Who is flying this plane?

Last week, we went on what was our first plane ride as a family- and real getaway in over two years. My kids don’t know this, but despite all the time I spent on planes in my childhood and early adulthood (one of which included getting caught in an electrical storm)- I’m a pretty nervous flyer. My heart rate shoots up at takeoff, landing, and any sign of turbulence. I have a whole host of superstitious little things I do to calm myself down- if I do them, everything will be fine. Some are practical- like checking the safety card of every aircraft we are on (after sanitizing it), and some are arbitrary- like wearing a particular pair of socks. Two psychology degrees, and twenty years of living in the world of mental wellness and un-wellness later- I can recognize these for what they are: coping and soothing mechanisms, rituals, and manipulatives. While ten years ago, I might have been visibly anxious- last week, they were mere behavioral blips, with a lot of deep breathing.

I notice everything about the flight- who is on it, the emotional state of the cabin crew- and who the pilot is. On our trip to Florida, the pilot was a woman- a fact that I pointed out to my daughter as the crew was entering the aircraft. “So?” She said to me, unenthused, “women can do anything they want now.” While I can’t recall a flight I have been on that was piloted by a woman, her comment snapped me out of my ritualistic noticing of details — my daughter lives in a world where women can do anything. A fact that, as a woman studying to be ordained as an Orthodox Rabbi somehow was not salient for me. Over the course of this flight, I somehow felt calmer than I usually do- and despite weather conditions and a delay — the flight was smooth and uneventful. We landed, we clapped for our fearless pilot- and went on our way.

Yet — a question formed in my mind on that flight and kept nagging at me all week-

“who is flying this plane?” - in each of us? in the places we work? in the schools our kids (or we) attend? in our communities? in this country? In the world?

In both personal and communal situations, we can find ourselves as both the pilot and the passenger- one minute we feel control over the situation, and the next minute we are in the decision making hands of someone else. That can certainly show up internally as well — sometimes we feel like we are in control of our lives: things seem to be aligning, making sense, flowing. Other times, well- we are gripping the armrests for dear life as turbulence barrages our aircraft. In either case, I suspect many of us have our ways of dealing with things. We talk about it- or we don’t. We turn to comforts- some supportive- some less so. We try to figure out a way to either keep things going the way they are, or land the damn plane.

If you’re like me, you have a pretty constant inner voice that helps you understand what is going on around you, keep track of what needs to be done, and generally provides a sounding board when making decisions — from what’s for dinner? — to does my child have COVID?

If you’re also like me, and have spent some time journeying back and forth on the road of mental health, you sometimes have had reasons to doubt that internal voice. Sometimes you’re not sure who is piloting your life because the internal voice is quite mean, critical, and a little too comfortable keeping you in the storm. The internal cockpit is set to autopilot, and it feels like you’ve ceded all control. It can be challenging, in those moments, to parse out the other voice- the one that’s whispering “that’s not true”, “just keep trying” and “you are enough”. That supportive self can be almost muted during hard times. Bewilderingly, our brains are hard wired towards negative scenarios — It is part of our internal survival mechanism. If we fear the worst, then we will make choices that will keep us safe- allegedly. Despite that, the supportive pilot voice is still there. While the inner critic guides the flight, the supportive self is quietly trying to hedge your takeoffs and landings so that, despite the turbulence, you still hit destinations safely. Even in the deepest, darkest pits, there is a part of you- even tiny- trying to find the way out.

Who is your internal pilot? Is it your supportive self, or is it your inner critic? Who is flying your plane and hedging your takeoffs and landings? These are questions that are worth pausing to think about when the skies are rough, but also- when things are flowing. Anyone ever have those cascading doomsday thoughts when things are going well? — you’re having a great day in your body, but suddenly you can’t stop thinking about how you might get sick? Yeah- I see you. It’s worth stopping to ask “who is flying this plane right now?”

Sometimes I like to physically move myself away from the spot where I had such a thought. Even if it’s just a few steps. I look down at the spot I stood on as if it had some negative pull. It’s a mind trick, but it allows the critical pilot to sit in the penalty box.

Who is piloting your path in the places where you spend your time- home, school, work?

Where I live, we are now slowly starting to emerge from the Omicron wave of the pandemic that has gripped us for two years- and we don’t really know the answer to this question. We look to our community leaders for guidance because we don’t know who to trust beyond that. We are starting to see more full faces, and it still feels weird. Every moment of every day is laced with question marks about whether we are doing the right thing, whether we should be more cautious, and whether we should trust those who tell us it’s ok.

My workplace and learning place have one set of rules, and my kids’ school has another. We dutifully carry our masks and do what is needed in all the places. The grocery store where we get vegetables is not okay seeing your full face, the one where we get meat — is. I’m focusing on mask rules, but really- people are piloting our lives in many more ways. We find ourselves as passengers within the hierarchical and bureaucratic structures of all the spaces we inhabit. Sometimes- we are in places where we don’t agree with the pilots. Perhaps our values don’t align, or perhaps what they present to the world doesn’t match how they act towards staff or students. This type of dissonance can be challenging to exist within. We board the plane thinking the pilot knows what they’re doing, and then we realize that we could fly the plane. That’s hard to sit with. On top of the internal bickering between our critic (you could do this better!) and our supporter (let’s see what we can learn from this)- we have the external push and pull between what we see, and what we think we could be seeing.

Who is flying the plane in that instance? Sometimes we have to share the process- and it’s not always easy. It is, however, acceptable and necessary to course correct when we feel like something is wavering off the flight plan. Captain is an earned title like every earned title — but it doesn’t guarantee perfection. It’s okay to show your own expertise and sensitivity- even if you’re not “in charge.” We’re all human experts in our own experience- and not much else. The rest of it, we create together.

Are you comparing yourself to how other pilots are flying their planes? Does it really matter, as long as everyone lands safely?

Humans are a communal species. For the most part, it is hard for us to exist without others. This is a big part of what has made living through a pandemic so challenging. We spent so much time isolated, alone, apart that now, when we are trying to come back together, it feels pretty scary. We have been relying on people’s digital, two dimensional representations of themselves for information- and comparing ourselves to it. The executive who wakes up at 4:30am to exercise before putting in a 10 hour day, and then posting about how amazing it is to be a mom? She’s up wondering whether she’s making mistakes because she’s at full capacity everywhere. The friend you had who is now an influencer and posts constantly? She worries about what disappearing might mean for her self esteem. The one who posts about finally getting days to herself? She’s got some anxiety you can’t see. Everyone is in constant flux between their internal pilots, and how they interact with their external influences. We can’t help how we react to people, or to ourselves — but we can help how we react to our own reactions.

Who is flying this plane? I invite you to ask the question. I invite you to wonder about values, intentions, and motivations behind your own thoughts- and actions of others. I invite you to consider what bickering pilots may exist within people, and who may be flying the plane at any given moment.

You’ll be surprised- you might be able to let go of some of the stories you tell yourself about turbulence.




Writer, Runner, Speaker, Teacher, Compassion-Creator. www.yaliszulanski.com

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Writer, Runner, Speaker, Teacher, Compassion-Creator. www.yaliszulanski.com

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