On Sympathy

Justin E. H. Smith

I am not all that fond of natural-law theory, as I tend to think that there are very few things about which nature sends us the loud-and-clear message: don't do it! In fact, I've narrowed the list down to just three: incest, coprophagy, and flying.

Now many readers will be surprised to see that last item tacked onto the list. After all, nearly everyone who can afford to do so flies on a regular basis, whereas sibling-marriage and shit-eating are nearly unheard of. But I fly roughly once a month, including an average of 2-3 round-trip transatlantic flights per year for the past 15 years, and every time I do it I think to myself: if there were a God, and he were to finally come and give us his list of rules, he would not tell us not to show cleavage, or drink alcohol, or any of the usual proscriptions. He would tell us, earth creatures, to get the hell out of the sky.

I am one of those irrational people, ridiculed by the sane, normal, and mature, who suffers from debilitating aviaphobia. By 'debilitating' I mean that I spend every minute of every flight convinced of imminent death. The suffering is so severe that even though there is no significant statistical danger of dying in an air disaster, I do fear that there is a real danger of physiological consequences stemming from the anxiety. People who don't understand will often tell me to learn a bit about the statistics of air accidents. Trust me, I know the statistics. Tell me the name of an airline, and I can list for you all of the fatal accidents in which it has been involved, when and where they happened, what was the mechanical cause.

There was a time when I could tell myself: that air disaster over there, in Indonesia, in Congo, in Siberia, has nothing to do with me. My sphere of concern has traditionally been North America between the Arctic and the tropical zones, the North Atlantic, and Western Europe. To some extent, I confess I still have a way of distancing myself from certain disasters: that was a Tupolev, I say. Anyone who gets on a Soviet-built airplane is just asking for it. But then I remember that my basic conviction about my own air travel is that I am asking for it too.

In general, my sense of community, which is to say my sense of possible flight routes, has expanded tremendously in recent years. I've crossed the equator twice, been to six out of seven continents, flown from airports with live chickens in the boarding area. I have been on planes with families with metal-capped teeth, sharing jars of pickled herring and hard-boiled eggs amongst themselves, planes that smelled like buses that smelled like farms. Tomorrow, I am flying from Bucharest to Istanbul. Bucharest-Istanbul, Tehran-Yerevan: these are the doomed routes, nothing like, say, a simple Denver-O'Hare jaunt, where the complimentary snack-pack is nothing spectacular, but at least does not smell like pickled herring, and where there's sure to be some macho ex-colonel at the helm, speaking in his veteran's accent, the kind in which you can actually say things like “let's roll,” promising he'll do everything he can to “give you a smooth ride.”

There is no reason in principle why I should not find myself on a plane from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. The people on that Air France flight that fell into the ocean in June were my people, people I would want or not want to have as seatmates, people who watch Gran Torino in their seatbacks, people who are pleased with their new iPods.

After the Air France hecatomb, I entered a new phase of my aviaphobia. I began to go into pilots' chat groups online and I learned some new vocabulary. Certainly the most sinister new phrase of all was 'convective cell', that is to say a cumulonimbus that produces storms, and that is charged with unimaginable commotion inside. It is the variety of cloud that pilots are trained to avoid, but because there was an unusually long chain of them along the Atlantic equator that night, the Air France flight could not avoid them.

Why did they have to call them cells, like some nasty cancer of the atmosphere?

In this new phase, I found that I was feeling all the time the way I generally feel on airplanes, even though my feet were on terra firma. All I had to do was look up and see a few dark clouds in order for the obsessive thoughts of what it must have been like that night to come back. In this generally prelinguistic emotional state, the words that would occasionally flicker through my consciousness were: convective, hecatomb, alone. I can't imagine any more extreme form of aloneness than that.

I still had several weeks before my next flight, but the weather already had my full attention. My aviaphobia had worsened into a generalized caelophobia. A bit of lightning over Montreal was enough to send this terrestrial primate cowering, just like his ancient ancestors, in fear and awe beneath the horrible mystery of the sky.

It has been remarked recently by Sarah Hrdy that human beings are unusually cool, that if you were to stuff 150 chimpanzees into a passenger jet, undrugged and unchained, they would not make it to their destination without having several digits gnawed off by their conspecific fellow travellers. It's true that my panic never manifests itself in agression against other human beings on the plane. Yet let us not deny what we share with the chimpanzees. They, who know nothing about air disaster statistics, nonetheless feel that something is wrong, that these are not circumstances in which a chimp naturally ought to be. Yes, I said 'naturally', and I said 'ought'. Natural law is for me, as I've said, greatly diminished, but not extinct.

Now someone might suggest: why not just stop flying? I often ask myself that very question. Sometimes I think I must have a sort of compulsion to throw myself into situations that I hate, and sometimes indeed I do fail to get onto planes for which I have tickets. The hardest by far is getting onto the connecting flight, and on more than one occasion I have shown up at my destination a day or two late, after taking ground transportation from the city of my stopover.

But usually I do get on my planes, and I do so because airplanes simply are a part of my social world, and I don't have much of a say in the matter. When a conference organizer tells me nonchalantly: “looking forward to seeing you at the conference, and it's such an easy flight over from where you are,” to me this is like a restaurateur greeting me by saying: “You look mighty hungry. Don't worry, we'll serve you up a big pile of shit in just a minute.” It is a proposition that appears to me perfectly unnatural, perfectly impossible, but that is being passed off on me as if it were the most normal thing in the world. Our social reality, in short, is at direct odds with what I take to be the dictate of nature.

Flying from Paris to Bucharest a few days ago, there was a larger-than-life French dame next to me, covered in pearls and diamonds. She was on her way to some sort of Bastille Day event at the French embassy. She seems to have suffered from an aviaphobia roughly as severe as mine, but unlike me she did not keep quiet about it. She harrassed the poor flight attendants every time they came by, demanding to know what the weather would be like en route. She was told by one of them that it would be fine, but that the current conditions in Bucharest were 'pluvieux', so it might be a bit bumpy upon descent. Another attendant told her that in Bucharest it was not 'pluvieux' but 'orageux'. This triggered a long dispute about the precise differences between the meanings of the terms 'rainy' and 'stormy' in French. At some point, the Air France employee said that she would not debate 'semantics' any longer, at which point the dame said that this was not a semantic matter but a 'deontic' one. (I was my usual panicking self, but this still got a smile out of me.) The dame said that we are duty-bound to use the right words, and that we should not call a situation stormy if in fact it's only rainy. It was just this sort of imprecision, she told the flight attendant, that led to the crash of the Air France plane flying from Brazil a few weeks ago.

This observation, deontically correct or not, factually correct or not, brought the debate to a halt. The attendant likely had friends or acquaintances on that flight, after all, and no matter how well you know the statistics about air disasters, there are some things even the least superstitious among us will agree you should not mention in a plane. The attendant ended it all with a cold comment terminating in “madame,” and walked way. The dame turned her attention to me. In addition to being an aviaphobe, she turned out to be an Obamaphile, as, apparently, is much of the French haute bourgeoisie. She told me she liked Obama's hands: so fine, she said, yet so firm. Sans doute, I replied, ce sont des mains d'une beauté exceptionelle. I was humoring her; it helped us forget about our plight.

Then the conversation turned to Air Force One. She said that she had heard that when Obama flies in Air Force One they find flight paths for him that have no turbulence at all. That is why he's always so composed, she claimed, no matter how much he travels. She said that they don't bother to do that for us when we fly on Air France because they don't think we're important enough. She said she'd like to fly around with Obama on Air Force One. There, with him, she would not be at all afraid.

O madame, que vous étiez frivole! Mais si par hasard vous lisiez ça, je vous remercie de tout mon coeur de m'avoir aidé à souffrir un peu moins dans ce piège maudit.

Am I just as frivolous? Should I perhaps say something philosophical to redeem this self-indulgent and childish essay? Perhaps a word about sympathy. Sometimes when those close to me grow impatient with my phobia, they tell me that I am being selfish. After all, I don't worry about them when they are flying in planes. My phobia seems to imply that I care more about my life than about theirs. Similarly, I have already confessed to being more moved by the crash of an Air France Airbus than of a Congo Airlines Tupolev, principally because I am more likely myself to be flying in the former than in the latter.

As to this latter point, it is true that I am displaying a lack of imagination; perhaps if I'd spent some time in the Congo, and got to know some of the people who might find themselves on such a flight, my reaction would be different. But sympathy involves imagination, and it probably keeps us from dying of a sympathy overdose that we are unable to imagine all of the possible varieties of human misfortune at once. When those close to me are in planes, and I am on the ground, I am generally not distraught, simply because I am thinking about some other thing, like all the work I have to do get done before going to meet them at the airport. This too shows the limitation of my imagination, but I'd like to think it's good that I, like most other people, am limited in this way.

Of course, thoughts are themselves like storms. They go from pleasant to dark just like that, and no mastery of the science of Brownian motion is going to enable us to predict their course and dominate them. Sometimes, here on earth, in the middle of some carefree activity, perhaps involving the stirring of ingredients in a wok, I catch a glimpse of my mother (from whom I inherited my phobia) flying through a lightning storm. I think of how anxious she must be, and I am similarly anxious. Then I remember reading about the flight from Rio to Paris, and I believe I can actually feel all of the fear of all of the people in that plane combined, and I fear the sky, and I fear the immensity and eternity of nature in comparison with my fleeting self. I think this counts as sympathy: it is rooted in the egoistic instinct for self-preservation, but issues in a sense of oneness with every other self, and ultimately in a lucid vision of my own nothingness.

Bucharest, 16 July, 2009

For an extensive archive of Justin Smith's writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.