I’m terrified of flying but it doesn’t matter. I sat on the plane as it rolled around the airport through the thin, misty Portland rain. As the plane picked up speed and forced the rain to hit the windows harder, I felt the familiar sensation of gut-wrenching, out-of-control terror flicker to life inside me. It happens every time I fly.
But like I said, it doesn’t matter. I ignored it completely. It’s meaningless and counterproductive. There is nothing in my genetic makeup that has remotely prepared me for this absurd ability to fly through the air. I tend to think it would be totally inhuman to not be afraid on an airplane. And if that’s the case, I’m definitely human.
I ignore and defy the fear. I relax my shoulders and control my breathing. My heart rate remains slow and steady like the chimes of an old grandfather clock when it hits midnight. I simply understand that I have no control and accept whatever is coming next. I turn my focus towards the things I do have an influence over. Fear can be a great motivator but in the wrong context it can be the most detrimental emotion humans have.
As the plane left the ground, the rain, angry from being knocked off course, violently whipped and slapped against the windows. The whole plane shimmied and shook. It seemed inevitable that the wings were going to snap off and we’d plummet to the ground. I looked out past the furious rain drops sliding laterally across the window and saw that the earth had already entirely disappeared behind a dark fog.
As my sheer terror turned into calm and productive thoughts I suddenly became overcome with a sense of hope and happiness. My crippling fear of flying has never once deterred me from stepping onto a plane and in that moment during the violent take-off from the Portland airport I finally understood why.
My willingness to happily do something that scares me this much is proof that I blindly trust people. I trust that whoever designed the plane thought of everything, the one in charge of putting the rivets in the wings did so thoughtfully and carefully. I trust that the pilots are trained well enough and care enough to do whatever it takes to keep me safe. It goes on and on. I have total faith in each person involved in the process.
And in the midst of doing this weird thing that should realistically fill everyone with a paralyzing horror, I am able to calmly think about my upcoming trip and watch people on the plane and make up little stories about why they’re flying to Chicago a few days before Christmas. I can do this because I sincerely believe that everyone does the best they can and their best is enough. I was suddenly filled with hope and happiness because I can still thoroughly believe this in spite of everything.
I was on that flight because I thought I was lonely. Recently, after five years, my fiancé and I ended our relationship and I was about to spend Christmas by myself. I thought I was alone. At the last minute, a very selfless and amazing person bought me a plane ticket so I could spend Christmas with my family.
As the plane ascended, it finally stopped shaking and eventually burst through the last of the dense fog revealing the brilliant light of the morning sun. I put my hand up and tried to catch some of the sun’s shining rays as they passed through the cabin.
I’d spent the last few months convincing myself that I was lonely. I was able to assure myself that loneliness is a great and powerful tool. Every time I felt the painful burning sting in my chest and that little space between my lungs and my ribs I was prompted to find someone, anyone, and try to connect with them in some small way. The easiest way was to look into their eyes. I’ve been looking into a lot of eyes recently.
There were plenty of people who were definitely not interested in my eye contact. They would quickly look away and go about their business. But there were others that would look back at me for a second or two. I’d always offer them a smile and usually they smiled back.
In my desperate attempt to fix my loneliness, I’ve been looking more deeply into people’s eyes than usual. I realized that if I looked hard enough, it became easy to see an endless sea of pain and joy floating around in everyone. It’s been profound. I hate that it took my loneliness to finally make this discovery. I’ve looked into countless eyes in my life and I’m only now realizing that I haven’t been looking hard enough.
I wondered if anyone saw my sea of pain and joy. I hoped they did.
The plane eventually landed and it felt nice that falling 30,000 feet out of the sky was no longer a concern. I turned my phone on and the buzz of text messages coming through seemed endless. I showed up at my aunt’s house where my parents and aunt and cousins were getting things ready for their upcoming Christmas party. No one was expecting me. I walked through the door and there was lots of crying and hugs and laughs and more love than anyone would need in a lifetime.
After a bit of this limitless love and attention, I thought, “I just need a minute to myself!” And I fell apart.
The painful burning sting in my chest and that little space between my lungs and my ribs was still there – but it wasn’t loneliness. It couldn’t have been. Loneliness has an obvious solution and it was unquestionably solved. No, the sting in my chest came from something much worse.
Heartbreak. Hurt. Embarrassment. Helplessness. Fear. Failure.
I’m usually very good at pretending these emotions don’t exist. I can set them aside and watch them slowly disappear like dandelion seeds being blown away by a summer breeze. But this time, they settled like boulders after a landslide and I had no idea how to clear the road. My rational thoughts started being taken over by the heartbreak I was hoping didn’t exist.
I was going to marry a girl but she stopped wanting to be with me. I made a lifelong commitment that fell apart in a blink. I suddenly and irrationally took all the blame for everything that went wrong. It was me. I messed it up somehow and I hated myself for it. I felt unloveable. Inadequate. Angry. Invisible.
I’d been ignoring those feelings so actively that I was convinced they weren’t there. I finally had to start accepting them and force myself to do what I always do when I’m faced with a problem I don’t know how to solve: over-analyze it and find the beauty and hidden opportunity in it.
I was comfortable in my relationship and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was like being constantly wrapped up in a heated blanket on a cold winter morning. But after the breakup, everything felt different. It was like I woke up one morning in a new house surrounded by new people that spoke a new language I could only vaguely understand. I felt lost, confused, out of place, misunderstood. Simply put, I was uncomfortable.
But maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
Being wrapped up in that heated blanket meant I wasn’t moving or growing or improving. Comfort is stillness, stagnation. Which must mean that discomfort is movement, growth, change. I decided to embrace all of the things that made me uncomfortable, to force myself to move and grow and change.
At that point, all I wanted to do was climb into a bed and hide there until all of these feelings went away. But I was in Chicago for the week and I forced myself to do the opposite. I surrounded myself with people and started learning this new language. I talked to everyone. I met new people. I looked into people’s eyes as deeply as I could and tried to find their sea of pain and joy. At the very least, it was fun to meet and talk to so many people but it was much more than that.
Someone complimented me on my eyes. I jokingly said, “That’s why I’m wearing this color tie, to make my blue eyes pop!” She said, “No, it’s not the color, it’s something else.”
She saw my sea. And I felt a little less invisible.
I don’t exactly have the cure for heartbreak figured out just yet but I know that it has less to do with connecting with people and more to do with letting people connect with me. I’d been feeling invisible because I was somehow making myself invisible. The stinging pain in my chest slightly relented the first time I accidentally let someone see me.
Maybe that’s the trick to getting over heartbreak. Hiding less. Letting people see me. I don’t know. It seemed to help. Oh, and Taylor Swift helps, too.
My time in Chicago ended and I arrived at the airport knowing I wasn’t lonely. I was heartbroken. And while loneliness is easier to fix than heartbreak, I had at least come to understand what I was dealing with. And thanks to Charlotte from Sex and the City, who says, “It takes half the amount of time a relationship lasts to get over an ex,” I know that I’ll be totally over it in 2.5 years. It’s nice to have a timeline.
I looked into the cockpit and smiled at the pilots that I blindly trusted with my life as I found my way to my seat. The plane rolled away from the terminal and I began thinking about all the things I did to lead to the end of my relationship and the mistakes started growing heavy on my shoulders. I quickly realized that these thoughts were as worthless as being afraid on a plane.
I have my weaknesses. I make my mistakes. I have so much to learn, so many ways to improve, to grow. I fell short this time. But I gave it my best. And whether I fall short or not, the next step is always the same: to make my best better. I look forward to the challenge.
As the plane gently lifted off the ground, the rising sun instantly exploded out from behind the surrounding buildings and filled the cabin with a blinding orange and yellow glow. If Charlotte is right, it will be 2.5 years until this is all over but, in the mean time, I will embrace every uncomfortable moment I have, knowing that everything is getting better. And if at some point you happen to be looking into my eyes, feel free to try and find the sea of pain and joy floating around in there. It helps if you find it. Or just put on Taylor Swift. That helps, too.