Come Fly With Me

The world has been seemingly gripped with the news of the volcano eruption in Iceland and how it has paralysed air travel in the UK and Europe (and therefore worldwide) for many days. It's been incredible to watch. Giant headlines in the newspapers, tv news dedicating much of their half hour to images of stranded passengers sleeping in airports and relating their stories.

I have reacted weirdly to it and I'm trying to figure out why.

I think if it was 5 years ago I may have been the same as many of the people they show. I might have felt like it was a catastrophe and my life was turned upside down, feeling anger and frustration at the situation - at the airlines - at the governments - at anyone! And maybe I'd be making decisions to try and get home from where I was.

That brings up interesting ideas, however.  I'm wondering if it's a combination of our cultural environment, high expectations and a generally poor ability as humans to make decisions, that is making this worse than it really is.

Watching from afar, I find myself thinking that people from the West seem to react to crisis with panic, and when the smoothly run events of their lives are suddenly not so smooth, they begin to make bad decisions, or to not realise their expectations were too high for the situation.  Does that mean, as Westerners, we are not able to distinguish a true crisis from an inconvenience, and as such, we panic or overreact?

Don't get me wrong, I know if I was apart from Gagan I would be feeling very sad and desperate to see him. I'm sure that uncertainty would be upsetting, but at no point in this current flight chaos was there any implication that people *would not* get to their destinations eventually. The stories being related by weary travellers seemed to have a certain disconnect between the actual events and the stress and upset suffered.

Some examples I heard that puzzled me slightly.  One passenger related how they were diverted to Moscow, but none of the people have Russian visas so were kept in a hotel under guard, and basically could not leave their rooms apart from the time they were escorted to the restaurant for meals. Okay... I am sure that was disconcerting, and for most people the idea of being locked away is not pleasant.  But if you compare it to the reality of life for many people on the planet, it's not actually true 'hardship'.  Just hanging out in a hotel room .... is it?  Am I so wrong to wonder why this is newsworthy and upsetting when the world is so full of death and destruction?

Another person was in Amsterdam. He has epilepsy and was running out of medication. I understand that's an urgent thing, but there are lots of interesting things about that.  Firstly, as someone will chronic illness myself, I have to travel with medicine and would never go anywhere without a whole lot of extra doses.  Secondly, once again, as someone with illness, it would be advisable to have insurance so that you are covered for this kind of emergency.  And lastly, I would think in a pinch, if you went into a hospital in Amsterdam you would be able to see a Dr and get a dose of what you need, even if you have to pay for it - they're not going to turn you away and expect you to suffer.  Sometimes, we have to pay if things don't work out.  People do seem more willing to pay for a holiday or something of perceived value in happiness, than something that they just simply need and won't get any added pleasure out of. If it feels like we are paying extra, or paying when we shouldn't have to, then we resent it.  But, sometimes we just have to do it.

So what are the things that have gone wrong?  How could people have dealt with their own circumstances differently?    Just like the guy who probably should have packed some extra medication, or thought about his options, what else should people have done?  From my own humble and meaningless little bubble, it feels like much of the discomfort is 'perceived' rather than 'actual'.

There were people who spent thousands of Euros renting taxis to drive across Europe. Was that a wise decision... or spur of the moment?  Did they weigh up how much they would spend if they stayed where they were, or if they couldn't stay, moved somewhere else that they could wait it out for planes to start up, rather than drive all the way?

Many people were talking about the jobs they had to get back to. I can imagine that would be stressful. It would be surprising (and pretty pathetic) if any boss would fire someone if they didn't get back for that reason. Of course, there could be one or two... but we're talking the big picture here. And if work is piling up while you're away, and that is a worry, how does that stack up against all the stress that you put your body through to try and get back?  Does one outweigh the other?  I don't have the answer... but I think asking the question for each person would help in making a wise decision.

In the long run, I guess I just felt a little dismayed.  You can't live in the developing world and see terrible poverty and corruption around you all the time, without having it change your point of view. I know I might have been one of those people a long time ago, but now I keep wondering what all of them would do if a *real* crisis was to hit.  What if they were in Haiti on January 12th, or the quakes in Chile or China? What if they were lived in a country in civil strife equivalent to anarchy like Somalia?  Just thinking of my friends in India and how they are used to travelling vast distances by train in terrible conditions we would not dream of, and flying is a huge luxury to them.  So hearing these passengers complaining about hotel rooms, and train trips, and uncertainty... but never noticing they didn't have to worry about their own safety or future, makes me feel sad.

To think in these terms, I realise it's all about context. This might be the worst thing they have ever experienced.  If you took some Londoners from the 1940's who lived through the Blitz, they would have probably not batted an eye.  If you live in a culture that has always given you all you need - provided you with the ability to place your wants above your needs, then you don't have to think about how to cope. You don't even need to consider what a crisis is... odds are you will never experience one. Hardship comes in the form of unemployment and debt, or not getting the job you want, the car you want.  Not in having your town fall to rubble in a earthquake, or civil war destroying your community, or no health care while disease ravages the young and the vulnerable.  In fact for people living in poverty stricken countries, they cope remarkably well with crisis and just get on with things, since they live in a perpetual state of it.   Context.   We only know what we see around us.

Which leaves us with the question - why *aren't* we more able to relate to things until we see them for ourselves?  If we're bombarded with images of starving children and war torn countries, why can't we see that we are incredibly well off, and hence shrug off inconveniences and make the best of a bad bunch?  Are we desensitized by the media, are we just greedy, or is it that we evolved to live in small communities with people mostly like ourselves and that was as far as our genetic altruism goes.  I have read a lot to support the latter.

I am not trying to say all the thousands of people stuck all over the world have not had a difficult time. But it's worth noting that until the planes stopped flying, they had gone to those places by choice (and many for a holiday) and it was only when someone told them "you can't fly" that the experience stopped being fun.  That old saying "life is what you make it" must have something in it, I think!

So... with the hopes of making better decisions in future and keeping things in context, I add these two TED talks that I find inspiring and thoughtful.

###  EDIT   ###   I just found out that insurance probably wouldn't cover this as irritatingly it's still called an "Act of God" ... which is just insane in this day and age. I would love to contest that on the grounds of being a rational atheist!  Anyway, so my point about saying people should have taken out insurance was badly researched.  Which means that all the airlines who have tried to compensate and temporarily house people are doing something rather decent I feel.  We hear of airlines losing money - profits are down, so this must be hitting hard.   And now news reports are that people want to know how the 'crisis' could have been handled better.  Sigh.. oh well.   Apparently someone has to 'fess up. What a strange world we live in.



4/22/10, 3:19 AM

Interesting. I haven't even had the experiences you've had in a developing country and while I'm not so much dismayed (I'm more bemused than anything else) at some people's behavior I do wonder why moments like these affect people in the way they do.

Maybe it's because my extensive world travel has never involved work that makes me a casual traveller. If I were stuck in Russia- what a great story to tell afterwords! My Mom caught the first flight out of Frankfurt yesterday and already she's got some fun travel stories- Imagine being away from home when something as catastrophically inconvenient were to happen... That's just awesome.

But then again, I don't understand how the death of someone super famous like Michael Jackson or Princess Di can affect people so emotionally around the world.

Good post!


4/22/10, 2:18 PM

Wow, Jude, you say "it's all about context". Be careful or you might end up being a relativist one day! ;)

Seriously, though, of course it is all about context. As the speakers in the TED talks point out, people need to compare things to one another in order to figure out their values.

BTW, another great TED talk along similar lines: The Paradox of Choice

It is indeed a great lesson: when you have trouble or are upset about things not going right, remember how bad they could be, or how bad the are for others. As the pop-culture saying goes, "Don't sweat the small stuff (and it's all small stuff)."

But the relativist in me needs to point out that since it is all relative, it is then completely arbitrary where you draw the line and say "This tragedy is worth getting upset about." For example, most of us would agree that the death of a loved one is worthy of some grieving. But how bad is it compared to the death of thousands in the recent earthquakes? You think the earthquakes were bad? What about influenza in 1918? One could go on ad infinitum.

I guess my point is that although this philosophy is a great one to think about personally, it's not cool to use it to invalidate other people's struggles. Even though their tragedies might not be the greatest on the planet, they remain — for these particular people in their particular circumstances — tragedies. So always try to have sympathy, even if inside you're saying "Oh plu-leez! Get over it already!"

Let me recount a story that a good friend of mine told me. Two facts: She had recently broken up with a serious boyfriend and her father died several years ago. She was very very upset about the breakup and was crying to her mother, who was very understanding and compassionate. She told her mother she felt guilty complaining to her — after all, her mother had lost her husband of many years, and here she was complaining about a mere boyfriend.

Her mother's response: "All pain is the same."



4/22/10, 2:22 PM

I agree... it's usually the unexpected parts of a trip that become the parts you remember most vividly and fondly. It's all so odd to me.

I didn't talk about the business side of it. I know it will disrupt that quite a bit. But then I also think a lot of business travel could be eliminated altogether. Let's face it... you and I have seen how video conferencing changes the face of interaction between groups of people across the globe. I don't see that there is any reason people need to fly to a meeting where people are only talking - ever. Unless you're actually taking part in something, being shown around (even some of that could be with cameras), or your body physically needs to be present to touch something in that country, any meeting can be done over the interwebs these days. Think of the carbon footprint ;)

I just think there is a lot more for the news to be worried about. Apparently abused children and civil war is not as important as stranded tourists. Cest la vie!


4/22/10, 2:38 PM

I know what you're saying Keith. I did touch on that a little in saying that for those people it *is* the worst they have experienced. And I understand there is no way I can know what it's like to be in Somalia so, when I'm upset about something the only way my brain can understand to quantify that upset is against the other levels of upset I have experienced.

But we do tend to feed of what is going on around us. If people were to say 'well, we just have to figure out a way to cope with this pretty crappy situation' and the media had come from an angle of "airlines are saving lives and being precautious"... rather than sensationalising it and harping on about the hardships, I suspect people would have picked up on that. It's that mob mentality. If you just act calm... the majority will be calm. But you start on about 'something bad' .. then it takes off through the crowd and people pick up that feeling. It's the suggestibility factor.

I've always been a very empathic person, and I also understand that pain is pain, right down to the biological response and what we think we are feeling. I'm fine on a one-to-one basis, but not as tolerant of these cultural oddnesses. It's just how I am ;)


4/23/10, 12:57 AM

Also, I wanted to point out that I didn't know anyone who died in the Haiti earthquake, the tsunami in Indonesia or any of the natural disasters around the world, while I *do* know the mother, father, friend or whomever who just died locally. OR, if I had known someone who died in the terrorist attack on the world trade center, I might have had a stronger reaction to it. My point is that it's not arbitrary where you draw the line- the line is drawn (in my head, anyway) when the tragedy directly affects me.

I feel empathy for the people who died (can you imagine those last moments for some of them?) and those left behind (the cycle of hope and loss with each brick a rescue worker tossed aside...) in Haiti certainly, and the horror of it all was pretty scary, but that's how life is. Arbitrary. I find it odd when people draw their line in the sand whenever something bad happens to somebody famous or just whenever something bad happens period.


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