I have an intense almost paralyzing fear of flying. I have not always had this fear, and I am not sure when I developed it but sometimes, like now, just thinking about flying turns my hands moist and I start to shiver.
I understand that fear, like all of the emotions and passions, are irrational, but I just cannot help it. Some people fear spiders or heights, for me it is flying. I am uncomfortable with the entire process from the buying of the ticket to the boarding of the plane and as the process continues the more anxious I get.
Recently I had the opportunity to attend a seminar on the psychological effects of working a fatal fire scene. The seminar was held at the Massachusetts Fire Academy, and I was in attendance in my role as a fire chaplain. As chaplain, it is my role to help the men and women of the fire service deal with the horrible things that they encounter in the course of their job, and there are many.
The presenter of the seminary is a fire investigator the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Fire Arms of the US Government. He shared stories of past fatal fires that he investigated and some of the tricks he has learned to deal with the horror of what he sees as part of his job. He mentioned that he can clearly see each and every event that he has ever investigated where there was a fatality and that the picture is stored in the Rolodex of his mind.
This got me thinking about my fear of flying and where this has come from. I have had some close calls in the air but nothing real serious, but I began to think about an event that I thought I had long dealt with.
After Hurricane Katrina had hit the United States, I was sent to New Orleans with the Orthodox Christian Charities as a first responder to work with folks on the immediate needs in the wake of devastation. Most of the work consisted of making sure the supplies that were on the way got to where they were needed most. I worked in an office with a telephone and white board and spoke with truckers and other relief workers in the field, but I was not in the field, until one night.
We had received word that there were thousands of people at the Louis Armstrong Airport in New Orleans; the government was denying this of course. It was next to impossible to get permission for anyone to enter New Orleans in those early days but somehow we were able to obtain permission. We rounded up a few school buses and set off from our base in Baton Rouge to assess the situation at the airport.
When we arrived, it was a scene from a war movie. People were living on some of the worst conditions that I had ever seen. Gate area had been turned into bathrooms, and the small was just unbelievable.
Our party entered the airport through the baggage claim area and a doctor ran up to me grabbed me by the shoulders, looked into my eyes with absolute horror on his face, and shouted “did I do the right thing?” Come to find out he had to make decisions about who was going to live and who was going to die because the few supplies they had were running out.
He took me to a former gate area that had been turned into a nursing home. This was called the “black ward” where they brought the people they did not expect to live. At this point, there were 65 people, lying on army cots; around the gate area (I can see this in my mind as clear as if I was right there as I write this.) The nurses and the doctor with the horrified look on his face were doing what they could for those in their care. I was informed that no minister of any kind had been there, and he asked me if I would pray for them.
When we were getting ready to leave Baton Rouge, I ran back to my room to grab the bag that had my stole and my anointing oil and I took it with me. I am not sure what reminded me to do that but at that moment I was glad I had it with me. I knelt down beside each person, said a short prayer for peace and to help them as they transitioned to the next phase of their life. I put my thumb in the small vessel that held the oil of anointing, and I made the sign of the cross on their forehead. At that moment, I did not care if they were Christian, Jew, Muslim, or non-believer. I did not care that my Church only allows me to anoint those of my own faith. For that moment, I was their minister, and I was going to do what needed to be done to bring them comfort.
As I made my way around the room praying and anointing each one, I noticed that the medical staff had stopped what they were doing and had bowed their heads. These people had become their family, and they were praying for them as I was. It came to my mind that not only was I bringing comfort to the people on the cots but I was bringing comfort to those whose care they were now in.
After my rounds of prayer, I spoke briefly to each one and prayed with them and thanked them for what they were doing. I assured the doctor that he had done what he needed to do and that God would understand. He asked me for absolution, and I placed my stole on his head and I read the prayer of absolution over him.
When I was sitting in a class all of these memories came flooding back to my mind, and I saw each face as if I was kneeling beside them again. The smell came back to me as if I was back in that place, and I thought maybe this is why I am afraid to fly!
Memories are a powerful thing and memories that have not been dealt with can, and will, affect us in the future. I thought I had dealt with them, and maybe I had, but they are still with me. In one way I am glad I carry those memories with me and I am glad I remember those faces, faces of people that had been left to die by those who were only thinking of themselves and were now in the care of people that would see to their needs.
Where do I go from here? Well not to the airport I can tell you that! Just writing about my experience helps me to find peace with it. I hope I never forget that experience, I hope those faces stay with me for the rest of my life, and I thank God that I was able to bring them some measure of comfort in their last hours or days.