MOURN AND MOVE ON
It was terrible news.
But I felt almost immediately that this wouldn’t be another Challenger in terms of its mass emotional impact. There are a lot of reasons for this. The first is that we’ve already had our Challenger and most people now feel that we overreacted, taking too long to start flying again, and worrying more than we should about absolute safety. The second is that, post 9/11 and with a war looming, we’re a bit tougher about tragedies. We should fix the problem and get on with things, with a minimum of tear-jerking.
Maybe we’re all soldiers now—it can happen pretty fast.
Two years out of college, I started losing buddies to enemy fire and to military aviation itself, where small errors compound fast. Interestingly, none of us walked around in the kind of dramatic funk you’d think from watching TV. Instead, we became Buddhists. Oh, none of us knew we were Buddhists, even though we were avoiding Asian bullets and mountains. What we did is focus on doing things the Right Way and never thinking about the threat.
Doing things the right way isn’t as dramatic as talking about who has the Right Stuff, but it’s what actually goes on in military aviation. Whatever the threat, the challenge in military aviation is to remember all the right procedures (most of which are reflexive) and to not let your feelings about a threat overwhelm your ability to perform. The threat is never the enemy, it’s error. You can’t control the enemy so thinking about him is a colossal waste of time. What you can do is follow the procedures that have been fashioned from the mistakes of thousands of dead aviators and close calls. More accurately, you don’t actually do the right thing, you avoid doing the wrong thing. Aviation in general and military aviation particularly is based on benos, as in, “There’ll be no more of this, and there’ll be no more of that.”
(It turns out that doing the right thing requires an odd blend of confidence and humility. Confidence so you know you’re capable of doing the right thing, and humility so you know that the fatal error is present in the slightest inattention. For a dramatic example of the role of error in aviation, consider the story of the greatest air disaster in history, where a publicly acclaimed, right stuff kind of guy impetuously killed himself and 537 others, and didn’t even have to leave the ground to do so.)
Glenn Reynolds’ point is that, like all warriors, we have better things to do than to dwell on the casualties of action, since now we’re all in the mix ourselves. The threat is unimportant. What’s important is that each of us do our assignment well whatever that assignment is. What we think about our circumstance is the stuff of daytime soaps. What matters is whether we’re doing our assignment as well as we’ve been trained and as we’re capable. As we used to say, “It doesn’t matter whether you crash or not. What matters is whether you strike the ground at the proper angle of attack.“
It sounds like the old stiff-upper-lip advice, doesn’t it? That’s because it is. Being a Buddhist or warrior is not some airy-fairy new age indulgence. It’s a matter of clarity of purpose and a sense that one matters but that fear does not.
Get Over Yourself!
On 9-11 plus 4, I was at an outdoor cafe in Philadelphia, where the mood was as subdued as you’d imagine. Some young people at the next table hailed a passing cyclist, who paused to chat with them. Shortly thereafter, I heard the young man say, “It’s not fair! This is supposed to be the best time of my life! I’m just so depressed I don’t know what to do.” I can’t say if he lacked the right stuff, but he sure seemed to be approaching his reality the wrong way.
Since soldiers, aviators and Buddhists acquire detachment from the threat, why don’t Americans develop a cultural bias for that healthy kind of detachment? Why worry about what’s unlikely, when you can do something that directly improves what’s here-and-now? Were we to collectively embrace the wisdom of the warrior, we too would sluff off the distractions that cause us not to be present to the important work we each have. Those distractions compete with the benos that must guide our actions—specific, known mistakes of those who’ve gone before us.
Detachment seems the opposite of what we might call the jitters. What causes jitters? Any emphasis on what might go wrong rather than known ways to avoid past mistakes. The enemy is any force that emphasizes those worries.
The troika whose product is the jitters is the alliance of organized religion, politics and the media. In a world of important work and vital compassion, we humans invite distraction when we listen to voices whose agenda is to describe threats so terrifying that we dare not ignore them. Their livelihood is the rape of our minds, our innocence and our capacity to do the right thing in our real lives—you know: the ones we conduct with each other.
A perfect example is the Homeland Security Threat. When we’re told that we’re in danger but we’re not told what to do to protect ourselves, then we’re being treated like children. If someone purports to be in charge but can’t say how you can contribute to the challenge except by paying attention to them, then that person’s goal is our attention, our praise, our eyeballs, our vote. For sure, he hasn’t anything useful to say to us.