The old wooden roller coaster in Coney Island that once claimed to be the biggest in the world is still there. I don’t know how much it cost to ride it now, but when I lived down the street from the Cyclone in the mid-nineteen sixties, the price of a ride was 80 cents. That was way too steep for this pimply teenager—about a penny a pound actually, so all I could do was imagine the feelings of the intrepid riders as I heard the squeals of excitement from my 13th story window in Brightwater Towers.
That was the excuse I gave back then. But as I look back at it now, and feeling as I do about my own life mimicking that ride, the truth, I imagine, was that I was just too frightened. Eighty cents indeed was hard to come by, but if I wasn’t so afraid of my frail frame evading the harness and tumbling to the pavement below I might have managed to find the requisite change left behind in the coin returns of pay phones. Remember pay phones?
For every incline, for every ascendant pleasure, each plaque of appreciation, every dollar in the bank or glistening smile from across the room, there is an attendant crash. I don’t think I knew it then, at least not consciously, but now I know too well that there is no grace without a fall, no breaking of a glass ceiling without mortal gashes from scattering shards.
In aviation there is an injunction that, if not saying it all, says it the most. When you are about to crash, you have a singular task: to fly through it. Not around it, but right through the middle of it. The simple four-word command to my mind reaches rarefied tattoo status: fly through the crash.
This is preposition power in all its elegant glory; to go through something implies there’s something beyond it. You can go into something without ever coming out of it, such as a coma or a whole mess of trouble. But to go through it means you’ve made it to the other side—scathed or unscathed— and therefore requires the assumption or faith that indeed there is another side.
It is, it seems to me, a fundamental principle of how one effectively deals with most of the crashes that a long enough life inevitably brings us. I have had a few fairly overwhelming ones in my life, ones that I would certainly not wish on anyone, except perhaps in a few cases those who may have caused them. (I’m struggling to let Karma handle those, but I hear she’s a bit of a chameleon and you can never tell if she’s really there.) You may well have managed to live through a few crashes yourself, maybe even some much worse than mine, and given that you are reading this now you have found some way to survive. I suspect, though, that the more you continued to fly your airplane right through the crash the better the outcome. The alternatives are denial and panic. Denial– closing our eyes, pretending we aren’t in the midst of whatever painful landscape we are inhabiting, doesn’t bode well. And when we begin to take in water and panic at the fear of drowning, that panic can lead to franticly flailing and taking in more water until we succumb.
The idea of accepting where we are rather than denying or panicking, and then continuing on by putting one foot in front of the other, is how we fly through the crash. We just know where we are and continue to act toward whatever resolution awaits us on the other side. And if we do so crippled by fear, having already taken in enough water to feel as though we are drowning, then we remain afraid, because that is where we are, as long as we continue to do what is necessary to keep flying.
While I am referring to faith, which is a deeply rooted assumption in a positive outcome, I am not referring to hope, which to me is a hook screwed into drywall that misses the stud. It may temporarily hold a flimsy picture, but don’t try to hang anything heavy on it. Hope will not get us through a plane crash, because if we depend on hope to get us through then we will end up assessing many potential disasters as hopeless, thereby robbing us of the motivation to keep flying. It is only faith, which doesn’t ask questions or analyze situations, that keeps us fundamentally motivated to do what appears impossible, and keep flying.
Inevitably, we will survive some crashes and not others. We just won’t know which is which until and unless we fly through them. There is an exact replica of the Cyclone at Magic Mountain in Valencia, by the way, about a 45-minute drive from my home in Ojai. Some years back I paid the price of admission and tried it out. By that time, I already survived a few crashes, so the Cyclone was a breeze. I walked away from it a bit queasy, but mostly, I am here to tell you, I flew right through it.