“It’s okay to be scared. Being scared means you’re about to do something really, really brave.” ~Mandy Hale
When it comes to plane travel, I frequently quip: “I’m not a nervous flier, but my bladder is.”
In a way, this is true. Aside from brief freak-out moments when there’s a patch of turbulence or when a flash from my catalog of gruesome “what-if” scenarios forces its way into my mind’s eye, I remain blissfully disconnected from my fear. Meanwhile, my bladder takes the brunt of it, with hourly pit-stops to the lavatory alongside a persistent, dull ache.
While this is physically annoying, my strategy has its utility: it conveniently shifts the blame and shame for my irrational fear onto my bladder so that I don’t have to face up to it. (Otherwise known as somatizing my emotions, if you or my therapist want to get technical.)
So, as you might imagine, when I recently boarded my first plane flight in two years amidst a still-very-present Covid pandemic, my bladder felt even twitchier than usual. Especially at the abrupt jolt of going from socializing at a distance to being packed like sardines into a confined space with a bunch of breathing, coughing, possibly infectious humans.
At least, that is, until a little boy said something heart-stopping.
A Cry for Help
No more than six years old, the slender boy with a mop of golden-blonde hair had just clambered into the window seat of the empty row in front of me, trailing his white satin-trimmed fleece pillow and blanket.
While the boy fiddled with his seat belt, I noticed that his mother and grandmother—each equally youngish-looking with lemony hair and tanned skin—were still lingering in the aisle, conversing in hushed tones. As I casually eavesdropped, I learned that they were debating which of them would sit with the boy versus with the rest of the family located several rows up.
At first, I cursed my luck to be seated right behind a kid too young to be vaccinated or keep his mask up. Thanks a lot, universe, I grumbled internally.
But as his mother began walking away to sit with her younger child (presumably expecting that her older son was in good hands with his grandmother), the boy wriggled upward in his seat, shoulders tensed, assessing the situation. Then, he called out quite loudly, without a hint of self-consciousness or shame: “Mom, I want you to sit here with me, because I’m scared and I need you.”
Instantly, the radius of chatter around Row ten fell mute.
Like a silent lightening strike, the boy’s words charged the atmosphere with an almost electric energy. For two long seconds, they hung there in the air above us, almost too sacred to desecrate with sound. During that time, I swear, you could practically feel our collective hearts opening. Then, a sincere chorus of “Awww”s and “Bless his heart”s rang out, cushioning the silence.
A Permission Slip
As I marveled at what had just transpired, I realized that, in one simple sentence, this young boy had done something remarkable: he’d given us permission to be human.
After all, how many times had many of us felt just as fearful in life yet pretended we didn’t? How many times had we wanted to cry in the midst of overwhelm (if not wail like hell for our mommies), yet told ourselves to “buck up” or “be an adult”? And how many times had we rushed to the side of a friend in need yet readily denied ourselves this small grace?
Perhaps the reason the little boy’s words stirred us so deeply, it struck me, was that he reminded us of what we already knew yet stubbornly denied: Of the power in vulnerability. Of the courage in asking for support. Of the importance of honoring our feelings, especially our fear—meeting it with acceptance, rather than my preferred method of hastily swatting it away like a poisonous wasp.
Meeting Fear with Acceptance
Fortunately, the boy’s mother was much more adept at dealing with fear than me.
Making a beeline back to her son’s side, she enveloped him in a warm embrace, murmuring, “I’m so sorry, honey. It’s okay, I’m here for you,” (a relational repair that was powerful in itself).
Spying through the narrow slat between our seats, I watched as the boy’s shoulders immediately unknotted. Seconds later, he began chattering to his mother about the character on his video game player—his fear a seemingly distant memory.
It was then that I realized something even more remarkable: to the boy, the preceding moment was likely just an ordinary moment.
Too young to be fully conditioned by our cultural garbage around fear or gender “norms,” he had no idea that he’d done anything profound, much less impacted a plane full of people much older and “wiser” than him. He was simply acknowledging his fear and taking care of himself.
Okay, Lisa, I told myself. If that little boy can unabashedly proclaim for all to hear that he’s scared, then the least I can do is acknowledge my own fear to myself.
Especially considering that, the very day before, a beloved teacher of mine had providentially reminded me about the power of acknowledgement. How, oftentimes, just acknowledging our feelings can considerably ease our unease. And sometimes, she claimed, it’s the only thing we need to do.
Huh, I realized with a wink to the universe. You’re giving me an opportunity to practice this right now, aren’t you?
And so, I did. Closing my eyes as the plane taxied down the runway, I felt into my fear and whispered: Okay, fear. I see you. I hear you. And it’s okay that you’re here. In fact, it would probably be abnormal not to feel you on my first post-pandemic plane ride after two years of semi-hermitude.
From there, I stayed quiet and present in my body. I didn’t try to do anything with the fear, other than “stand down” so that its stifled energy could move through me.
A minute or so later, wouldn’t you know it, the tight ball of yarn that was my bladder muscle magically slackened. Even my abdomen, I noted, no longer bloated out like I was carrying a small fetus. My entire body felt lighter too, as if I’d released a leaden weight I didn’t know I was carrying. Holy moly! I boggled, gazing down at my body in both awe and glee.
“Alrighty, folks,” the captain’s disembodied voice announced over the PA system just then. “We’re about to head out, so sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight.”
Grinning to myself, I silently replied in my head: You know what? I think I will.
*A Magical Postscript*
Incredibly, the story doesn’t end there.
Toward the end of the flight, I tentatively caught the attention of the boy’s grandmother, whose name I’d soon learn was Beverly.
“Um, pardon me,” I started, “but I’m a writer, and I was so inspired by what your grandson said before the flight that I actually just wrote an article about it!”
“Oh, really?” Beverly replied in surprise, my unanticipated admission taking a few seconds to sink in. Then, her surprise gave way to delight, as her eyes crinkled into a smile above her mask and she added, “Wow, that’s so wonderful!”
“I’m happy to email it to you if you like,” I continued, “but I really just wanted to thank your family. For providing such a powerful moment for me—as I’m sure it was for many others.”
“Well, let me tell you something,” Beverly responded, leaning toward me with an unanticipated admission of her own. “That moment was a bigger deal than you know. You see, my grandson has autism, and for him it was a very big deal to express his feelings like that.”
Straightaway, goosebumps traveled up and down my arms. Of course, the writer in me couldn’t help but be tickled by the added significance to the story. But the real eye-opener for me was the extent of my own ignorance. That I assumed the moment was important to everyone but the boy. That I assumed there was only one “giver” and one “receiver” in the equation. As if the universe ever worked that way.
When the plane touched down soon after, tears sprang to my eyes as the full-circle nature of the experience hit me.
Thank you, universe, I humbly mouthed—this time meaning it.