My wife, Liz, and I are preparing to leave on a vacation to Montreal.
We’ve been together 11 years and have been married almost six years, yet this is the first time we’ve flown together.
She suffers from a phobia of flying, which she’s trying to overcome, partly on my account because I love to visit new destinations.
The run-up to our trip has been excruciating for her. She’s determined to go — flying to Canada was her idea — but she has battled daily anxiety and late-night episodes of panic and intermittent crying attacks.
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We’ll see what happens when she boards the plane. If she boards the plane.
Not to rely too heavily on binary divisions, but people can be divided into two groups: those who think a random tragedy could befall them at any second — a plane crash, say — and those who think they’re immune to disasters.
I’m not a joyful flyer, either, although I will fly to see a place I’ve never been. I comfort myself with all the stats about how safe air travel is.
My main objection to flying has more to do with physical discomfort than fear. I’m a big guy crammed self consciously into a tiny seat, next to, or atop, strangers, for hours. It’s miserable. Then there’s the security rigmarole. And the endless waiting in airports.
I don’t share Liz’s phobia; still, I do rank among those who think a tragedy of some sort, if not a plane crash, then something, is constantly prowling just outside my door like a mangy, starving wolf. The wolf is ready to pounce.
My church will split. My apartment business will go under. One of my grandkids will get hurt. That mole is melanoma.
Yep, I’m a laugh-a-minute fellow.
People such as Liz and I tend to assume that we’re on the cusp of bad news.
My theory is that we who dread and expect mayhem tend to be those who’ve already experienced it. We’ve learned first-hand how indiscriminate the world’s cruelties can be.
Three days after her 15th birthday, Liz lost her dad to leukemia. For the ensuing 35 years, she has battled her awareness that very bad things can happen, for no accountable reason.
I realize that Liz might have developed a phobia of flying even if her father hadn’t died early. But I guarantee you that his loss partly formed her larger, generally catastrophic mindset.
In my case, losing my first wife, Renee, forever altered my understanding of the world and my place in it.
Before that, I think I’d assumed, without really thinking carefully about it, that the vast majority of human woes were self-inflicted — preventable and reversible. And some indeed are.
When I was growing up, for instance, my dad earned an adequate living. Still, we were chronically broke. Bill collectors called the house. My dad wrung his hands and paced the floor. We perpetually lived $50 away from bankruptcy.
Early on, I saw that this was the result of Dad’s inability to handle money. He admitted this himself.
He was a great guy, my hero, but the worst money manager I’ve ever met.
So, when I became an adult, I set out to fix that problem in my own life. I became a conscientious budgeter, a saver, a debt-avoider, a two- or three-job worker.
My operating assumption was, you got a problem, it’s probably something you did. And if you caused it, you can reverse it. Go thrash that wolf outside your door with a two-by-four. Become the master of your own fate.
Until Renee got sick.
She’d never smoked, had never drunk alcohol, had unfailingly maintained perfect weight, lived on salads, avoided sugar.
At 39, she was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. No one in her family had ever had breast cancer.
“You did nothing to cause this,” a surgeon told her. “Medically, there’s absolutely no reason for you to have this disease. You’re in no risk group.”
It just happened.
The whole time Renee was sick, various friends suggested that she must have done something to cause her sickness or that was preventing her recovery.
She needed to forgive somebody. She needed to pray harder. She needed to drink some bio-elixir. Everybody had a different idea.
Maybe when we say such things, we’re trying to delude ourselves. We hope to reassure ourselves that no similar tragedy could befall us. Hey, we drink the elixir. We pray an hour every morning — in tongues! We’ve built our protective force-field. We’re immune.
I’m sorry. Some matters are out of our control. Sooner or later, bad stuff will happen.
Are those bad things part of God’s cosmic plan? I don’t know. He doesn’t let me see his blueprints.
A light switch short-circuits and burns down your house. You volunteer for a medical mission and return home with a parasite that destroys your health.
You didn’t cause it. You couldn’t foresee it. You can’t change it. It just is.
Once such a thing happens, we’re no longer able to lie to ourselves.
This shouldn’t stop us from taking the common-sense precautions we can. We’re still better off playing the odds — saving money, avoiding processed foods, whatever.
Neither should we be paralyzed by fear. Get on the plane. Travel. Enjoy.
But even so, we’ll live each day aware we’re a hair’s breadth from cataclysm.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.