The Parable Of The Persistent Pattern

ORD Terminal 1, just exiting United

I once spent a lot of time — or maybe only a few minutes, but they were very dense and intense minutes, and when you’re asking the right question, sometimes that’s all it takes — deeply inspecting what patterns had been in place since my childhood, and my knowing and unknowing view of them. Maybe because I fly a lot or maybe because it’s a cliché metaphor, but when I put attention on what it is that has hindered my own success in any given area, I got the image of a plane in a holding pattern. (Clichés are well-worn for a reason.)

You know when you’ve been on a really long flight and you see the city you love just below you and you can’t wait to get there and to all the people and things you love, but Air Traffic Control hasn’t given the pilot okay to land yet, so you’re stuck in a holding pattern, going around and around and around and the only way you don’t lose your mind and spike your heart rate is to think of how wonderful things are over there and how great it’s going to be over there, and so you look around and admire the brand new plane and the smiling flight attendants and the overall pleasant flight, and even the crying baby is okay with you because his parents are attending to him with such love. Sure, the flight has been rough and your legs fell asleep and you look a little like Bill the Cat but you’re okay in the moment and the flight gives you pause to consider your life, and you’re even okay with your life, not because you’ve achieved all you could have by now, but because you are compassionate towards and appreciative of not just other humans in their own overall experience, but also towards you and your own.

Yet you’re curious about the flight, so you connect to WiFi and log on to the Air Traffic Control channel, and you hear the tower giving your pilot okay to come in but the pilot just keeps going round and round in that holding pattern and you don’t understand. There must be a reason. You’re more puzzled than annoyed because the food is okay enough and the whiskey is decent and free and strong and then the pilot leaves the cockpit to attend to the loo and you know it’s the pilot because of the stripes on her shoulders and you’re looking at her and she looks at you and smiles with a hint of welcoming recognition and she looks so familiar and then you gasp and shrink down in your seat at the realization that the pilot is you. Not just your doppelgänger, but YOU. How could this be; you never learned to fly. You’ve always admired planes and pilots and you’ve co-piloted a bunch but you never actually learned how to fly because it just wasn’t done when you were younger and then it couldn’t be done because there were so many reasons that other endeavors were more important and deserved your time and money and attention…. But somehow a version of you DID make it….did learn…did do…did achieve…. I mean there you are looking right at yourself, at least That You who went and did the things This You always wanted to do.

Suddenly you feel fractured, intensely aware of every bit of your body carrying the weight of overwhelming need to recognize the other versions of you that have achieved and haven’t achieved, all the versions you need to catch up to and need to throw a life vest to. Have the oxygen masks dropped? No. The danger is looming but not imminent. Your friend HB Saul’s words come to you, French accent and everything, “The real fight isn’t what’s going on around you. The real fight is IN you.”

When the energy’s slamming and coursing through your body, reminding you that every single cell is violently breaking apart, being destroyed and devoured or miraculously and brilliantly rebuilt, and you doze off for days on end because the pain and unbelievability of that much awareness simply overwhelms and then you wake up suddenly to find yourself going round and round in the same patterns you’ve been flying for decades, you realize that if you don’t do something different and effective, the plane will run out of gas and fall out of the sky — and then there WILL be trouble, real trouble, and even the best pilot would have a time not falling short of the runway, navigating the rocks and ocean below.

Through all this, it’s easy to forget you’re the one in control — at least the kind of control that dictates your quality of life, if not, altogether and always, its content or volume. But this time, you remember.

So you catch the pilot’s eye as she exits the loo, and you nod to her and mouth the words, “I’m ready”. She exhales, mouths the words, “Me, too” and smiles as she re-enters the cockpit and soon you feel the plane straightening its course and with a slight adjustment of the wings, the plane banks, and you’re finally, finally going in for the landing — albeit through a whole lot of turbulence that makes the rough ride you’d imagined look like a summertime bouncy house barbecue. Still, you smile through most of it and breathe through the rest — you’ve been through enough to know full well you haven’t died from any turbulence yet and if you do now, which you may, because everyone’s got a limit, well, that happened.

Meanwhile, fellow passengers scream, others reach for the barf bags, babies cry, and your head fills with holy canoles. “We had an invitation to land this whole time. Our destination’s on the other side of this turbulence but we just weren’t ready to move through it! As if endlessly circling was any better? HAHAJAJAHAHAAHA!” You laugh so hard you cry. Or maybe you just cry. Okay, inside you sob long and hard for a full split second lasting a week of post-Daylight Saving Time Mondays. But then you truly relax. See, you already know — or you do now — that Life is out to teach you very specific lessons, and will increase the force and velocity of those lessons proportionate to your willingness to grow, added to your ability to recognize the lessons and your resistance to learning them…until you finally do.

So this time, you lean back in the seat, being perfectly willing to be on the plane as it falls out of the sky while you picture it landing relatively smoothly and soon, which it does.

The plane touches ground and people groan as a few eager ones clap and your holy canole goes full bakery: Not only did you have to be truly ready to systematically and vehemently pursue your goals, but in order to do so, you had to occupy the space of whatever vantage point has had the broader view all along so that you could successfully navigate the turbulence and intelligently target the runway, and in doing so, spot once and for all what your holding pattern has been and who was keeping you in it — and that that person has been you all along.

It’s a beautiful thing, if you’re willing. Don’t fear the chaos; observe it, recognize it, confront it in bits, ask yourself the right questions (the answers will lead you out), and always look for reasons to laugh. Here’s one now.

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