But while the California rain may fall against a gentler backdrop of lush, green palm trees, the chill of loss can still be felt as sharply there as anywhere else. I was sitting with my friend Kimberly a few weeks ago when she got the news of an airplane crash. Two friends had been flying it. There was apparently some marine layer fog when they departed the Monterey airport, but at least one of them was an instrument-rated pilot. And yet they crashed soon after takeoff. Neither one survived.
After the initial shock of the news, Kimberly and I just sat there looking at each other. We didn’t have to say it. We each knew what the other was thinking. We’d taken that very same trip together.
I found myself almost hoping that maybe the women hadn’t been that current on their instrument flying. Or that maybe they’d pushed a questionable ceiling or conditions because they’d wanted to get home too badly. Or that maybe … please, God, maybe … they had done something … anything … that I could convince myself I’d never do. Because then I might be able to comfort myself that I wouldn’t end up in their shoes someday.
But the truth is, it could happen. There are risks to flying, and those who say there aren’t are fooling themselves. I can do everything in my power to mitigate those risks, from training and practice to simply keeping non-negotiable limits on my flying envelope and safety zone. But the day still might come when the cards simply fall face down.
Most of the time, we all shove thoughts like that into the attic with the cobwebs and focus on the sunshine coming through the windows. But every now and then, circumstances bring us face to face with the shadows we’ve shoved away, and we find ourselves taking a hard and painful look at what we do and the choices we’ve made.
I think we all have times when we question whether what we do is worthwhile, especially when something bad happens or we lose people we know or care about. And the conclusions we come to aren’t all the same. I can’t even guarantee that I won’t come up with a different answer myself, someday. But although I find myself questioning the balance at times, the answer I keep coming back to is that while there’s unquestionably a risk to what we do … there’s also a risk to living at all. And if I focus only on trying to keep my body—or my heart, for that matter—completely safe, secure and protected, I might very well miss the entire ride.
What’s more, the risks of flying aren’t just weighed in the balance against an empty hand. Intertwined with whatever risks it entails are an equal or far greater number of gifts and rewards that have helped make the life I have more worth living.
I could stay on the ground and avoid the risks of flight. But if I did that, I would never know the beauty of a harvest moon rising below me or the splendor of a sun melting into the unbroken horizon of a glistening ocean as tiny, white-capped waves sped by underneath my wings. I wouldn’t know the joy of banking my plane around in the still air of a golden summer morning just for the pure fun of the dance. I wouldn’t ever feel the thrill of skimming over hilltops and watching the trees and landscape fly by underneath me—aware at once of both my connection to the Earth and the freedom my wings give me to break free of its bonds and experience its wonder in a whole new dimension. I wouldn’t have such a regular reminder to seek life not down the road of the future, but in the always fleeting and continually changing gift of this moment, right now.
Does that mean I don’t ever worry or fear that something bad will happen? Of course not. But I’ve seen far too many people build cages out of fear…fear of the unknown, fear of risk, fear of loneliness, fear of change and the uncertainty and impermanence of life … and then step and live inside those cages while life passes them by outside.
The irony, of course, is that it’s impossible to protect against the uncertainty of life. The nearest I’ve ever come to dying was not in a plane, but in a car on a country highway, when another car driven by a drunk and angry young man shot out from a side road at high speed and collided with the car I was in. I went through the windshield, and I still carry the scars. In other words, I could stay on the ground forever and still end up in the wrong place at the wrong time on a country highway. Or get an incurable disease. Or get struck down by any one of a number of unavoidable dangers. It comes with the bargain. We are given this wonderful, plentiful, and colorful gift called life that we can drink of as much or as little as we please. But there are no promises made about how long we will get to have it. In the end, we can’t really control how long we will live. Only how well.
I have a friend who asked me one rainy April night how he could teach his two teenage daughters everything he wanted them to know about living a wonderful and worthwhile life—how to value and celebrate themselves and their bodies; how to walk their own path and not simply follow another’s lead; how to know joy and be happy. I’ve thought of him and his question often.
“What would you tell them, if you could?” he asked. What would I tell them? It’s a tough question, and the answer is longer and more complex than anything I could put down in words here. And what they probably need to know now is different than what they’ll need to remember later on, when life has proven a little more complicated and difficult than they once thought it would be.
But among the many things I would say, I think, would be that life is short and is something that was meant to be approached with gusto, not timidity; a brief and colorful banquet to be savored with every sense and moment that we have. Because no matter how we go about it, it all goes by surprisingly fast.
I would also say that to drink from the full cup of life requires a bit of courage. There will be days when things don’t turn out as you had hoped, and you may know as many losses as you know gains. Your heart will not remain unmarked, and there will be days when you will look at the gray November skies and question the choices you have made. But I would wish them enough courage never to get so afraid of failure, pain, loss, or making the wrong decision that they let themselves get stuck at top dead center—or bottom dead center, for that matter—or settle for walking through life with their hearts or selves protected, but only half alive.
There are risks that come with flying. I know this. But nothing worthwhile in life ever came without some kind of risk or heartache. And with the risks of flying also come the rewards of learning, laughter, joy, beauty, and the potential of a life lived more fully and with fewer regrets, perhaps, than if we’d settled for a “safer” or more comfortable road.
There will still be times when we’ll question our choices, of course, because there isn’t any “right” answer. It’s a tricky thing, trying to find and walk a path that feeds our hearts and dreams and offers an acceptable amount of risk for a worthwhile dose of living. I don’t want to be foolhardy, but I also don’t want to be ruled by a search for security that can’t be found or fear that will become a cage.
As I step onto the train, I think again of my friend and his two daughters. What would I most want to tell them, if I had but a moment in which to speak? In the end, perhaps it would be this: Believe in yourself, keep faith in the sunrise, savor every color, sensation and season of your life … and don’t ever let a fear of falling keep you from knowing the joy of flight.
Of Risk and Life
By Lane Wallace
© 2001 Flying Magazine
First appeared in FLYING Magazine, January, 2001
I’m standing on the train platform, waiting for the 4:24 express into New York City. It’s a cold, wet, gray November day, and as I draw my coat closer I remember again how truly depressing November in New York can be. The autumn leaves are gone, and the damp bleakness of the day threatens to stir up every ache in my heart; reopening wounds I thought were healed as if they were old battle scars or a chronically injured knee. One of the reasons I moved to California, I think, was to avoid days like this.