This summer my daughter conquered her fear of roller coasters. Two friends each grabbed hold of a cold, sweaty hand, and together the three of them walked onto the Steel Eel and rode it—twice. It was terrifying. It was exhilarating. But after that her life was changed. Several weeks later she went to another theme park and spent the entire day riding the rides. And she loved it.
Now I have to admit, I hate roller coasters. In fact, I pretty much hate any ride that involves a drop or the sensation of falling. You may call it flying, but to me it always seems like falling—and that is Bad. It’s a trick of mind that I can’t accomplish. You have to believe in coasters to enjoy them. You have to believe that that the design is sound, that the technology will not fail, that the maintenance guy really did his job, and that the operator is paying attention. If you cannot believe, then the ride becomes a nerve-wracking rush of possible failures narrowly averted by sheer good fortune or the grace of God. You’re falling not flying, no matter what people tell you. And when it comes to coasters, I simply can’t believe that it will be all right, much less an occasion for fun.
Sometimes I imagine that change feels this way to people who are afraid. I thought about this while reading a recent review of Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder in Time Magazine. Lev Grossman, the reviewer, recounts this anecdote from the book:
The world’s first manned balloon flight took place on Nov. 21, 1783, in Paris. The balloon was blue and gold and 70 ft. (about 20 m) tall. It had no basket. You rode on a kind of circular balcony that hung around the balloon’s neck like a collar. This meant that there had to be two passengers, for balance, and they had to stay on opposite sides of the balloon at all times. The two men in question were Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, a young doctor who was exactly as dashing as he sounds, and the Marquis d’Arlandes, an army major….
They couldn’t see each other because the balloon was between them, so they had to yell back and forth. As the giant aircraft careened wildly over the roofs of Paris and the two men frantically shoveled straw into the fire that kept it flying, the marquis became more and more hysterical. “We must land now!” he yelled. “We must land now!” Pilâtre stayed icy calm. “Look, d’Arlandes,” he said. “Here we are above Paris. There’s no possible danger for you. Are you taking this all in?” But the marquis couldn’t take it in. When a gust of wind jostled the balcony, he screamed, “What are you doing! Stop dancing!”
Eventually, after 27 minutes aloft, they landed safely. D’Arlandes — according to his own account — threw himself out onto the grass. Pilâtre just stood there. “We had enough fuel to fly for an hour,” he said sadly.
“What are you doing! Stop dancing!” I can understand how, when change is jostling you from side to side and everything seems to be rushing at you faster than you can possibly comprehend or control, a person might feel just like I do on a roller coaster: falling, not flying. Not having fun. And a bit angry at the people who seem to think this is no big deal.
Navigating change probably also takes a kind of faith—in technology, in history, in the other people who are trying to get you on board, in your own abilities to learn and cope. Faith in the good things that change can bring. Faith that ultimately it will be okay—maybe even fun.
Belief is a tricky thing to manage. You can’t convince someone of the logic of faith. You can’t make yourself believe. Sometimes you’re not even sure exactly what to believe in. You may look objectively at whatever evidence is present, but in the end you just have to jump in. Maybe find a friend to take you by the hand.
“Here we are above Paris…. Are you taking this all in?“