At 8:40 a.m. on August 5, 2002, I officially ended the ilIusion of having control of my life. That was the moment when the Boeing 737' s landing gear left the concrete of Tampa International destined for LAX.
It had been a long time coming. Almost 33 years to the day had passed since my previous flight. In August, 1969, I had flown roundtrip from Chicago to Orlando to visit my uncle in Melbourne Beach. The return flight was uneventful, but I recall feeling a bit anxious as we approached O'Hare. A vague edginess accompanied the thought of wanting to get back on solid ground as soon as possible. We circled out over Lake Michigan waiting to land It was twilight and even the spectacular sea of lights spreading from The Loop for miles into the suburbs did little to distract me from the desire to be back on Earth immediately.
As the years passed I had few occasions when flying was essential. It was generally just as convenient to drive where I was going. Of course, my anxiety precluded trips to Hawaii or Europe, and even a four day drive to the West Coast held little appeal.
The longer I put off flying the more entrenched my anxiety became. Nevertheless, I believed that someday I would have to face that fear. Once or twice a year I would have an upsetting dream about being on an airliner. It was usually at a holiday time of the year. I would be jostled thru a crowded, dirty airport I felt alone and anonymous. The jets were so crowded that the passengers stood upright and held straps as on a subway or the elevated Usually at some point in the flight there was a crisis, but I would awaken before anything tragic occurred However, the subsequent anxiety I felt deepened my fear of relinquishing control. The events of 9-11-01 and the specter of terrorism didn't help.
My fear was not so much about a plane crash as it was about claustrophobia and losing control of my "security." Much like the former NFL coach and television commentator, John Madden, I feared being confined. He travels from game to game in a well equipped bus; I did not have that luxury. I dreaded the panic of having to face the thought of my destiny resting totally in the hands of others. Statistically speaking I realized that flying was far safer than driving.
However, that fact held little comfort. My fear was irrational, and it was embarrassing. I was a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and a Christian Counselor. I had worked with anxiety and panic disorders for years, and I had presumed to counsel my Christian clients on issues of faith and trust. I considered myself an expert and yet felt like a fraud because of my reluctance to face my own fear. I could quote all the scriptures about fear, but I just couldn't live them.
My stepson moved to California in 1996. He lives in Huntington Beach and for several years he had been urging me to come out and visit. I thought about driving or taking the train, but those trips were far too time consuming. I had to fly. I also had been thinking for several years about taking a mission trip to a foreign land. Whereas its possible to drive to Guatemala or Bolivia, its certainly not practical. I had to fly. I had to fly. By mid-July my son was calling every few days urging me to make reservations, and I was rapidly approaching a point of no return. I had to fly. I had to do it.
There were terrific specials on round trip flights to Los Angeles. One little voice in my head said: "just do it'" but an equally insistent voice said "no, you cant'" For several days I waffled and tried not to think about it, but then in a rare burst of optimism I called and made the reservation. I had done it. but I was not at all comfortable with the thought of placing my life in the hands of total strangers. A pilot's hands that might have held one too many martinis the night before. Or the hands of a mechanic whose attention was distracted by a fight with his wife. Or perhaps I would be the culprit. Maybe my emotions would run out of control. I could be overwhelmed by anxiety and run screaming thru the cabin-- forcing the plane to land in Denver where a straitjacket awaited. Scenarios of uncertainty were legion. Who could know?
But then the Holy Spirit was gracious. Several days later, and still uncomfortable with my decision, I received an email from an old friend. This man is a PhD Psychologist and also a Christian counselor--a man of great wisdom and spiritual maturity. He and his wife make a yearly trip to Australia and minister to the Aborigines.
Flying across the Pacific and living in the Outback for a month impressed me as a very courageous thing to do.
I had always viewed my friend Del as a paragon of mental stability and well being-- a man of little or no fear. However, in his letter he confessed that for years he had been terrified of flying. He had tried every psychological technique and trick that he knew: meditation, deep breathing. progressive relaxation, etc., and, of course, he prayed, he read Scripture, he begged God and he argued with God, but nothing relieved him of his fear. Every trip was dreaded and each flight a white-knuckler.
Then during one flight Del made peace with his fear and submitted his fate to God for whatever outcome. The terror finally subsided. He resolved to trust God regardless--to entrust his life to God without conditions or limits.
Del's letter provided me with some comfort and some hope, and then two days later I was browsing the Christian section in Books-A-Million. I was killing time before a movie and looking for nothing in particular. In the dozens upon dozens of volumes my eye settled on a little book with an odd title: Ruthless Trust. It was by Brennan Manning,
an author heretofore unknown to me. My flight was three days away and trust was an issue much on my mind that evening. I bought the book and later that evening began reading it. Immediately my eyes were opened to the issue of trust. I realized that I had faith in God, but it was a faith of an academic sort. I didn't really live my faith by trusting God. It was a so-called faith, and for practical purposes rather hollow due to my unwillingness to relinquish control and trust God in every circumstance.
Brennan Manning defines Trust in this way: Faith + Hope = Trust. Faith is born in the personal experience of Jesus as Lord, and Hope results from a reliance on the expectation of the fulfillment of Jesus' promise, and the result is a willingness to trust God unconditionally. One has to be able to say with Job: "Even though he slay me, yet will I trust him." (13:15 KJV). I had faith but what I lacked was hope, and because of that I was unwilling to trust. I had no hope because I had made an idol out of anxiety and pessimism. I paid homage to worry instead of to God.
What I also lacked was a willingness to give up the illusion of control. I am not alone in that folly. Most every week I hear someone referred to as a "control freak." The term is a cliche and yet it is a cliche that defines many individuals approach to life. It is usually used in reference to a boss, coworker, friend or spouse. People consciously and unconsciously scramble to exercise-control over their environmen, and in 21st Century America the most uncertain part of ones landscape is other people.
Some people are predictable but others are loose cannons. Some people are honest but many are cheaters and thieves. Some people are competent but others are nincompoops. Some are altruistic but others are selfish. Who can know who is safe and who's a threat? And people in their anxiety have become like hypervigilant sci-fi androids scanning the environment in an effort to neutralize every potential threat. Most controllers do so to make their lives safe and predictable. However, there are those who control others for the sheer perverse pleasure in having others at their beck and call. Having others at ones disposal swells the ego and gives one a sensation of godlike potency and power.
Controlling others to meet ones own nefarious needs is a definition of pure evil. The past century's greatest villains--Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein--have been dictators who exercised godlike power over their subjects.
Our sin is much more pedestrian. We have become a nation of security conscious control fteaks. We live in gated communities, and travel in massive SUV that lend an illusion of safety. A recent newspaper article outlined a new trend since nine-eleven--the morphing of Soccer Mom into Security Mom. Homeland Security has become a new and growing bureaucracy.
Precaution, predictability and security account for the growth of medical care and insurance into enormous industries. We shop for fatfree products, gobble vitamins and exercise like dervishes. It is good to be prudent and yet for those pandering to the idol of control one can never be too cautious or overprepared. One can imagine the early saints and martyrs of the Church gazing down at us with a mixture of sadness and amusement at our preoccupation with safety and security.
A freakish striving for control in some can generalize into the psychological malady of OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). OCD is security and predictability run amok, and at its extreme can turn lives into waking nightmares of ritualistic counting, arranging and checking. One client of the author took an hour or more to leave home every morning. He had to check each door and window several times to make sure they were locked and he had to make sure each light was off and all appliances unplugged. It took seven passes thru the house before he felt safe in leaving. Another client required each member of her family to undress in the garage, change into clean clothes and place their "dirty" clothes in the washer. This ritual had to be observed after any incidental ten minute trip out of the home.
These are extreme examples of individuals trying to control their existences. A more innocuous example is that of an "anal" executive made most uncomfortable by any disorder or clutter on his desk The term anal as an adjective to describe compulsive people is another cliche of the past decade, and it makes reference to Freud's psychosexual stages of development. An anal retentive is an infant who exercises control over the flow of his feces. Hence an anal retentive infant grows up to be an compulsively neat and orderly adult or so the theory goes.
However, we realize all this striving for control is illusory when one ponders the fragility of life.
We Christians know that God can call us home at any instant and that its strictly His call and not ours. We know this and yet we live our lives with a caution that goes well beyond prudence. We have paid heed to Satan's little voice and have made an idol out of security and control.
When Jesus asked the wealthy young man to give up all his possessions and follow him he was in effect asking the youth to "lose" control of his life (Mt 19:16-22). Again in Matthew 10:39 Jesus declares: "Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." These passages are about the death of the ego and about the losing or giving up of control. They are about implicitly trusting God's love and in accepting the perfection of His plans for us.
My flight to Los Angeles turned out wonderfully. I listened to Rachmaninoff and Gospel music; I read a bit and I gazed out at the clouds and lands.cape from 35,000 feet. In four and a haIfhours I had five minutes of very mild anxiety during takeoff and while passing thru some turbulence over Arizona.
I reflected on how I had allowed both my fear and needs for control to become idols, and how perhaps, for the first time in my adult life I was truly trusting God. I pondered Brennan Manning's thought that Jesus died for our trust, and that trust was our gift back to God. I felt a mixture of elation and sadness. I felt sad for having not come to the point of trusting God sooner. A sadness about many wasted years washed over me, and yet at the same time I felt elated for giving up the illusory idol of control and finally allowing God to take over.
The universe was somehow running without my help. It felt good.