Sit on Your Hands: What to do when the world is turned upside down

Beautiful weather we’ve been having. Yesterday, after the earthquake nonsense, I sat for a few moments on a bench. Fall is coming. Already there are leaves curled on the grass, but the sky was blue, without the glare of humidity, and I found myself transported back to a time when I was living on a farm — my back-to-the-land period. What I recalled was the peace of mind I felt for a time. I’m not much of a believer in fate — or, I can go back and forth on it, see-sawing like a lunatic on the subject — but I can remember during that period sitting on a similar bench outside the house I was living in, waiting for the pickup truck to come and get me to take me out to the fields, no complicated thoughts in my head, and thinking to myself: “This is just where I was meant to be.”

I try to think about that time now and then because in recent years that is not how I feel. I feel bounced around, jostled in a perpetual low-grade earthquake of my own. Nothing seems settled. I don’t know what road I’m on, or even where it is I want to go. It’s like I got off the highway a couple of years ago to take a short-cut, and now I’m circling through small towns and strange winding roads and I’m not sure what is east and what is west, or where the highway is, and I’ve forgotten where I wanted to get to, and have given up on getting there on time anywhere. I know, I know, too many metaphors. But maybe that’s the point: I can’t even stick with a metaphor long enough to make my point before I’ve meandered down another pitted, country road to nowhere.

But, at times like this I take comfort from the teaching of a Jesuit priest who was a significant influence in my life back in my farming days. During WWII he had trained to be a pilot, but the war moved on and the transferred him to the combat engineers, just in time for the messy work of blowing up the Siegfried line. Anyway, he used to tell the story that when he was being taught how to fly, the trainers would take them up and turn the plane upside down and loop around and basically confuse the hell out of the trainee pilots and then they would say: “Take the stick.” The idea was to disorient the pilot-to-be and see how they reacted when they didn’t know up from down. Invariably, the instinct, of course, is to start to try and direct the plane back to normal, which would lead to disaster, the trainee-pilot continuing to make the situation worse until the trainer took over and put the plan back on the straight and narrow.

Anyway, here’s the trick: “Sit on your hands.” Evidently, when you don’t know what is up and down and the plane is in free fall, the discipline is to sit on your hands. Don’t do anything. The natural aerodynamics of the plane up against the air pressure will tend to right the ship. The hard part is not doing anything. So the trainees were literally instructed in this situation to sit on their hands to avoid the temptation to mess the plane up further by trying to fix it.

Anyway, that’s my advice to all of you who feel as I do today. “Sit on your hands.” When you are confused and lost, sometimes the right course is to just go with it. Let the natural flow of life take you to the next oasis of calm and assurance.

Categories: General
Alistair Highet

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