“Of what use is my soul to me? I cannot see it. I may not touch it. I do not know it. Surely I will send it away from me, and much gladness shall be mine.”
-The Fisherman and his Soul, Oscar Wilde.
In 1974, German photographer Timm Rautert travelled to America to take photos of a small Amish community. Unaware of the social faux pas surrounding photographs in Amish religion, Rautert easily took dozens of photos of Amish women, children and men. The result was a book entitled “Gehäuse des Unsichtbaren,” which became known for its countless photos of subjects whose heads were lowered and backs turned to the camera. Not one photo showed an Amish face. In Amish culture, the soul is intertwined with the body and the actions of an individual may demean it. When one allows themselves to be photographed, a confession of pride and vanity is admitted. It is these things that shape ones soul. A damaged soul results in a damaged afterlife and eternal damnation is never something anyone wants to encourage. All things considered, if the soul is intertwined with the body like a snake around a tree the physical separation of body and soul must result in dire consequences. Perhaps this consequence is fear, our body telling us that we need to return to our soul. Telling us that our spiritual plane is in danger of being cut off by the physical. Maybe fear is a consequence of the soul.
I mope onto the plane for my flight to America. Cabin crew usher passengers to their seats as awkward passenger meets awkward passenger and together they convince themselves that spending the next 14 hours with a complete stranger is a normal occurrence. Tools can be heard below the aircraft as maintenance crew prepare the Airbus A380 for what is probably its 4th journey of the day. I sit alone with my shoulder nestled gently against the small side window and my right hand holding precariously onto the armrest. We haven’t even begun to taxi yet. I am a white-knuckled traveller, sweating through the hours with one eye on the wing and one eye on my watch. One of those people that suffer from terribly frustrating fear of flying. Or as my doctor put it- “fear of a lack of control.”
In August of 2007 a video was posted on YouTube entitled “Airline Panic Attack.” On it, a middle-aged man begs the passengers of the plane to shoot him so he can escape his own panic and fear. Unsurprisingly, the video went viral and now has over one million views. Remixes were made of the frantic man with a heavy bass behind his screaming and comments were left questioning his race, sanity and education. A dramatic response to a desperate call for help from a terrified individual. Fear of flying, (Pteromerhanophobia) is perhaps one of the more mocked fears in the world today. One only needs to think back to the late Lesley Neilsen classic Airplane in which a panic stricken woman is slapped repeatedly by passengers, crew and the pilot himself. You could argue that a fear of flying is just a combination of other fears- claustrophobia, fear of heights, anxiety – or an irrational fear of something that’s now a part of life.
Air-travel has always been a part of my life. As a baby of 6 months my mother and father carried me across the ocean from Sydney to the untouched wilderness of the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina, USA. I’ve found myself taking up at least one long distance flight a year.
As a child I never feared flying. Like most children I didn’t fear anything, yet to be awakened to the fact I was neither immortal nor ‘forever young.’ It is said that the fear of flying can be triggered by a traumatic event in ones life, or an event that leads to a greater responsibility- such as having a child. Alas, I am but a nineteen year old student and have thankfully not become a parent yet. As far as traumatic events are concerned there are none I can recall – which I’m not sure is a good thing. My fear of flying seems to be triggered by something else, something far more internal. Doctors say it is my doubt in others and general distrust of strangers that puts me in an accelerated state of fear. Unfortunately, I never hit that barrier that allowed me to be okay with flying 500 miles per hour in sub zero temperatures above clouds and birds and any other organic thing that knows it’s unwise to travel so high. And perhaps that’s my own fault. Pteromerhanophobia is something that is solitary in its reasoning. No one helped me to get it.
Internally, I have to consider the absence of soul. Growing up in a spiritual family, my Baha’i mother and stepfather would leave me for weekends alone so they could go to “meditation retreats.” Often, I would wake up early in the morning only to be greeted by the smiling face of my mother, blessing the new day. The soul to me was always something of utmost importance, and yet also something that I felt cursed me to act appropriate, shunning my teenage urges for mischief. In Oscar Wilde’s “The Fisherman and his Soul,” Wilde’s protagonist barters with his soul in order to win the apparent love of a mermaid. When an evil witch hastily cuts his soul from him, the man is forever cursed by his inability to associate his heart with his soul. He becomes a detached void, unable to belong to the human or mermaid realm. As the air envelopes the plane and pushes my physical body further into the atmosphere, it’s easy to believe that perhaps my soul is left on the ground. Humans, after all, where not made to fly so it makes sense to believe that their souls can’t either. My fear could be my physical body stressing as it begs for the return of my soul. Panic, fear and irrational thoughts are all consequences of my mind trying to tell me something. Trying to make me believe that my soul has been left behind.
The Airbus A380 is an amazing machine and revolutionary icon of the modern era. Pretty to look at, but for the sky? Not for me. Much to my discontent, I’m seated at the rear of the plane so I board early following the upper-class businessmen and quasi-celebrities of first class. It’s a long walk. I pass spiral staircases leading to the second floor and at least six bathroom stations and cooking rooms. The smell of reheated food is never forgotten. To some I’m sure it smells like home- the apple pie on the window casually drifting its warm and homely scent into the nostrils of passers by. Silently I pray I don’t get anyone sitting next to me and if I do I hope they are quiet. This is my stressful flight and I plan on going it solo.
I go through the usual routine like a well-prepared schoolboy on his fist day back. Tray up. Bag stored. I buckle my seatbelt so tight that if we were to crash I would die of a burst stomach ahead of anything else. And then I wait. The most anxious part of my time on the plane is waiting for the first little push as the plane begins to taxi along that never ending runway and take-off into the sky. “Remember the relaxation techniques,” I tell myself. “Put your feet on the ground and ground yourself.” In the pocket in front of me I’ve stored a few books, magazines and snacks that will go untouched like they do every flight. I have a book that I impulsively bought in an airport newsagent that hasn’t been opened yet. I’ve brought it with me on three flights already and this is number four.
A large man bigger than myself and only slightly smaller than my fridge waddles down the isle as I watch each passenger hold their breath and pray this ‘special’ passenger doesn’t choose them.
“He should have to buy two seats,” I hear from the row behind me, half serious, half mocking.
Finally we begin to taxi. A brief sigh of relief escapes my lips before I realise we are moving and soon we will be in the air. “Relax,” I remember. Having sought help from friends, family, doctors and psychologists a few tips have been given to me to help ease my nerves. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me that “air travel isn’t scary at all,” or that “it’s safer than driving and you’re more likely to die driving to the Airport.” Comforting, I know. The one trick I’ve found most helpful is a surprising one. Never a standout student I get my mind off of take-off by doing maths. More specifically, my times tables. “Two times two is four, four times four is sixteen…” Sometimes I have to stop myself from mumbling or risk being the next Internet sensation; “Crazy man does math on a plane. LOL!”
Breaking my concentration, the pilot hums through the speakers, “cabin crew prepare for take-off.” As I hold my breath and try to keep my mind on mathematic equations the plane begins to hurl itself forward. Everything shakes as the lights dim and babies cry. I try to get my mind to ignore the facts surrounding air crashes I have stored away for special moments like this. Most accidents occur either in take-off or landing. I fail. Resorting to the most barbaric technique I know I clench my fingertips into the armrest as the plane wobbles into the air and drifts to the East. No escape now.
Veering to the left the panic immediately sets in. My body is leaving home. My body is leaving the warmth and structure of life on the ground. If the soul separates from the body during air travel, how close are you to death? As the Hindu people believe, death is the separation of the soul from the physical body. He who dies begins to live, and he who lives begins to die. My soul then, once separated from me, must represent a slow and gradual death. My panic in the air and the stress caused as a result from it could be my body warning me. Telling me that I will die. It doesn’t know I’ll be hitting the tarmac in 14 hours and reuniting with my soul. This is the spiritual reasoning behind my fear. It’s all I have to help my mind, as the pills and relaxation techniques help my body.
A quick call to QANTAS airways allows anyone to realise the options (or option) available to those that suffer from Pteromerhanophobia. Since 1979, QANTAS have ‘proudly sponsored’ a not-for-profit organisation called “Fearless Flyers Inc.” A volunteer organisation that is still run by women pilots, they boast being the 2nd longest running organisation of its kind in the world. They’ll teach anyone who dares to have a fear in flying about the psychology of fear, surroundings of air traffic control and even allow them to use a flight simulator to experience the complete flight. All this in three easy sessions and a total of $950. As an impoverished student, I’m unable to vouch for the success of the program and must instead direct you to their own customer feedback page. For me, $950 will always be too much for a fear I can numb with prescription drugs and sleeping pills.
In-flight entertainment has definitely hit an all time high, and as usual I’m tempted by a few new releases and maybe a game of poker. But temptation is as far as it goes. Deep breaths pump through my lungs as I look out the window like a teenager peaking through their fingers as Freddy Krueger slices at them in a theatre. Ribbons of white cloud cascade underneath us and I can see the tip of the wing flashing its bright red beacon outside. I wave away the complimentary peanuts and opt for a glass of water instead. Getting drunk on a plane always has varying results – rum works best. As we fly over the pacific ocean I ask the woman next to me – a young hijab-clad Lebanese woman- where she is going after we land at LAX. She doesn’t speak English.
Managing to sleep for a few hours I wake up with that same hangover-ish grogginess many feel after a big night out. The five minutes between waking up and realising where I am is the highlight of the flight. I’ve slept through the lunch service, however remnants of it still waft through the aisles. As I get up to stretch my legs I realise that we’ve stopped our transit over the endless road of bold, blue ocean and begun our slow descent into the canyons and crevices of the American hillsides. Every year I experience the same rush as I think back to earlier times when Native Americans walked the beautiful forests and deserts. I think of my Grandfather reminiscing over the months he spent as a young man tracking the Cherokee tribe’s Trail of Tears, a long and winding path that rises up through the nation’s south. Used by the Cherokee’s to flee the white man, it is now an unkempt path that travellers have to request a special pass for hiking. ” Injan’s’ ” He used to say, his southern drawl slurring the ‘d-i-a.’ The label had stuck since Christopher Columbus arrived, believing he was in the India now famous for its curry and Taj Mahal. ‘Indian’ has forsaken the Native American people for some time, a watermark on their history. “To be free and simple,” I think to myself. “To be alive in a time without planes.”
I retreat back to my seat, passing sleeping passengers with blankets thrown across their faces, shielding themselves from the rays of sunshine that pour through windows. Streams of light float across the planes body and illuminate the millions of tiny little dust specs in the air. My soul is not here. Just dust, light and two miles of air.
As the gap between my plane and the ground decreases the folds of the American mountains begin to define themselves. We fly over fields segmented into rows, changing colour like a tartan cloth. The seatbelt sign lights up as the crew begin to usher the few standing passengers left to their seats. I sit alone and nestled up against a window, daring myself to take stagnant peeks out of the porthole. At every peek more of America is unveiled. Beautiful countryside farms, ancient redwood forests and flowing rivers gliding through the landscape peppered with the black outline of livestock. Over waterfalls of such body and depth that you can see the underwater shelves as the water goes from a bright aqua-blue to a dark, almost black void. “Cabin crew prepare for landing,” mutters the pilot, his voice now static amongst the air rushing on the outside of the plane. The wheels of the plane unfold as I promise myself they won’t get stuck. They will come all the way down. “Everything will be alright.” Biting my nails I begin my times tables again – anything to get my mind off that same fact remembered as we first took off into the air. Most accidents occur either in take-off or landing. I slow my breath as much as I can and the foggy outline of Los Angeles begins to show itself on the horizon. It brings back memories of years gone by and my brain reminds me of the taste of the air. Gently, the plane bumps along the tarmac and I grip the armrest as we are propelled down the runway, momentum now an imperative part of the landing. Gradually and against what I tell myself every flight, the plane comes to a halt. The fear rushes out of my body like air out of a balloon. My soul comes back to me, and I am free.
I know that my fear is irrational, and I know that it makes no sense to have. I don’t want it, I don’t need it and the negatives far outweigh the positives (although the seemingly endless supply of sleep medication does come in handy). I have to assume my soul can only take so many tears to its fabric, so many separations from my body before it gives up entirely. Perhaps I’m forever doomed to be cast aside as the minority of “frantic-flyers,” ignored by the general public. Or maybe I’m destined to be the next Internet sensation sweeping the globe. Andy Warhol said everyone would get 15 minutes of fame, maybe now is my time. Pteromerhanophobia isn’t a problem or a fear. It’s a lifestyle.