If we were birds we could flap our wings, and without a moment’s reflection, find ourselves aloft. But we are featherless humans, blessed and cursed with heavy heads; and having evolved to be prisoners of gravity, flapping our arms is likely to do no more than get us a diagnosis.
So we build airplanes, and although the engineers who design them give them a wide array of forms, the vast majority of them come with stationery wings. And while they don’t flap like bird wings, most of them come with movable parts called flaps. Flaps typically extend outward and mostly downward, and the end result is that they change the way air flows around the wing itself. What pilots say is that they “change the shape” of the wings. They are, as it were, shape-shifters.
Now, if you were fortunate enough to have the kind of mother who encouraged you to spread your wings and fly, you would know that she thought you were pretty awesome and had something to contribute to the world, or perhaps was really tired of you leaving dishes in the sink and couldn’t wait for you to leave home. But the problem with the platitude is that, while we may want to spread our wings and fly, we are not metaphors and as children don’t yet know how to do that.
The way flaps work on airplanes is simple, if you don’t think about it too much. In changing the shape of the wing by adding a downward surface, a significant amount of resistance to wind is created, increasing “drag”. The best example of this is what I used to do as a child, before we could afford air conditioning in our car, and I put my hand out the window to “fly it” through the wind. A simple tilt of my hand, exposing more of its surface, would shoot that sucker right up into the air. If my arm was connected to the car and was strong enough, it would also help slow the car down. But if my arm was really strong, it could also help lift the car off the ground.
While drag can also increase lift, for the most part, it is the thing that slows us down, as Mick Jagger reminded us in the simplistic and prescient lyric “what a drag it is getting old”. I believe it was the French philosopher-psychologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty who said that we “exist because of our resistance to the world.” Merleau-Ponty was an existentialist, and I suppose the idea is that the very nature of our existence is resistance. (He was French too, which likely added to his admiration of resistance.). When we breathe we push the air around, when we move we part the air, but more importantly, when we make an impact in the world, when we lead others, we resist the status quo. To exist in the world around us means we are always disturbing something, always changing the universe, always annoying or pleasing the people around us. We resist the natural tendency to settle into oblivion, we upset the stationery apple cart. I once heard that the only place you will ever find a lot of contented people is in a cemetery. They are at rest, disturbing no one. They are, presumably, at peace. They don’t resist, and therefore don’t exist.
My mother was deeply flawed, like me and the rest of us. In one of my many moments of self-loathing, she assured me I could do whatever I set out to do. Digging my heels in, I told her that no matter how hard I tried, I could never fly. Digging her heels in, she crouched down to my eye level, gave me that haunting stare of hers, and said that if I wanted to badly enough, I could fly. I thought she was crazy, but those words never left my mind.
Of course, like most things, she was right and wrong. One of the secrets, I discovered, is that if I wanted to get off the ground quicker I needed to extend my flaps. I needed to create resistance and find a way to get things done outside of the status quo. And I also learned that those same flaps could get me down to the ground quicker. Pilots talk about the difference between being a pilot and being an airplane driver. The airplane driver is the Reader’s Digest version of piloting; someone who pushes buttons and does the basics. Being a good pilot and not just a driver means creatively knowing how and when to extend your flaps, how much to extend them, and when it’s time to raise them up again.