June 6 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


What to do when our fears take flight

by Fr Ronald Rolhesier

Thirty years ago, before the airline hijackings of September 11, 2001, before the shoe-bomber and others like him, it was simpler to travel by air. You didn’t need to take off your shoes to pass through security, you could carry liquids with you, laptops and other electronic devices, if you had any, did not have to be brought out of your carry-on bags, the door to the cockpit wasn’t barricaded with steel, and there was much less paranoia in general about security. You even got to see the pilot occasionally.

I remember such an occasion 30 years ago when I did see the pilot, and heard him engage in conversation with a particular passenger. It was an early morning flight from Dublin to London in a small, commuter-type plane with no business-class section. I was seated in the aisle-seat in the first row and directly across the aisle from me, in the first row of seats, sat a middle-aged woman who, very soon, made it clear that she had a phobia about flying.

Shortly after we were seated she called the airline attendant over and told her that her family had talked her into taking this flight but that she was terribly frightened and was having second thoughts about staying on the plane. The attendant gently tried to reassure her that everything was safe; indeed statistically she was safer in the air than on the ground. But logic doesn’t so easily quiet a phobia. The woman was reassured for the moment, aided no doubt by the fact that she was sitting ten feet from the door which was still wide open and that our plane was, for the moment, obviously not going anywhere.

But she began to be more progressively more panicky after the doors were closed and the plane began to back away from the gate. The airline attendant reappeared to calm her and, for a few moments again, her reassurance worked. The woman grew calm and our plane took its place in the queue of planes waiting to take off. Suddenly, the woman broke out in a full-scale anxiety-attack, shouting to the airline attendant that she needed to get off the plane. The attendant, having already twice failed to effectively calm her, opened the door to the cockpit to talk to the pilot and, within a minute, the pilot emerged and began to speak to the panicked woman.

He might have been a professional counsellor, given the patience and empathy with which he treated her. He took her hand and gently gave her reassurances: “It’s okay to feel like this! Lots of people have these fears. You’re perfectly safe here. I have flown this route countless times in this very airplane; I guarantee it’s safe. Your family will be waiting for you in London, think of how happy they’ll be! And once you’ll have done this, you’ll be free from this fear for the rest of your life. I will personally escort you off the plane in London! ”

His words seemed to work magic, the woman calmed down and nodded to him that she was ready. Yes, she was going to do this. The pilot returned to his seat in the cockpit, and I sat in awe of his patience.


But a phobia is what it is. After several minutes, just as it was our turn to move out for takeoff, the woman went into another anxiety-attack, worse than the first. The airline attendant got up and quickly opened the cockpit door, sharing the situation with the pilot. The door closed without a word and our plane turned round and slowly taxied back to our gate.

Upon arrival, the pilot announced that we had returned to the gate because a passenger was experiencing ‘an emergency’ but that we wouldn’t be too long at the gate. A jetway bridge came out from the gate and the door of the plane opened. The airline attendant opened the door to the cockpit and I could hear the pilot’s voice clearly. Irritated, angry, sharp in tone, he said to the attendant: Get her off! Just get her off this plane! Gone were his patience, gentleness, warmth, and empathy. He had already tried these, to no avail. The woman had had her chance. It was time to move on: Get her off! Just get her off this plane!

We all sympathised with his loss of patience. We’d run out of patience too. We needed to get on with our trip. It wasn’t like he hadn’t tried. He’d just run out of patience, got worn-down, had had enough. That’s understandable and forgivable. He’d had done well, pretty well in fact… but, in the end, not well enough.

Ultimately he had given in to weariness and scripture tells us that we must never grow weary of doing what’s right. Of course, mostly we don’t have the strength to do that. Mostly we do the right thing until our patience runs out, and then it’s: ‘Just get her off this plane!’


n Fr Ronald Rolheiser is a Catholic priest and member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. He is president of the Oblate School of

Theology in San Antonio, Texas. Visit his website at www.ronrolheiser.com


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