Picture yourself on a transcontinental flight, economy class, sitting in a middle seat with a weary mom trying to console her crying baby on one side of you, and a large man who is intently staring at his blank video screen on the other. A bit of turbulence starts, then intensifies, the plane bouncing up and down in the sky. The baby screams. The man clenches his fists, eyes bulging. You silently pray for it all to stop, to just get back on solid ground. But it doesn’t. It only gets worse.
We’re all experiencing something like that right now, the commotion beginning well before the current pandemic. Climate change is an accelerating contagion, triggering deadly wildfires and preemptive power shutoffs, a shelter-in-darkness policy. We regularly walk past people without homes, biting down impotent anger at a sad situation that nobody can seem to solve. Political discourse is in constant turmoil. The coronavirus, and the likely resulting tumble into economic depression, is just the latest uncontrolled nosedive.
This is the new normal, I’m afraid. We’ll hit smooth air once in a while, long enough to relax into our seats and watch a scary movie or two, but the turbulence will re-emerge soon enough. And we can’t get off the plane.
What’re we to do in such a situation?
As instructed when an oxygen mask falls from the overhead compartment, we all need to attend to ourselves before assisting others. This may trouble caregivers, but panicked people fight against having a mask tied to their face, or whatever other deeply uncomfortable remedy must be adopted. If we’re running low on oxygen our ability to help others rapidly disappears. Supplied with good air – solid spiritual grounding, proper nutrition, ways to acquire necessary knowledge and wisdom – we’re better able to care for others.
Taking proper care of ourselves isn’t easy, especially during turbulent periods. Healthy eating and exercise require commitment. Cultivating mentally, spiritually, and intellectually nurturing practices demands fierce discipline. Few of us have been raised in fully satisfying religious traditions. Left to our own monkey minds we’re more likely to binge watch Tiger Kings than read the complete works of William Shakespeare. Perhaps we should all make an emergency personal care plan, including how to secure proper sleep and feed our minds and spirits, and permanently implement it. The emergency is now, and forever.
On a plane most passengers studiously ignore travelers making a ruckus, or frantically try to wave down a flight attendant to deal with the problem. But in the air and on land there are multiple examples of spontaneous acts of kindness that, during our never-ending-crisis, need to expand and become culturally institutionalized. Many of us quickly relinquish our public transit seat for the pregnant, infirm, or elderly; offer to help carry a stranger’s heavy load up a flight of stairs; donate clothes and food to those in need. Bolstered by our deepening spiritual practice, what if, on that proverbial plane, a passenger in economy-plus or business class gave up their seat to the mother and child? Or we turned to the stressed passenger next to us and admitted to being anxious too? Or got up and asked the harried flight attendants if they could use a hand, perhaps even switching places with them?
Then there’s the plane itself, its pilots, the mechanics who carefully placed the oxygen masks in their compartment. We might call that the “government,” including elected and appointed leaders, and the web of public policies that shape our world. It’s the most challenging element to change. But we’ve relentlessly demonstrated a willingness to do what it takes to make things better, even at great personal cost. Deep courage was exhibited by the passengers who charged Flight 93’s cockpit during 9/11; the naval captain who was fired for breaking formal communication channels to protect his ship’s crew from COVID-19; and the entire health care profession, which has thrown itself into the battle to save virus-endangered lives, despite the risks.
We could collectively decide that it’s unacceptable for anyone to be placed in a distressingly uncomfortable position, mandating minimum personal space on long haul flights, or a safety net that truly takes care of everyone’s basic needs. We could place limits on how much luxury wealth can buy, in the air and on land, through progressive tax policies.
Personal and political change require the same elements: a ferocious dedication to truth, fairness, compassion, and action. Most of us want to see reality clearly, live in a just world, and support empathetic politicians and policies. The hard part is making the necessary sacrifices to act. In the end, though, the cost of fully exercising our beliefs will be less than being repeatedly forced to shelter at home, in darkness or in light, waiting for the latest storm to blow over.