A journey through fear of flying

Jeannie Cochrane
Sunday, 29 May 2005

Sermon slot 29th May

Jeannie Cochrane


At the end of October last year I sat with Mark Pierson  on the roof top above their 9th story  apartment in Melbourne.  It was my first  overseas trip and I told him the  story of  how I came to be visiting Melbourne and the significance of this trip for me.  I acknowledge that these days a trip like this is  pretty much a common occurrence  but  it was something I had never thought possible for me to do. Mark's response was,  "You should tell your story at Cityside."  So having considered his suggestion, that's what I'm  doing   this morning.

One of the  things I have struggled  with the most in my life is fear. As a follower of Christ I have wanted to know God's help in overcoming these fears especially those that impacted my ability to live a normal life.  I had prayed  and  been prayed for, but nothing seemed to change. Years ago we used to sing  some words from the Psalms " I sought the Lord and he heard my cry and delivered me from all my fears."  I was disappointed and frustrated that my experience didn't match those words.

Probably  my  greatest  fear  has been  the fear of flying.  I flew about three times in my late teens and early twenties with some mild level of anxiety. Then I had no occasion to fly for the next twenty five or so  years. But somehow in that time the fear of flying   became  so huge that  I couldn't even consider getting on a plane.  So I told myself that it didn't matter, I would just stick to going to places where you didn't need to fly and I didn't really care about going further afield anyway!

In around 1998   I was doing  a meditation on the story of Peter's attempt to walk on water.  This was an Ignation style meditation where you put yourself into the story. I could see myself standing on the edge of the boat, and Jesus calling to me to come to him, just as he had done with Peter. But there was no way I was willing to  step off that boat  because I saw  the boat as the safe place to be. As  I stayed with the story, an important  insight came to me - it just wasn't true that the boat was  always a safe place. This helped me face up to the fact that I cannot by being in control always keep  my world safe physically and emotionally and  there would always be things beyond my control.  I know what I've just said is like stating the  obvious  but I think because of some life experiences I had a strong need to keep my world safe and  it was a truth I hadn't been able to face head on.  I began to recognise my  need to find a way to accept the reality of life  without it causing me to limit the way I participated in it.  I recognised it would not be a simple process, because my need for safety was very deep seated.  I realised too  that I had prayed and asked God to take away my fear and I'd felt that nothing had happened. But something was happening because  what I was working with as a result of the meditation was at the root of  my struggle with fear. 

By  the year 2000 we had two of our three daughters living in Wellington. They were both doing performance music degrees and their end of year exams  were recitals  which we were invited to  attend. This time, I believe as a result of the movement I had made since doing the meditation,  I opened myself to the possibility  flying to Wellington. In spite of the fear I still felt,  something  in me was tentatively  saying "I want to do this" So in a moment when I felt more positive than negative I booked the tickets.

I began to do some preparation for the flight - reading, praying  and journalling , and talking   with my Spiritual director. I was  feeling quite optimistic  about  how I would handle the flight but the reality turned out to be somewhat different. I was  very nervous by the time we got to the airport. Going   through the door and into the plane - the point of no return -  took all the determination I could muster. During the flight my stomach was  churning so much  that  couldn't eat anything, my hands were sweaty,  my legs started to shake and I felt like I was barely holding myself together.   In Wellington I  left the plane with very mixed feelings. On the one hand I  felt disappointed with myself that  I wasn't able to be more in control of my emotions but I was also quite elated that I had actually managed to get on a plane after all these years. The  return flight was  a little better  and even though I hadn't coped anywhere near as  well as I would have liked I did have  a real sense of satisfaction and gratitude to God as I recognised that this trip  had been  a significant milestone.

 I made several flights  to Wellington over the next few years and  I experienced the same  mixture that I had after the first flight.  One problem I had was that even though I had it all sorted out in my mind , strong a emotions just kicked in anyway and there seemed nothing I could do to prevent that.   As I reflected on my experiences  I had some serious questions about where God was . Why had God not delivered me from my fear? Was I doing something wrong?  Not trusting God enough?  The central question for me became  did being a follower of Jesus make any difference in a situation like this?  In time I actually expressed some anger to God - I felt God had let me down, hadn't come through for me when I had needed it. I questioned whether God really had any power to help me through this,  whether God actually cared anyway.  And I was certainly frustrated  at God and at myself that every time I needed to do this ordinary activity  it was a   stressful ordeal.  Over time though  I realised that as I looked back over my life there were times  where I could say with certainty   that God had been there with me so   I came to a decision that on the basis of  this past history  I would trust that God was with me even if it didn't seem like it and that maybe the issue was my lack of understanding of how God works rather than God being distant, powerless or uncaring.

 I also noticed that in the middle of a flight one voice within me was  saying why  am I  putting myself  through this  - just take the train next time. Yet another voice within was saying  I  really want to get through this.  That voice is accurately summed up in these   words from a poem by David Whyte called  The True Love which is also based on  the story in the bible when Peter walked on water … if you wanted to drown you could but you don't, because finally after all this struggle and all these years you don't want to any more. You've simply had enough of drowning and you want to live and you want to love and you will walk across any territory and any darkness, however fluid and however dangerous, to take the one hand and the one life you know belongs in yours. 

 In  April of 2003 we  booked to go to Wellington for our youngest daughter's graduation.   I went for  my regular  session with  my spiritual director and had put this flight and the questions I had re where was God in this on the list of things to talk about.  We'd only just opened up the topic when I felt very clearly that  God was saying something to me that I didn't really want to hear.  The words didn't come from my spiritual director, they came from what I think of as  the spirit of God  within me and what I heard was along the lines  that I needed to let go of  focussing on a fear free flight and open myself to knowing God in the fear. I felt really trapped - there was no way I wanted to agree to that yet it I also recognised that  I couldn't  make God take away my fear either.  It was just a couple of weeks before Easter so the words of Jesus prayer "Not my will but yours be done" came to my mind. After my session  I went down to the beach nearby. I felt  very vulnerable and not yet  able to pray that prayer.   After some time of wrestling with this I  also began to focus on how much I was loved by God and from that place gradually came the willingness to let go of insisting God do things my way.   I found a small piece of driftwood and  wrote on it " My way, the way of no fear." and walked   with it to the far end of the beach and out onto the rocks.   I threw the stick with those words out into the sea as a symbol of letting go of my way and embracing God's way.  Something shifted within me as I did this. Now I faced the next plane trip in a couple of weeks time from a new perspective -  the aim was no longer a fear free flight but more of an interaction with the fear and with how God might want to be with me. Over the next few times I flew,  quite a bit of pressure was taken off  by  not having the expectation of  not feeling any fear.  I can't say that I ever felt God's presence with me in any tangible way  but I knew in my spirit that just because I felt afraid it didn't mean  God was not with me and that gave me strength. A plane trip still felt more stressful than I would have liked but I knew now that flying was something I did  and I was going to continue to fly  whether I felt afraid or not.

Around a year later - in May of last year - we were due to fly to Wellington  again.  I watched the weather on T.V the night before as I always did before we flew. In the past the weather for our flight time had always looked good  but I  became quite anxious when I saw that this time gale force winds were forecast.  I took myself off to do some journalling  which brought some temporary relief but then I had an overwhelming sense that I could not do this - I could not fly into Wellington in the kind of turbulence that I had heard quite a few stories about!! My level of fear seemed too overwhelming to have any space for knowing God in the midst of it. I realised that this was one of those times that I needed more support than I could give myself and it was time to ask for help  so  I rang my spiritual director for some emergency input!  We looked at the situation from a few different angles, including opting out of flying altogether and taking the train. That seemed a great  idea for a while  but then it occurred to me that if I was to continue flying this was a situation I was going to have to face sooner or later and if I opted out now I would just have to go through all this again down the track. By the end of the conversation I had regained some perspective,  my  panic was beginning to  subside and I was willing to move towards  trusting  God in  however the next day's flight  would unfold. As I thought of flying in turbulence  I began  hear a voice within me   saying "you can do this, you are strong enough to go through this if you need to."  We arrived at the airport for our late afternoon flight, to find it had been delayed by a couple of hours because many   of the day's flights had had to be cancelled due to bad weather.  As I  waited, wondering what kind of flight we would have  I found that the  inner affirming voice  was  starting to speak more loudly than the fear. I  walked onto the plane  trusting  that if we did have a rough flight somehow  I would have  the strength and courage to  handle it even though it would  be an unpleasant experience. As it turned out the wind had blown itself out by the time we arrived in Wellington. The whole process had been very significant for me however,  as I had faced for the first time the very real possibility of having to fly in bad weather and had chosen to do it anyway.  I found myself very grateful to  God from a deep place within me, not  because the  flight was smooth but because  this strong and courageous  inner self  which I  believe is the life of Christ within me,  had been present to an extent  I hadn't experienced before.    

Up until that flight  I felt I only had enough emotional energy to cope with  flights within  NZ and I decided I would be content with that.  But somehow the process I went through for that last flight had shifted things to a new level. Now  I began to think that maybe some time in the future I could make it a little further -and  Australia seemed a good next step. But  I wasn't quite ready to  make this a reality just yet. Then   one night  I had a dream which was of significance to another area of my life but ended up also having input into the ongoing journey of flying. In the dream  I was in a mental hospital. I was trying to find a way out but there was no-one around who  could tell me what I had to do to be able to leave there. I knew this was an important  dream so I began  to work with it.  Almost immediately  my mind was taken back to a time in real life when I was 19 years old. I had left school and  been accepted into the first ever intake of students in the Auckland Medical School.  Soon after starting there I  began to feel very depressed.  Part way through the second year the level of depression meant I wasn't able to cope with life  and I ended up leaving medical school and shortly after was admitted into what was called in those days a mental hospital. I can't remember how long I stayed there but I know I had quite a number of electric shock treatments to try and lift the depression. This was in the days before the kind of psychotherapy we have today and I know now that I was never mentally ill, just emotionally very fragile and some good counselling and loving support was what I really needed.  As I worked with the dream  I  asked the Spirit for insight. I don't have time  to talk about that more fully - just to say I became aware that some doors of possibility which  had closed for me as a 19 year old remained closed in my mind and emotions and that I needed to make a choice to open them again. It is my belief that  God's spirit  brought to my attention  some personal inner beliefs I had no conscious knowledge of  but which were negatively impacting my life.  I love the verse in John 10 v10 where Jesus said he had come so that we might have life and have it to the full and I knew it was time for me to move forward out of the symbolic mental hospital and into more of that fullness of life.  This felt such an important step that I wanted to symbolise it in some way so  I decided to have a 'moving forward'  ritual with  some friends and  I asked  Brenda to facilitate this. As the day for the ritual  approached  I felt quite strongly that it was time to take that next step and be on a plane for a longer period of time.  My friend  Joy and I had talked from time to time about going to Melbourne  but it was one of those "one day in the future" ideas with no specifics ever being mentioned.  On the morning  of my ritual I talked  with her about my feeling that I really needed to take this trip and  for the first  time we talked about some specific dates.  My moving forward ceremony later that day was a very special and meaningful  occasion for my life as a whole.  As part of the ceremony  I had a table where I placed some symbols of my future hopes. One item I put  there was my brand new passport -which I had decided to get a couple of months earlier just in case I ever needed it.  It seemed a fitting symbol of  the way opening up  to go  places both symbolically and literally, that  I hadn't been able to go before. The following  day,  Monday, I went to the travel agents to make some preliminary enquires about  going to Melbourne over Labour weekend and  found out  there was  a special airfare  which ended on  Wednesday, two days away. So the tentative plan quickly became a definite plan and by the next day our  tickets were all booked and   included Robeanne who was able to join us for the trip.   When the time came I managed the 3 hours and 55 minute trip to Melbourne  relatively comfortably.  We had a  great holiday and  I felt  really thankful  to God for the journey from not even being able to consider getting on a plane, through the different stages I've talked about today  to the  place where I now was. The important thing for me was not so much that I had travelled overseas for the first time but the freedom I had to live life more fully without  having to say I can't do that or go there because I can't be on a plane.

So  I return to  the question I asked earlier on  - does  being a follower of Christ actually make any difference in my struggles with fear?   My answer now is yes , but not in the way I thought it would.  My initial hope had been  that a prayer today would result in freedom from fear tomorrow - an instant and  painless path to growth. But the reality has been a much more difficult process than I had imagined and one in which I have needed to let go of my ideas of how it should unfold and trust God's ways and God's wisdom.   But I am really grateful now, even of I wasn't at the time,  to have had to go the long way round - I know I have grown as a person in ways that  wouldn't have  happened otherwise and  my relationship with God has deepened in the process.

To finish I would like to play part of a track I've played here before -  'You Raise Me Up' from  Secret Garden.  I particularly like the line 'You raise Me up to more than I can be' and  I'm playing this as an expression of gratitude to God for how I've experienced that  in my journey.