You’ve gotta get places. Even though usually you don’t get to choose how you’ll get there (believe me, if I could take a train or a bus or a car across oceans, or travel by boat in the way that people did before cruises were a thing, I would). Even if your body and mind go into lockdown mode every time you step onto a plane’s static-y carpeting and sit down in your little space for the next several hours. Even if you need to accept that you are likely going to die just to allow yourself to be strapped in and cargoed. Even if you need to go through that whole process of dealing with your own mortality, understanding and accepting and justifying it “at least I finished the Sopranos”). Even if you need to tackle those tasks that should take up more than a lifetime, you’ve gotta get places.
What separates a phobia from a fear?
The Ancient Greeks had three different words for “fear”. One of them is δεος (deos). This comes from the root for “two”, as does the Latin dubium (doubt, from which we get “dubious). This is a fear that bases itself on the human predisposition for doubt. For seeing the two ways something could go, and being caught in between them. Another one, and the one most commonly known, is φοβια (phobia). This is the same word from which most common English words denoting fears form (arachnophobia, agoraphobia, etc). It comes from the Greek root that means “to run”. Thus, in the simplest terms, a “phobia” is something that causes you to run away. This makes sense. It is effectively an aversion. However, there is another word: εκπλησις (ekplexis). This word refers to the shock element of fear, and can be and has been translated as “panic”.
Like much of English, the word “fear” is not specific enough to describe the nuances of the feeling. I suppose this is why we write. The Greeks probably thought that their three words (that we know of today; there could have been more) were still not sufficient, and that’s why they wrote. But what do I call my fear of flying?
If panic means to feel your body react like an uncleaned microwave, sparking and buzzing, then I panic. If fear really is an expression of anxiety about the duality of decisions, then I have that, too. If phobia means you want to run away, then I have a phobia. But what is it if I feel all of these things, even heavily medicated, and then I do it anyway? Does this erase the severity of my fears? Do I have the right to say, when asked, that my biggest fear is flying?
I don’t know when this fear manifested itself. I am told that, as a baby, my parents used to be able to take me everywhere without much fuss. There are pictures of me around the world from before my younger sister was born, a time from which I can remember nothing. In the pictures, I am posed or held by my mom and dad in front of statues, or trees, or buildings, or other exotica. I was not born with the need to face my own mortality before stepping on a plane. I suppose as a baby I didn’t even have a sense of mortality. When does that come?
Once when I was probably fifteen, with an hour left on a seventeen hour flight to South Africa to visit my mom’s side of the family, I woke up feeling as though I was being strangled. My arms seemed to be tied down to the armrests, and my throat was only admitting the minimal amount of air that I needed in order to minimally breathe. Everyone around me was sleeping. Sleeping! They were sleeping while silent tears streamed down my face. They had the nerve to be so ugly in their peaceful states, while I writhed between my armrests, not daring to enter anyone else’s fortress. I had taken Ambien, which was supposedly supposed to knock me out until we landed in my mom’s country of origin. I was told that honey-sweet sleep, as Homer would say, would take me into her arms and rescue me from my afflictions. Instead, she took me in for a little while, spun me around, and sent me out into consciousness premature and naked.
But still, you’ve gotta get where you’re going. Even if the hour or two in which you are waiting in the airport are hours in which you have to force yourself to face your darkest thoughts, watching people’s mouths, mean with stress and impatience, order coffees and croissants at Au Bon Pain, you’ve gotta get where you’re going.
Stephanie Ades is an undergraduate student at Wesleyan University. Aside from University-affiliated publications, her work has been published on Literary Manhattan and in the New York Times as part of their 13-word love story contest for their section Modern Love.
Cover photo by Egon Schiele on artworkonly