feel like to suddenly fall out of the sky? Would an exploding plane be painful? How would you respond to hijacking terrorists? On a better day, you might take the time to make peace with your fate: if today is meant to be the day you die, so be it. We all have to go sometime, and after all, you've had a good life.
The fact is that for even the most seasoned -- and rational-minded -- travelers, flying has the power to put us in touch with our own mortality. But the question is: does flying actually have anything to do with death? Or at least anything more to do with death than everything else in life?
The answer, in factual terms, is no. As many people already know, you are much less likely to die on a plane than in a car, a bus, a train, on a boat, or even on a bicycle. On any given day, many thousands of planes take off and land without a hitch, depositing millions of jittery travelers -- many of them harboring the illusion that they have just braved and cheated death -- safely to their destinations.
Yet we persist in gripping our armrests in terror every time the plane hits a bit of turbulence.
A hundred years ago, the British novelist E.M. Forster wrote in Howards End about the "motor" (i.e. the car) as a modern invention that challenged the faint of heart. The very practical character Henry Wilcox declares that, "The motor's come to stay. One must get about." Margaret Schlegel, more sensitive, gets nervous about the "chickens and children" that dash out in front of the car, and afterwards must "[recapture] the sense of space which the motor had tried to rob from her." She later reflects that this "sense of space... is the basis of all earthly beauty."
Forster himself lived long enough to see the motor car, and even air travel, become commonplace (he died in 1970), but Margaret Schlegel surely would have shuddered to think of an age where driving is considered the mode of travel which maintains a sense of space and a connection to the earth, as opposed to flying, which disorients us on a level that motoring could never aspire to.
Perhaps in another hundred years, air travel will have been trumped by an even more time-and-space-defying mode of transportation.
It is inevitable -- advances in technology are always forcing us ahead into the next chapter of the future, whether we are ready for it or not. And perhaps more times than we like to admit, we are not ready. While one highly advanced part of the human brain is able to devise a machine that can fly over the ocean, another more primitive part is confused and terrified by finding itself up there. And this disconnect must be at the heart of our (mostly) unfounded fear of flying: it just doesn't feel right.
In other words, no matter how many gadgets and toys and tools we are able to invent as a society, and no matter how fast and efficient our modes of communication and transportation become, as individuals we might not be so easily modernized.
It's too bad, in a way. If we could make our whole brains understand the relative safety of air travel, we might actually be able to enjoy the beauty and serenity of floating among the clouds. Margaret Schlegel may have had a point about earthly beauty, but what did she know in her earth-bound age about the glories of heavenly beauty?