There is a phenomenon responsible for many aircraft accidents over the decades known as Visual Illusion. It’s long been recognised that visual illusions can disorientate pilots or give rise to them not recognising their proximity to the ground, and it’s therefore a subject well covered in our training and guarded against by the consistent cross-checking of instrumentation and navigational aids in the cockpit to corroborate the information our eyes and brains receive.
Our visual interpretation of our environment can be affected by the slope and texture of the terrain, lights at night or lack thereof (known as the black hole effect), and weather such as cloud, mist, or fog for example. Before the advent of the advanced navigation equipment, we use today, pilots were also known to lose their sense of direction over large expanses of water or sand where there were no recognisable landmarks to orient themselves by or mark their progression. Traveling over such terrain could cause uncertainty, mental confusion and panic.
In April last year, as we all began to become increasingly uncomfortable with the world having ground to a halt, I wrote an article entitled “Keep Your Scan Going – Don’t Fixate”, which refers to the danger of becoming fixated on one problem in particular and forgetting to look up, and continue to scan the rest of the information available as pilots are taught to do.
I wrote, “Over the past few weeks, our viewpoint has changed significantly. Our long-term view of the horizon has become hazy at best, and our inability to predict where we’re going has meant that we’ve been called to concentrate primarily on what’s right in front of us. This is good as a short-term, steadying technique.”
It is, however, not a long-term strategy.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve found myself struggling over past months with the combination of uncertainty and seeming monotony of our current global chapter. On one hand, I’ve found it difficult to plan effectively more than a few weeks in advance – uncertain of how things may change at any given moment. On the other hand, I’ve found that “predictable unpredictability” is very hard to deal with without becoming a little unhinged at times. Somewhat like flying over a large expanse of water or sand, or landing at night with black spaces and lights creating uninterpretable patterns on the ground. If you allow your brain to become side-tracked by the monotony, or by trying to make sense of unrecognisable terrain, you can very quickly get into difficulty.
My training tells me not to allocate my brain to the things I know can suck me into a headspace that is not useful or worse, unsafe. My training tells me to take in the various perspectives available to me from my instruments and other sources of information, and correlate that input to form a picture that makes sense and that I can navigate by.
To compare that cockpit technique to weathering the seemingly unending phase of “new normal”, I’ve chosen in my moments of overwhelm to look for the information I’ve gathered over the past year and a half that does make sense. I invite you to do the same.
I’ve realised that whilst this time frame has not been marked by the normal indications of success and progression that the world normally measures us by, it has been nothing short of an incredible period of growth.
Faced with various threats against life as I knew it, I have reprioritised with discernment I didn’t have before. I am far clearer on what is important and what is not. What is non-negotiable and what are optional extras. I have learned more about my strengths and how they are useful, and I have learned that compassion wins over many other things. I have learned to drop down from my head (perfectionist, planning, reasoning) into my heart, which was never a comfortable place. My heart was where I’d stored all the things I couldn’t control, preferring to stay in my head where I felt in command. I’ve learned to sit with myself in a far calmer depth, and to alternate with discretion between the two resources. I suspect many of us have suffered the discomfort of sitting with our own heart in moments where previously, the pre-COVID speed of daily life would have kept us buzzing more comfortably in our heads.
I’ve learned to identify more clearly what I cannot control, and take more responsibility for what I can. I’ve made choices about my life direction and my contribution that may have taken me many years if the previous noise of life had continued to distract me.
It’s not a new consideration that rushing through life often means we lose the lessons as we go. This is the reason that pilots debrief every flight where adjustments were required. I’d like to suggest that all of us have had some degree of personal realisation, discernment, learning and growth catalysed by the journey we’ve been on in the last eighteen months. We’ve made new choices, changed things up in ways we can control – even when those changes seem slight.
If we allow ourselves to be consumed by the monotony of uncertainty that seems to stretch out ahead and around us, then we may well lose or discount these gains. I believe that these lessons, these discoveries, these gains are the landmarks that we have navigated by and that they are valuably worth noting. The last eighteen months have been powerful. They have required much of us, and occasionally we need to acknowledge that sometimes it has felt like more than we could give. Yet here we are.
If you, like I, have moments where you start to feel disorientated – remember everything it has taken for you to navigate this far. Don’t discount it. Identify the changes. Mark the gains. Realise that you’ve had to rise, even if it doesn’t feel like it some days. Choose to chart your progress not by conventional landmarks, but by those you’ve realised from your own personal journey. If you’re part of a team, ask them about theirs and create a conversation that allows everyone to see how far they’ve come.
by Christen Killick
August 23rd, 2021