On a recent flight between two major US cities I took the opportunity that my ninety minute flight time provided to reflect on the life I have come to know. At cruising altitude I reclined my seat just enough to maximize my comfort without impinging on the space of the passenger behind me. I am always conscientious about that, unlike those who just recline as far as the seat allows. I must confess my annoyance with people who do that. As the new Boeing 737-800 series aircraft sheared the wind, eliciting an elongated monotonous whistle, I took a number of slow deep breaths and found myself reflecting on what I have called elsewhere... “our fragile existentialism”.
It seems to me the idea that we are free and are therefore ultimately responsible for the choices we make, is a philosophical burden that too few of us are prepared to assume. In a world in which it is sometimes convenient to believe that “what is to be will be”; we tend to cultivate a certain pathos around the reality that whatever is “to be” is up to us. I have come to believe this. Many of us declare a pre-determinism that assumes that our course in this life has been set, and that there is nothing we can do about it. What is to be, will be. Period.
We can agree that there are some things we have little or no control over in our lives; but our fate and destiny are determined by the course that we ourselves set by each decision we make. There are people who will never set foot on an airplane because of their fear of flying. Like bungee jumping, or riding on the latest version of a wild roller coaster, they just wont do it. Our most awe-full phobias are fed by one decision after another not to do something…not to take those steps which will ultimately give us power over our irrationality.
In other contexts in our lives we parrot the dogma : “practice makes perfect”, but we fail to see its implication for the “finishing” of ourselves with regards to our fears. Yes, the word “perfect” means “finished”, and it is an often stated fact that none of us are. We are impacted daily by the formative influences of the hands of experience. The perfection that life nudges us toward is a function of the steps we take to overcome our worries and our fears. Sometimes the nudges of reality are painful and unsettling, but they force us to look more clearly at the ground around our feet. They make us look again with more critical eyes at the assumptions in which we have anchored our expectations.
Our fears sabotage every aspect of our existence. They prevent one from asking for a deserved salary increase at the job one has done well for five, six, seven years. It is fear that causes an unhappy spouse not to declare to the world that his or her marriage is a miserable sham that should end. The desire to maintain the status quo at the expense of one’s fulfillment demands unreasonable self-sacrifice. Too often we sacrifice ourselves at the alter of public vanity; we wither away under the pressure to live up to the imagined expectations of others. We worry about outcomes that may never be, because fear breeds irrationality. My existentialism says, if a thing is unreasonable it is wrong. There comes a moment when we are forcefully shaken by the need to right the ship of fear-filled living.
As my flight continues, my thoughts go by like the wisps of cirrus clouds beneath the Airbus. A multitude of “what ifs” find their way in and out of my mind, despite the protestations of my rationalism. I eventually surrender to the reality of the moment, recognizing the fact that there are some possibilities that rest on the heap of fate which are out of my control. My mind goes back to something that Cypher Raige said to his son Kitai in the Will Smith movie After Earth. In an effort to get the boy to sort through his responses to the life-threatening threats he must face, the father says to his son: “Danger is very real. Fear is always a choice”. We won't always get to choose the challenges we will face, but we have the ability to choose how we will respond to each. At times we must dig deep to find that ability, but it is there in each one of us.
I try for a moment to reconfigure the notion… I tell myself ... Fear is a natural response to danger… My reformulation sounds reasonable, it is congruent with what I have heard others conclude. But I find no comfort in the conclusions of others. I choose to stick with Cypher Raige’s dogma…Fear is a choice. Something about this formulation engenders a sense of being in control. I like the idea of being in control of my life and my destiny... I identify with that. The thought appeals to something in the DNA of my personhood, so I let it soak in. It fleshes out my existentialism, fragile as it may be.