Facing Extreme Fear

Moments of extreme fear. We’ve felt them. Your life is hanging in the balance. And the outcome is anything but certain.

The seconds before your car hits another. Moments before the surgeon administers general anesthesia. Witnessing a violent crime.

Since September 11th, I’ve wondered with sadness what it was like to be a passenger in any of the four hijacked airplanes. To know that your plane�the one you’re on�is being hijacked. And it’s not clear you’ll ever see your family again, walk in the sand, celebrate another Christmas.

During those last few minutes of life, many probably knew intuitively they wouldn’t make it. Was the experience profoundly lonely? Was God anywhere nearby?

Recently I was traveling across the country and my airplane’s right engine conked out mid-flight. The pilot informed us we’d be making an emergency landing in St. Louis. For the first few minutes fear gripped my body. Could this be it? Did the story of my life end here?

Instinctively I recited childhood memorized prayers. I felt moved to thank God for the blessings in my life. But I also wanted to settle all accounts and apologized for all the times I’d fallen short.

Gently, I felt an unexpected peace. I was pleased with life. I had mostly lived it boldly, creatively, lovingly.

At that moment I decided if I only had 15 minutes left I wanted to live them in the most alive way I could think of. An 11-year old boy of divorced parents sat alone in my row. His eyes grew big as he tried to be brave and hold back tears. We started talking about ” Spiderman ,” the movie (the one we’d been watching, before the emergency). He told me the rest of the story. I noticed other passengers were talking to their seatmates and nervously reaching out to each other.

The plane landed safely. Fire trucks pursued us, but the failed engine didn’t burst into flames. We cheered wildly.

This wasn’t my first time experiencing extreme fear. I was once robbed at gunpoint. Another time I nearly drowned off the Peruvian coast. But I’m noticing a pattern in those moments. Time slows down. Awareness expands. Our minds and hearts immediately seek God. We’re a mystical people. And whether the outcome is to live or to die, the journey is not one we face alone.

I like to hope that God was acutely present to each of the September 11 passengers.

That in their last few minutes, they looked at life with gratitude, sent messages of love to their families, comforted each other, and faced death with courage.