I think we, as normal thinking humans, have a distinct flight or fight mechanism. There are times we find ourselves in situations when we are quickly forced to make decisions to stay and work it out or run far away. I was in one of those situations recently.
I made plans to visit my best friend in Montana for the weekend (she reminded me several times that I had never visited her — in 20 years) – it had been over 21 years since I had been on an airplane. My 19-year-old self remembered the airplane I was on back then as being large and roomy and pleasant. My present day self walked out to the airplane sitting on the tarmac, climbed the wobbly steps, negotiated the narrow aisle and realized that this plane was none of those things. My mind immediately raced — I was walking to my seat, my outward appearance showed no signs of the horrific screaming I was doing in my mind. I sat down and stowed my bag neatly under the seat in front of me. I felt crowded and cramped… my breathing constricted and I was alone… very alone in this over-crowded, under spaced plane. In my mind, I bolted for the door. In my mind, I jumped out of my seat and screamed profanities until I was escorted off the plane. In my mind…I was fleeing.
My body however, was winning the battle and staying to fight. My hands were buckling the seat belt. My mouth was saying hello to the man next to me. My eyes were looking out the window to the vast openness that was just out of my reach. The stewardess closed and locked the plane door. The captain accelerated. The plane lifted off. My eyes closed…faking sleep. My breathing was deep. My mind was grasping the hands of friends. Eventually, I could look out the window and see the Rocky Mountains. Eventually, I wasn’t so scared. Eventually, the plane landed.
I remember when my father become very ill. He had been taking chemo and was weak, his immune system was depleted, he had been admitted to the local hospital but they had run out of options. My mother called to tell me he was being flown by life-flight to a hospital in Nashville and I needed to get there as soon as possible. I remember having a moment of flight or fight on my way to the hospital — I stopped to wash my car.
I arrived at the hospital at the same time as the helicopter. I walked in to the room with my dad — I held his hand. And there I stayed for the next 36 hours — sitting by his bed, holding his hand. My mind wanting to flee but my body forcing me to stay. I remember wanting to hear my dad tell me about the helicopter ride — I wanted him to get better long enough to hear that story.
Within a few very stressful days, my dad was feeling better. We talked about that helicopter ride. He told me of how it seemed like a dream, he was semi-conscious. He said he remembered being strapped to the board and being loaded into the helicopter. I asked him if he was scared — did he want to run away. His reply was “hell no”. He said he was just sorry that he waited until his life was nearing its end to do something so exciting. He said he was mad about being strapped to a board and not being able to see the view. The flight or fight mode did not kick in for my dad at that moment when he was co close to death. He wanted to enjoy that helicopter ride. He did enjoy that helicopter ride.
I thought about that ride of my dad’s as my final plane was coming in for a landing last night. The city was beautifully lit. I could recognize the streets. I could see the river. I was calm and breathing and alive. I didn’t need to take flight – I was able to stay for the fight. Sometimes, I think as normal human beings, we should stay for the fight.