The news that a plane had crashed in the French Alps three days ago was shocking on its own, but all day I felt uneasy about it, wondering what it was that could have gone so terribly wrong. If it wasn’t a terrorist attack (admittedly, my first thought), then why would the pilots not have sent a distress call? Of course, now it appears that the plane was deliberately sent into the mountainside by the co-pilot, for reasons nobody seems to be able to fathom.
I don’t really like to travel by plane. I’m not one to panic from the moment I get on until the plane lands, but if there are other ways to get somewhere, I’d really rather not fly. I know that statistically, flying is very safe, but I still feel anxious about it. Stories like this don’t help! Perhaps I can take a little comfort that the aviation industry is reacting to this event by changing security in the cockpit, but this also reminded me of a conversation the Handsome Sidekick and I had recently.
We were watching the first series of Black Sails, which follows the stories of pirates – both real and fictional – in the early eighteenth century. Their lives are brutally violent, dangerous, and unpredictable. Most of what happens around them is out of their control. They must face horrendous weather, risk to their lives and livelihoods, and potential treachery. I was often on the edge of my seat, wondering how things would play out. It’s a really great show, and I’m looking forward to getting the second series when it’s released here. Mostly, while watching it, I was struck by the ways in which our lives today are different from theirs.
“They used to take such risks, didn’t they?” I said to the Handsome Sidekick. “I mean, they didn’t necessarily live very long… people must have died all the time, not just from accidents but also from disease and infections.”
“Absolutely,” he agreed, “just think if you’d have been shot while out at sea…”
“But there is a sense within the characters that life was there to be grabbed with both hands,” I said. “Like you really lived, because you weren’t sure how long you had. We’re so careful nowadays. We’re so risk-averse, but what’s the point of living a long life if it’s really dull?”
I’m not saying I want to run away and become a pirate. I don’t even want to become a legitimate sailor – my feeling about boats is similar to my sentiments about planes. And I also don’t want to romanticise too much the kinds of lives they had. I also wonder if they were given the kinds of opportunities to avoid pain and disease as we are, whether they would have taken them (my guess is: probably.) So in our modern world, when we’re given the chance to avoid making a costly mistake again, we take it. That’s part of what has made humans such a very successful species. What if the pendulum has swung too far, though? That we’re so careful trying to make sure nothing terrible happens to us, that nothing amazing happens to us, either? I mean, consider this family in the US, who have been investigated by Child Protection Services because the parents let their children walk home from the park. Just how far do we allow public safety to go?
It would be foolhardy to begin to foster a mentality whereby we simply ignore risk, and by all means, I welcome the thought of making air travel safer. But the way in which accidents, or apparent acts of violence like this are reported and shared also makes me wonder if we’re just perpetuating the fear more than is necessary. No doubt this event is going to dissuade people from flying, in the same way that terrorist attacks put people off from travelling. We’re so worried about accident prevention that we forget it’s just what they are: accidents. Sure, we need to make changes where we can, but we need to understand that not every eventuality can be imagined, and that most of the time, it comes down to luck.
But then, on an individual level, what happens? If I lived in the age of piracy, no doubt I would have been terrified most of the time and just try to get by, perhaps making some money on the side. Such a dangerous and potentially brief life doesn’t allow for a whole lot of contemplation, so I don’t know that I’d be willing to give up my safe, comfortable existence for something like that. And although all those who died on Flight 4U 9525 were strangers to me, I hope that we might be able to ensure that nobody else has to die in this way. How terrifying, knowing that you are about to crash, and that you can do nothing about it.
Is there a middle-ground, though? We are appalled at violence and we recoil from disasters. We resent grief and death. However, just like learning from our mistakes, all of these are aspects of being human, too. We can’t avoid any of them, without losing part of our humanity. Perhaps as well as looking to prevent the darkness from taking over, we also need to learn how to live with it.