On a Flight from L.A. to Boston on a Monday Afternoon, It All Came Rushing Back

On a flight from Los Angeles to Boston on a Monday afternoon, it all came rushing back.

The subtle, nerve-stricken shake in each hand. Short breath. The sudden swell of tears to your eyes that you can barely bite back. Like nothing else matters. Fear. Panic. Confusion.

Terror.

I was sitting on that flight from Los Angeles to Boston and watching Argo on demand when I heard a passenger two rows in front say, “Something serious is happening on the ground.”

He walked back a few rows to another passenger on the aisle behind me, hunched over his seat, and began to watch his television with him. “Turn on Channel 4,” he said. A New York City news channel.

Back to my own console I switched off from the dramatic reenactment of the Iranian hostage crisis–an event that sparked one of the bigger culture clashes in the last thirty-some years–to see another unfolding presently: the Boston Marathon bombing.

The news channel’s red “update bar” was seared with white or yellow lettering, forming sentences my eyes ran across but couldn’t quite comprehend–I thought that something was wrong, that this couldn’t be real, that I mustn’t have switched away from the movie I was just watching.

“Explosions at the finish line of the marathon in Boston.”

Within seconds my disbelief gave in to heart-wrenching disgust; the feeling of smallest, the feeling of total defeat. “…Why?” I felt the tears begin to well up in my eyes as my heart shattered for the souls on the ground, and as the faces of my dozens and dozens of friends who always attend the marathon on Patriot’s Day flashed through my mind.

“It happened again.”

The political, global, social and “real world” implications rocketed through my mind–like they always do. Ten thousand dominoes that’ve fallen over twelve years since it last happened, they all came rushing back. Stacked up again.

But then, the tears paused.

Because this was still happening.

Because I remembered where we were.

That we were flying there, heading to Boston.

On a flight from Los Angeles to Boston on a Monday afternoon, it all came rushing back.

Twelve and a half-years ago. A blue-skied day. Four planes. Cell phone calls made in the sky. Last goodbyes and I love you’s.

“Let’s roll.”

A news story being watched from miles away suddenly became a reality that I and my fellow passengers were approaching quicker and quicker with each passing second. And as recollections of 9/11 bubbled back to the surface, a new gamut of dreadful possibilities paced through my mind.

I looked around that plane and wondered if any fellow passengers who I had smiled at and sat next to were, in fact, prospective hijackers. I wondered if there was an explosive on board. I wondered if a handheld missile on the ground was pointing at us as we landed–I sat in my window seat watching a terrorist attack unfold and quietly contemplated a very distinct reality that something was happening, and there was no time yet for any tears or grieving. We still had to survive.

In the space of those ten seconds, shock turned to terror and terror turned into a quiet, honest acceptance that this plane, its passengers and me upon it might meet our final demise on that Monday afternoon.

So I just sat there and waited.

There haven’t been a whole lot of times when mortality has felt so real. No real illnesses or near-miss car accidents, no severe airplane turbulence or “You got lucky, kid” reprimands.

But last Monday afternoon, it felt pretty real. Maybe it wouldn’t happen on the plane–maybe something awaited on the ground. Maybe leaving the airport, maybe on the bus to downtown Boston, maybe on my Amtrak train to Rhode Island, maybe something. 

Gradually, passengers turned the channel in their seat-back consoles from whatever they were watching to the news to see what was happening on the ground. Everyone on that plane was probably from Boston or had family in the area. Everyone was quietly horrified, then stricken with fear, and then we all thought of our loved ones and family and friends, our neighbors and fellow Red Sox fans and local Dunkin Donuts servers.

And slowly, one by one, those next thoughts drifted to settle upon us, our status, and one another–in the sky.

There was no panic on the plane–hell, neither the flight crew nor the pilots even acknowledged what was happening in our destination city.

But perhaps there’s no place that feels more vulnerable than on an airplane in the sky as a terrorist attack unfolds–in the plane’s destination city. All you can do is accept it. And then you accept that you’re not through–not yet. You still need to stay on your guard, to wait for the moment that you need to spring into action and fight for your life, and for what’s right.

But before that, all you can do is sit and wait. And think.

And what I thought was,

“…it’s all rushing back.”

Not just the feeling of fear and the taste of terror; not just memories of twelve-and-a-half years ago. What came back was my reason for being here at all–what set me off on this path. What came back were the questions–am I doing my part? Am I honoring my calling? Or am I failing?

I didn’t give it much thought on that flight. I couldn’t. I was too focused on what might come next–waiting, waiting to survive, or waiting to die trying.

Our plane idled in circles over Massachusetts for a few minutes. Eventually we landed. The news was on all over the airport and security was through the roof. Hundreds of police personnel cordoned off hallways and on-ramps, lining sidewalks and street curbs. Baggage claim was one knot of fear and every suitcase suddenly looked like a bomb.

I had a train to catch out of Boston, but catching that train didn’t seem like a great idea. I made the decision to somehow get my friends’ apartment in South Boston. And the only way to get there would be public transportation.

I got on the bus while the T was still running. The bus was packed, but silent. Struck dumb. I stood beside a blue-and-yellow jacketed marathoner, she was emotionless and drained and in total disbelief of what was happening–what she must have seen.

A tense ten-minutes later and the short trip to South Boston was over. I started walking to meet my friends, who were at the bar.

I walked through the bomb sniffing dogs and watched wary eyes run over me with luggage and backpack in tow. Blue police lights were flashing everywhere. Hotel guards lined sidewalks to prevent non-guests from entering. It felt like a warzone in your own backyard. The tears surged back to my eyes, then–for I felt out of harm’s way, and I was back in Boston, and my friends were near, and I had survived for now and my feet were on the ground, and this disgusting new reality began to feel all too real.

I found my friends. I downed two beers. I tried to exhale.

But on the bay beyond the bar’s tall glass windows, a Coast Guard boat with the mounted M249 rifle in front gave pause to any hollow relief that a single breath might provide.

In the chaotic week and days that’ve followed, I’ve come back around full circle to wonder,

Am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing?

Playing games with words and stories? Facebook groups and email lists?

Has my path intended to lead me here, or did I go astray? Did I miss it? Misstep? Veer off?

The attacks in Boston last week brought all the memories from the last twelve years rushing back to the surface. Everything was there, all at once. Every memory, personal and political. Every news story made by other men and women and every choice I had made, myself.

Quitting and starting over. Depression and inner battles. Essays and 300 blog posts. Books and speaking gigs. Heartache. Breakups. Traveling for love and meeting new loves. I felt the first inkling of determination to stand up and do something. I felt the dawn of my passion and inner drive. I recalled the binding of souls through story, the essays on empathy and the books on the nature of compassion; the Buddhist teachings and Dalai Lama quotes, the yoga poses and friendly hugs, the risks taken and hundred business failures, the arguments had and debates from which I walked away.

And in these last few days, I’m still asking myself, “Is this really where I’m supposed to be?”

What of leadership and service? What about true giving, inspiration and change? Am I doing that? Am I avoiding it? Missing it? Failing?

What of that tattoo on my shoulder that follows me wherever I go–my own reminder to be the quiet leader, to lead without followers; to stand, whether before the room or behind the crowd, and give by example from selfless love, compassion, and understanding?

I look at the world that surrounds us and surely it’s not for me to save, but when these horrors of inhumanity and murder unfold–all the senseless violence, the ego-bound deceit that claims lives and shatters the joy of millions–I find myself earnestly pondering whether I am doing my part for the good of this world or if the bad is making greater strides than I.

Am I failing? Can’t I be doing more–more that matters, and more that matters more right now? Where did I go wrong?

All of these thoughts have been batted about in this head of mine. The questions often crop up from time to time. But after last week, the questions feel so much more real. Immediate. Pressing. And necessary.

Because I’m afraid they’re true.

I’m afraid that my shifts away from leadership, leading without followers, leading from love and the leadership game that I felt so called to share has been met by one a big white flag–my failure, my defeat, my avoidance.

I’m afraid that the world still burns and that what called to me most earnestly in youth is being ignored. I am in terror, indeed–that I’m not doing my part to lead as I can, to serve as I should, to give more than what I am capable of giving,

On a flight from Los Angeles to Boston on a Monday afternoon, it all came rushing back.

Last week I told one of my writing clients a story about a conversation I had with a friend a few weeks ago.

My client was struggling with the idea that maybe the promises that writing had made him were lies–or, that writing was just some bit of a vehicle to get what he truly wanted. I told him he was probably right.

I recalled the conversation between my friend and I from a couple of months ago–a conversation on love and family, partnership and what matters most in life. And that conversation entailed some raw and real admissions that so much of what we do, I do truly believe, including why we dream and what we’re in pursuit of and striving for and building and struggling with and worrying about often feels like one big, empty expression of what we’re all so deservedly desperate for as human beings in this human experience: simple love.

We write to feel love and God and connection to the Universal. But writing itself is not what we seek.

We go to college because we dream of a better life for our future children and ourselves. But education itself is not what we seek.

We go to court as lawyers, we fill out customer service surveys, we buy the new car with heated seats, we dance and we drink, we get married and sleep around because we want to feel love, fight for love, stand up for love and share love, connect to a love deeper than our skin and shake with love in unabashed, truly-alive excitement. The details of how we get there really pales in comparison.

It’s all about love.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But for some reason, when I recalled that conversation last week with my client it somehow felt… dirty. Wrong. Like an admission of guilt. Defeat. Betrayal. Even if I know it might be right. And some part of the admitting that to myself felt like I was saying everything I’m doing and all of the pursuits are just hollow games that don’t quite matter a damn.

…But then it all came rushing back.

The truest and most lasting form of leadership that exists is one that is bound by raw and real humanity–tears and hugs, conversations and simple efforts, laughter and being present with who you’re with.

It lasts because it’s love, and leading with love is a form of leadership that is not bound by follower counts and job titles, status or fame, manicured suits and megaphone speakers or even election votes.

It carries on in every soul it touches. It grants every soul a chance to emulate that loving example by their own choice, will and abilities–whether or not they consciously choose it. Even if they emulate that loving example just because it feels so damn real, so honest, so true, so good.

The leadership that lasts the longest is not bound of measures and metrics; it’s liberated by leaving them behind.

Live your endless love in the work that you do, in the world in which you play, in the words you write and the songs you sing. Damn it, the leadership that lasts the longest is not called “leadership” at all–because when the effect of the service, compassion, understanding, giving and bravery that you offer to the world goes unnoticed, you give others the truest chance to learn it and take up the torch to lead, themselves.

Not because it’s ordered or commanded. Not because they’re seduced by the allure of power and wealth, fame and acclaim.

But because it is right and true.

Because it is love.

Every day you live it, you send a quiet force, a spark, a chance out into the world that surrounds you–that spark is one that other human beings can sense, can touch, and some day will indeed pick up and carry themselves upon their own torches, before marching onward into the night.

Last Monday afternoon, I thought that I might die.

Plenty of people closer to the senseless, gutless, inhumane acts of murder that occurred in Boston thought the same–and faced it more truly, bravely and courageously than I ever did. But this is not about who’s suffered more, faced more or overcome more. This is about the glaring reality that we’re in it together.

And that we do everything that we do–I write, you write, we work and play and fight and dream–not because they’re petty games or wishful thinking or hollow expressions in the pursuit of love.

We do it all because we’re in it together. Because we six billion human beings each need a million different means that all lead to the same place — to love, to one another.

Unfold your soul from the knotted hell of ego, fear, arrogance, dollar signs and meaningless righteousness. Your truth has no time for the games and pedantic drama. Your spirit feels like it is dying because of these wandering whimsies that seem to promise you the safety and comfort–but they mislead you.

You know it’s not what your heart demands. You know there is a depth of love greater than great awaiting you to tap into it, to taste it, to touch it and become the very cup itself that is passed around and shared with the world.

You hear what I say but in a few moments, we’ll slip back into “neutral” where we’ll suffer for days upon days with crippling self-doubt and worry about where to go and what to do, what choices to make and all the possible implications. Stop.

If the outcome is the greatest expression of love you can imagine, go and do it.

Choose it today. Just don’t delay. Begin right now before this moment is gone.

Let go of everything else. Stop telling yourself the excuse-riddled stories–this is not who you really are.

Who you are–the heart you have, the soul that wants to shine, your divine messages, an experience in life deeper and far simpler than you ever thought existed–is waiting.

Say what scares you.

That is how you know it is good.

Do what terrifies you.

Fly, even in the face of murder and pain, because you’re there; because your instinct knows you can help, damn it, even when that little voice in your head claims you can’t.

Bite back the tears for just a while longer.

There’ll be a time to entertain the fear and accept the tears–but right now, there’s too much work to be done. Stands to be made. Your duty to uphold. A mission to live that refuses to wait another incarnation or a man in a robe’s gentle permission or some religious book to tell you you’re more than worth it to want it–for you to finally choose to live it.

…is it all coming back to you now?

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Update 4/15/2014 — Please consider a donation to The One Fund in memory of the lives lost and affected in the Boston Marathon bombings.

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