Fear of Flying, Fear of Mujō

If you study the faces of the sleeping people around you, there’s a good chance you’ll get to see the exact moment when someone waking to unexpected turbulence thinks for a second they’re about to die. It’s a phenomenon that’s surprisingly easy to spot on the Transpacific night flight back from Japan – people who, snapping out of delirium and into a dark, pressurized tube rocketing above an even darker ocean, figure for a moment that they must be on the way out.

I was always scared of flying as a little kid, and I think it was probably equal parts being pre-pubescent post-9/11 and once experiencing what’s referred to as “moderate turbulence” – the kind where hot coffee spills and people fall and flight attendants get in their special seats that honestly look way safer than ours. Basically, imagine the stuff you see in movies just before someone opens the cockpit to reveal two dead pilots and young Susan Sarandon hesitantly taking the controls in hand. In other words, I feel like my earliest fears weren’t unfounded. Regardless, any fear of flying that survived high school faded as I made my routine back-and-forths between Los Angeles and Amherst. And it makes sense that most people get over a childhood fear of flying. After all, the data always points to flying being the safest form of travel: everyone knows that line about the chances of your dying being greater on the car ride to the airport than on the flight itself.

As I flew back from Japan, however, I found myself once again facing the hours-long sweaty-palm-a-thon that so plagued me as a kid. I could rationalize the safety of the plane’s multiple back-up systems, and how mild turbulence is a service issue, not a safety issue, but for some reason I still felt sick for most of the flight. As this post does not come to you via séance, I obviously made it home in one piece, but for a while I really struggled to understand why I was feeling such irrational fear again.

In the end, I think it all has a lot to do with the ways we try to make ourselves feel special.

A big part of our ability to ignore the creeping fear of disaster comes from our innate ability to convince ourselves, “well that won’t happen to me.” We engage in mental gymnastics, rationalizing our safety fears away: a trip to the grocery store is familiar, so it must somehow always be safe. Bad things aren’t supposed to happen to elite college students. Maybe it’s because Western religious tradition encourages us to see a divine plan to our lives. Maybe it’s because American individualism tells us we are all our own undying main characters. Maybe it’s just a protein-heavy diet, I don’t know. Regardless, if you really grill your friends about it, you’ll discover that, beyond probability, many people hold at their core a set of essentially irrational reasons for why they think they’ll always fall on the right side of safety statistics.

The first time I ever encountered widespread resistance to this idea was in Japan. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t subscribe to the notion that all of Japan exists in some non-Western vacuum. Still, I had never heard the rejection of irrational specialness so strongly anywhere else. There’s this word mujō (無常) in Japanese. It’s written with two characters: 無, meaning “not”, and 常, meaning something like “regular, consistent”. Accepting that the world is inherently mujō means accepting that the natural state of things is inconsistent, that disaster strikes without warning and with no respect to how special you might think you are. Nothing places you inherently outside the risk of catastrophe – it’s an understanding of the world that was again confirmed by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that devastated Japan in March 2011.

The combination of seeing, reading about, and meeting some people who quietly lived in recognition of mujō in Japan had slowly drained my unconscious but nonetheless strong sense of safety by exceptionalism. Like many people, I was moved by stories of elderly women struggling to keep their families together in the immediate post-war period, or images of the chaos wrought on everyday people following The Great Tohoku Earthquake. And at first, as I learned on my flight home, this left me feeling pretty strongly that I was doomed to die in a fiery inferno somewhere over the Pacific Ocean – and I think this morbidity is a common feeling that comes with rejecting irrational exceptionalism. If you’ve grown up reflexively relying on it, you’re left a little lost when it fades.

The truth, however, is that recognizing and accepting the mujō of our world or the reality of mono no aware is not meant to plunge you into paranoia, cynicism, or crippling morbidity. It’s supposed to leave you with a kind of beautiful, quiet sadness about existence, one that ideally inspires you to appreciate simplicity and feel empathy for everything around you. I’m still working on that part, so I’ll keep getting on airplanes, even if I still double check the safety card.