The Eyes of a Child

By Lane Wallace

© 1999 Lane Wallace
First appeared in FLYING Magazine, February 2000

I‘m playing airplane with my nephew. It’s one of those perfect crisp autumn days that bring back memories of childhood … the smell of raking leaves, apple cider, and back to school clothes … the kind of day that touches me with nostalgia for some wisp of my past that has slipped just out of reach. Tyler spreads his arms, commanding “wings out!” as he revs up his motor. We race around the baseball field, one in trail behind the other, soaring and diving before collapsing in “safe landings” on the soft green grass. He never seems to tire of the game, laughing with the unrestrained joy and glee that’s so common in children and so rare in the rest of us.

At the end of my visit, my sister brings Tyler along to see me off at the airport. As we wait for my flight, we stand at the window, watching the runway. His eyes get wide with excitement as one small plane takes off and another one lands. “Look!” he exclaims. “A plane!”  Yes. A plane. Something so common to adults that we rarely even give it a second thought. But something still magical to Tyler, and to children like him across America.

As my airliner climbs through the clouds, I wonder why that is. Is it just that children aren’t yet accustomed to airplanes and air travel? Every day, airline passengers fly eight-tenths the speed of sound and six miles above the surface of the earth. But far from spending our trips in reverent awe of that feat, we complain that we’re going to be late, the food isn’t good enough, or the ride isn’t perfectly smooth.

As the flight progresses, it occurs to me that perhaps the problem is airline travel itself. Being a sardine-packaged passenger in a climate-controlled metal tube is most people’s only experience with airplanes. “And this,” I mutter as I try to wedge myself more comfortably into my 20 inches of seat space between two hefty fellow passengers, “is not flying.”

Flying is feeling the wind in your face … reading the name of a small midwest town on a water tower as you sail by overhead … banking around in an evening sky to catch the last fire-edged colors as the sun disappears into the horizon below. Flying is knowing freedom, grace, beauty and wonder — not as concepts of the mind, but as an experience that reverberates through your mind, body and soul.

Airplanes are still magical to me because they’ve let me experience all of this. They’ve also taught me more about myself, life, and living than any other activity I’ve ever done. Flying has made me laugh with joy and, in some mysterious way, reminded me that magic and dreams are not only important, but possible.

 Tyler, of course, doesn’t need to be reminded of this. Unburdened by responsibilities, mortgage payments, deadlines and job stress, he doesn’t know how it feels to have to give up a dream or ambition. He hasn’t climbed the ladder of success only to find the prize wanting and the price too high. To him, joy is natural and anything is still possible. So of course airplanes can still be magical. In his spellbound eyes are the seeds of a thousand imagined adventures, careers, dreams and possibilities.

Children, you see, still believe in the power of magic, or remember it from some ancient collective wisdom. They haven’t yet been taught to know better; to leave the boundaries of the solid, tangible world unchallenged. Never mind that quantum physicists would argue that there’s not even such a thing as a solid object. As we grow, we learn to believe in boundaries, perhaps because they allow us at least the illusion of something solid we can count on. We learn that dreams are for dreamers; an irresponsible luxury not related to putting food on the table. Slowly, we stop believing in anything we can’t see or touch or prove by scientific method. We begin to believe all the people who say we can’t, or that it’s impossible. And with every doubt, we put one more brick in a wall that anchors us into lives and lifestyles that leave our hearts only half alive.

We still talk about the importance of dreams, of course, and encourage high school students to have them. But if these young people look around, they can’t help but notice that our actions rarely match our words. How many adults do any of us know who are truly following a dream? Perhaps it’s why teenagers sometimes look at us with such scorn. If the vast majority of adults have discarded their dreams for responsible positions, good paychecks, benefits and retirement options, how is a teenager supposed to believe that dreams really matter? And yet, as if they haven’t quite forgotten that instinct they had as children, they sense that it’s we, not they, who are lost. In the classic coming-of-age film The Breakfast Club, one of the characters concludes sadly that “when you grow up, your heart dies.”

In truth, it’s not quite that simple. If we all went through our lives with the roller-coaster intensity of a teenager, we’d burn out before we were 40. Age and experience provide a certain amount of wisdom and balance that’s both necessary and valuable. But there’s a fine line between tempering the passion of youth and giving up its life force. Growing up may not make our hearts die, but giving up our dreams does. Latin American author Paulo Coelho wrote that “no heart has ever suffered when it went in search of its dreams,”  because dreams from the heart are our link with the Soul of the World. It’s only when we give our dreams up — and with them that connection — that our hearts suffer or die.

Children still seem to know this, as if it’s some ancient instinct we only forget in the details and stresses of adult life. Three-year-olds may not know much about physics, investment banking, literature, or even the meaning of life, but they understand something very important about living.

I watch Tyler run and laugh with such unrestrained joy and life, and I desperately hope he manages to hold onto that magic as he grows up. But I know all too well how hard that will be. So perhaps one day, I’ll find myself taking him out to an airport like the one where I learned how to fly. I’ll run my hand gently over the wing of a small airplane and say to him, “This plane can teach you more things and give you more gifts than I ever could. It won’t get you a better job, a faster car, or a bigger house. But if you treat it with respect and keep your eyes, ears and mind open, it may remind you of some things you used to know—that life is in the moment, joy matters more than money, the world is a beautiful place, and that dreams really, truly are possible.” And then, because airplanes speak in a language beyond words, I’ll take him up in the evening summer sky and let the airplane show him what I mean.

For the magic of flying is that it has managed to give back to me what I knew as a three-year-old but forgot somewhere along the way. It’s reminded me that life is in the ever-changing moment of the present, that joy is more important than possessions, and that dreams are the lifeblood of my heart and soul. And somewhere in the process, it’s reconnected me with a life force that makes anything possible and my heart more alive.

We all struggle so hard, as adults, to figure out the meaning or secret of life; what to do, how to be happy, and what it is we’re supposed to be doing here in the first place.  But maybe the answer isn’t that important. After all, it’s the journey, not the destination … the process, not the answer, that seems to matter. 
I spread my arms and join Tyler in another take off, laughing gleefully as I chase him around the field.  Perhaps flying hasn’t shown me the secret or meaning of life. But somewhere in the sky, it has shown me something far more important. It has shown me the secret of living.