Saying Goodbye to the “Friendly Skies”: Reflections on a Year of No Flights

Posted: 25 August 2010 in Riding
Tags: , , ,

I have been trying to decide if and how to “celebrate” the one year anniversary of my decision not to fly (data: between 1984 and 2009 there was only one 12-month period during which I did not fly–having covered something like 500,000+ miles on my way to 45 nations over that 25 year period).  In one sense it is no big deal.  After all, most of the world’s 6+ billion people will never board a plane.  Flying is merely a confirmation of extreme privilege so making note of not doing it is kind of like “doubling down” on that privilege.  Indeed isn’t it possible that my original decision was little more than a self-congratulatory “environmental correctness?”  Just another white guy who has helped to systematically trash the planet crowing about how “good” he is for having made a valiant decision to keep trashing while pretending he is not…

Let me pause right here and own those criticisms.  Let me acknowledge their validity.  Let me confess my hypocrisy.

And then let me tell you what I have learned during this year.

1.  Not flying is good for my health.  Flying is one of the most stressful things I ever did by choice. We are not meant to be herded like cattle while our every action is scrutinized as if we are about to commit a heinous act of self- and other-destruction.  I feel better not doing it–a lot better.

2.  Not flying has disabused me of the idea that my work is critical to saving the world.  When you jet across oceans and mountains and land in a place with no running water, rampant infectious disease, and deep poverty you get an incredibly inflated sense of your own necessity.  You don’t come to learn, to listen, to be with people… No, you come to dispense–wisdom, technique, solutions…  You are “important” in your own eyes.  Not flying helps you keep your feet on the ground (pun intended) in this regard and that too is healthy in a different kind of way.  It is no fun playing at “savior”.

3.  Not flying has forced me to deal with the joy, messiness, fear, dreams, success, failure–to deal with life–in my home town. It sounds strange to say, but not flying has forced me to live closer to home and that is a good thing.  Those who know me know that Jacques Ellul has been a precious resource for me over these past years.  You may not realize that Ellul (most agree) was the one who coined the motto: “Think Globally, Act Locally”.  Ellul understood better than most people the weight of the global challenges humanity faces but he also believed deeply that there are no global solutions; only local ones.  I am learning to live, work, listen and act in my nearby.  That is hard work.

4.  Not flying has allowed me to learn new things and to become an apprentice (of sorts) for the kind of things that my heart tells me matter.  I am learning (with fits and starts) how to grow my own food.  Just last week I dug my first potatoes since I was about 8 years old.  I hadn’t planted them but I helped harvest them–maybe next time I will have planted too.  I am learning to listen to the stories of people whose lives have been filled with hurt and dehumanization without feeling the need to offer pat technical solutions.  I am learning how to fix my bike (I am so ashamed to admit this).  Not flying means I have time to think about the things I really need to learn.

5.  Not flying has made me more available to my family–perhaps a mixed blessing for them.  I used to wear as a kind of badge of honor the fact that I traveled 60% or even 70% of the time (something I did for years–mostly by plane).  I know, that is really heinous, especially because I had two little kids at home and a spouse who had my assistance less than half-time in the monumental task of raising them.  Why did I do that?  See point 2 above… Look, I am not going to live with regret about what might have been.  My kids are great kids (adults now) and my wife is still with me and tells me that she both loves and likes me (I ask her nearly every night to her exasperation).

6.  Finally, I have learned that traveling at the speed of bike and feet (with an occasional train trip and an even rarer car ride) is to travel at a human pace.  In the end I think that is the biggest lesson from this year: I feel like a human being again.  And that is good, because whatever else I have become over the years, I am still a human and I need to live like one with the limits of time and space that affirms that humanity. Not flying has liberated me to live with limits.

So… where does this leave me now?  I am renewing my “one-year sabbatical” from flying for another year.  I would say that I am extending it forever but I have learned the really hard way (trust me on this) that you should never say never.

Criticize me if you want (for the reasons noted above), but wish me luck.

  1. Marc Brown says:

    Hey Rob, a few ideas in this post really resonated with me. I guess the post originally caught my attention because I just celebrated 1 year of biking to work – first time I’ve had the chance to do it and it has been incredible. So many benefits that I don’t understand why more people don’t do it and spend more time in their cars on their way to work than I do on a bike! (Can sort of understand why people don’t do it on day like today – -10 with 35km/hr wind and an inch of snow 🙂

    On a more serious note, I think your point #2 & #3 jumped out at me. As I continue in my “new life” (just had 1 year anniversary of my new job) at a large organization there is a temptation to think big and I sometimes am reminded to not get ahead of what God puts in my path today, even if “small” by societal standards/corporate culture.

    I haven’t read Ellul before – is there one of his books you would recommend above others? (my list of “to read”s is too long to add a whole bunch at this point!) I guess I am pulled between acting globally and locally. As I reflected above, I am challenged to act on what I see right around me. But aren’t some called to a global arena as well? Or perhaps local impact with global actors is the place I’m looking for? Anyway, I guess I still feel a bit unsettled where I am right now, thinking there might be a way to be involved advocating for kingdom values on a larger stage. But thanks for challenging me to not forget about the here and now.

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