Fear of Flying

Yesterday I wrote about the little routines and traditions we establish as we get older that give us something to look forward to at different times of the year. For example, I like to watch the Oscars (there, I’ve admitted it).

But as we grow older we also call upon routines and traditions from our youth to help us through difficult moments as adults.

I had occasion to think about this a few days ago while on an airplane. Right before the plane took off, I instinctively made the sign of the cross as if in prayer. There’s nothing odd about this – lots of people cross themselves at all times of the day and for all sorts of reasons. But I’m not a religious person. And I don’t normally pray. And yet whenever I’m on an airplane, I can’t help myself. As soon as the plane starts down the runway, I instinctively find myself as if in prayer.

I was raised in a religious family and attended religious education until I was 16 or so, so it’s not as if this action comes out of nowhere. But I stopped going to church when I went to college at 18. So I do find it odd that of all the aspects of my religious upbringing, this is the one thing I’ve clung to as a way to help me through the very specific anxiety of flying on a plane.

I also used to rock myself to sleep when I was a child by sitting up in bed and rocking back and forward. To this day, when under stress, I still draw my knees to my chest and rock back and forward (my husband affectionately refers to it as my “rhesus monkey” position, to call attention to the quite similar behavior that rhesus monkeys engage in when deprived of affection by their mothers. This image pretty much says it all).

O.K. So now that I’ve painted a picture of myself as this freakazoid neurotic – half davening, half genuflecting – I’m sure that you’d love to invite me to dinner. But I do think that there’s something universal here. When under duress, we all tend to reach back to these primitive methods of self-soothing in order to reassure ourselves that we can make it over a given hurdle. Some people make themselves a PB and J. Others meditate. My own methods are just a bit more…how to say?…motion-sickness-inducing than the average Joe’s or Jane’s.

On the upside, to counter my anxiety on this particular airplane ride, I also forced myself to stay up and watch the movie The Duchess, a fine period piece starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes. I can’t say that watching costume dramas is a holdover from any secret childhood ritual, but it did wonders to calm my nerves.

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