Early in life, we all live in a world — a vastly oversimplified world — of certainty. To the young child, everything is oversimplified. It is either good or bad. It is either right or wrong. It is either safe or unsafe.
As we grow, we come to understand that the world is not so simple, and that it contains uncertainties. If our parents have given us an ability to face uncertainties with reasonable calm, we are OK with the world being more complex. We are OK with probabilities instead of certainties. But if our parents could not teach us how to calm ourselves, this more complicated world causes us more anxiety than we can handle. Some people slide back into the less complicated world, and limit their relationships to people who also are developmentally arrested. Others, find — though their internal strength to deal with uncertainty is limited — they can deal with the world as it is when calmed by others, and when in control.
When these underpinnings of our ability to regulate emotions are pulled out from under us, we can lose our ability to regulate emotions. When that happens we are pulled from the uncertain world of probability toward the primitive world of oversimplified certainty. How do we lose these these underpinnings? Flight takes them away. When we are lifted off the ground by the airliner, we lose the calming connection to others, and we lose our ability to control. Unable to regulate our emotions, we slip back into that oversimplified world of ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’. Unfortunately, instead of falling into the ‘safe’ half of the ‘safe versus unsafe’ world, we fall into the ‘unsafe’ half of it. This creates a crisis. We want out of the ‘unsafe’ half of the ‘safe versus unsafe’ world.
Unfortunately, the only answer we see at the moment is assurance of absolute safety. And, unfortunately, we can’t get there from here. We have become psychologically primitive again. We want certainty. Nothing short of absolute safety will do. As we approach an upcoming flight, we want certainty that it will not crash. Though the chances of it crashing are incredibly small, that isn’t good enough. Anticipatory anxiety is an ongoing search for certainty which finds none. Unable to regulate our emotions enough to deal with the one chance in several million of a crash, we seek a way to get rid of the one in several million.
Seeking certainty, we try our hand at being a fortune teller. Seeking certainty, we try positive thinking. Seeking certainty, we pray. Seeking certainty, we try to be intellectual and try to figure out that nothing can happen. It is an utter and complete waste of life. Why? There is no way to tell the actual future other than by living it. Since life is only lived in the present, to focus on the future destroys the only life we have. If we get stuck in anxiety and engage in anticipation as a way to try to get relief, life never takes place at all. Instead of living, we focus our imagination on future moments. If we can successfully predict the future, we will establish — and return to — certainty. If we can only become comfortable about the future, then we will be free to live. Assured that the future moment in mind is good, we plan to go ahead and experience it. But, of course, when the time comes to experience it, we are focusing on some other future moment.
If you have the SOAR Video Course, you may remember the ‘1000 moment life’. Briefly, it is a fable about a little animal that lives in the ground. It is going to live a total of 1000 moments. But it doesn’t know that. So, every moment, it pops up its head and says, ‘Is this the last moment of my life? Am I about to perish? Or is it safe for me to go out and sun myself? And the answer is, he doesn’t know. So, insecure and frightened, he zips back underground to the dark. The next moment, he does the same thing, and the same thing happens. This goes on for 998 moments. Finally, on the 999th moment, he goes up and looks around, and again asks, ‘Is this the last moment of my life? Am I about to perish?’ And finally God answers and says, ‘Yes’. The little creature says, ‘Oh thank God; now I can relax and enjoy my life’ Then, the 1000th moment arrives, and he is dead. Of the 1000 moments of his life, he only got to live one, always looking to the future, and never living, . . . until there was no future. Then, knowing there was no future to worry about, he finally relaxed for a single moment, and then, in the next moment: dead.
Similarly, the Tristan and Isolda story: they drink a ‘death potion’ and then realize this is the last moment they are going to be alive. All their fears of the future vanish, because there isn’t going to be one. They look at each other, and fall madly in love. They spend this last moment of their lives together in a night of passion. They — amazingly — wake up the next morning and realize the death potion was a fake. They again are overtaken by anxiety about life, and fall out of love. Life simply doesn’t get lived when it is no adventure and all control. As Helen Keller said, ‘Life is a great adventure or it is nothing.’
What we found in developing the SOAR Program is that what works with fear of flying is to experience flying — not as you imagine it to be — but as it is. Imagination is the problem, but only when you believe it is really what is happening. When you move from imagination-believed-to-be-reality to reality, flying problems vanish. The key is getting underpinnings that will not fail you when you fly. Think of things from a statistics point of view. For example, take 1000 people. Measure how tall they are. Put a dot on a graph for each person’s height. There may be one person who is well under five feet. That person’s dot will be at one extreme end, all by itself. There may be one person who is seven feet tall. That person’s dot will be at the other end, by itself. But most of the dots will cluster together around the middle, with a dot representing another person of the same height placed above the previous dot. This produces a cluster in the middle of the graph which is high. What I’m describing is the classic “bell curve.
Now let’s switch to observations made by psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. As she saw it, an infant starts with just two possible worlds: when an infant is happy, the infant is in a state of absolute happiness, a sort of infant heaven. But when upset, the infant is absolutely upset, in a kind of infant hell. The technical term Klein used for this early and primitive pair of absolute worlds doesn’t translate well. Let’s call it the “primitive world of absolutes”. For a while, things continue to be absolute: either absolutely wonderful or absolutely terrible. As a young child matures, the child develops the ability — when things are good — to remember that things are not always that way. Melanie Klein noticed that after a few months, infants become a bit sober. She figured that infants, at that point, realize there was a “fly in the ointment”. When happy, they no longer were absolutely happy, because they are aware that things change. Things can get unpleasant. This recognition keeps the infant’s happiness from being absolute. This is an important — but unwelcome — step toward maturity. I wish Klein had given this sober state a better name; she called it the “Depressive Position”.
Since it doesn’t sound like something that great, let’s call it something else. I prefer to call it the real world, or the “bell curve” world. Mature and psychologically healthy people appreciate the world as it is — at least much of the time. The young child is just beginning his or her journey from the world of absolutes toward the real world. It is not always a journey one wants to take. Klein noted that even the healthiest of us don’t stay in the “bell curve” real world, where we see things exactly as they are. We slide, from time to time, down into one of the worlds the infant started out in: heaven, or hell.
Here are our four possible worlds: In the “primitive world of absolutes” there are two worlds: heaven and hell. Then there is the “bell curve” real world as it is. That makes three worlds to live in. The fourth world is transition. It could be on the way from the “primitive world of absolutes” to the “bell curve” real world, or visa versa. Or it could be just stuck there in a state of extended transition, unsure and ambivalent about which way to go. We don’t like any of these worlds — except heaven. But there is a problem with heaven. It is a schizoid state. What is a schizoid state? Schizoid means “split”. In order to be in heaven, you have to be pretty blind to the way things are. The blindness that keeps a person in a heaven-like state involves something called “splitting”, a psychological wall that divides our experience so we can pretend half of it does not exist. It keeps everything that is heavenly on one side of the wall, and everything that is not heavenly split off into on the other side. Bad things exist, but not here. Or, the other form of blindness is called “denial”; bad — at least as far as one is concerned — just doesn’t exist at all. This isn’t very easy to carry off. Nor is it psychologically healthy. But we are, to say the least, a bit addicted to heaven.
To stay in a heaven-like world that requires all kinds of mental gymnastics. If the mental gymnastics fail, there is no safety net. Within the “primitive world of absolutes”, when one falls from absolute heaven, one lands in absolute hell. Hell is obviously really bad. In the “primitive world of absolutes”, how does one get back to heaven? One has to be absolutely perfect. One has to be absolutely right. This means anyone who disagrees must be absolutely wrong. That’s why I’ve come to the conclusion that, when in “primitive world of absolutes” hell, it is not a good idea to try to get to “primitive world of absolutes” heaven. Being absolutely right, and being absolutely perfect is just too hard to achieve. The best route out of “primitive world of absolutes” hell is not lateral, but vertical. We need to transition upward toward the “bell curve” real world where things are just the way they are. Getting to, and staying in, the “bell curve” real world is a challenge. There are definitely things we don’t like about it. At best, we are ambivalent about the “bell curve” real world.
In the Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes described the real world as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Though it is the best of all possible REAL worlds, we may not prefer reality, as we yearn for “primitive world of absolutes” heaven. This yearning for the “primitive world of absolutes” heaven is what is called at the Masterson Institute “reunion fantasy”, because it has to do with that blissful heaven of being one with mom. If we get enough bliss from mom, enough to get a bit bored with it, we have a much easier time giving it up in favor of the “primitive world of absolutes” real world than if we did not get enough really good, empathic connectedness with mom when the time was right for that to be absorbed. But the transition from being one with mom to healthy separation depends upon, first, building in enough psychological steam to be an individual. The ability to calm ones self is key to the developmental process. Otherwise, when we try to go to “primitive world of absolutes” heaven we always run into that “fly in the ointment” or the pea under the princess’s mattresses. We have the illusion that we could get there “if only” it were a little different, We may think we could get there if we could get rid of “x”. But we can’t. And here is where we get stuck. We don’t find the real world fits our taste. It causes us anxiety we seem unable to manage. We yearn for that “primitive world of absolutes” heaven, but we can’t hold onto it. We are stuck in this tragic place: transition. We don’t go up to the “bell curve” real world because we don’t like it. And when we try to go down to the “primitive world of absolutes” heaven area, we keep ending up in “primitive world of absolutes” hell! There is great danger in this quest for “primitive world of absolutes” heaven. Why? Since it is impossible to stay there and also stay connected to reality, there has to be a disconnect from reality. How is that done? There is — of course — recourse to sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll to try to get there and stay there.
People who don’t have the resources are lucky; they just get to live tragic lives, using their resources and talents up, with only falling short to show for it. Amazingly, people who have the resources to try to get there and stay are more unfortunate: at some point on the quest they overdose: Curt Colbain, John Belushi, Elvis Presley. Though it may be asking a lot of us, I suspect we need to see all four worlds, and choose one — like the Sims clothing store ads say — as an “educated consumer”. No doubt the best POSSIBLE one is the “bell-curve” world. But the ability to make that choice isn’t easy. Until we make that choice in a committed way, and learn to manage anxiety in the real world, anxiety will remain an issue. What does this have to do with flying? Everything.
We said from the beginning that the purpose of the SOAR program is to rehabilitate our ability to experience flying just as it is. We need to experience each moment of flight as a moment in the “bell curve” real world. As soon as we start wishing for it to be perfect, we yearn for that “primitive world of absolutes” heaven in which there is no turbulence at all, or in which everything is absolutely safe, or in which a person feels nothing disturbing at all. Inevitably there is a “fly in the ointment”. Inevitably there is a pea — imagined or real — under the mattresses of denial that presses through. The “bell curve” real world is highly recommended. Are you ready for it? Or, are you still stuck yearning for “primitive world of absolutes” heavenly flights?