As I board the plane, I spot a seat further from the front than I would like, and decide I’m going to ask the flight attendant if she would move out of that spot where she’s standing so that I can sit there. I sense slight annoyance as she moves (she’s probably thinking, there are plenty of other seats – why does she need me to move so that she can sit in this one?). I take my seat, the plane fills up, we taxi and take off.
After we’ve been in the air a while, the same flight attendant comes along to take our drink orders. I see her coming, and, without even realizing I’m doing it, I anticipate she’ll be mean to me, and watch for signs of her disapproval, eager to be polite with her so that she accepts me as a nice passenger. I want her to like me. I don’t want to be the passenger who made her move. I want her approval. I want her acceptance.
Why would this be so important? And why would I be so sensitive to this disconnection? Why is it so uncomfortable to feel unliked?
Flashes of other situations where I thought I was disliked pass through my mind, adding to my pensive disposition. None of them are about being on a plane. My mind seems to group similarly felt experiences together rather than experiences that are visually or physically similar. I remember alienating a boyfriend’s mother, the impending loss of a job, feeling overwhelmed and disconnected at my own surprise birthday party, and sadness at being separated from my family. All memories of disconnection, memories of losing touch with my tribe, memories of being frighteningly alone.
Our brains are not wired to keep us happy. Our mind is programmed to remember to be frightened. It’s how we survive. If I can remember how frightening it felt to be a child separated from my parents in a crowd, I’ll be more likely to stick to them like glue in the future. If I can remember how bad it felt when my boyfriend cheated on me, I’ll remember to do whatever I can to safeguard that kind of relationship in the future so that I’m not alone. If I can remember how terrifying the impending loss of a job feels, I’ll work harder to remain employed to avoid losing that social and financial connection. Remembering how bad disconnection feels motivates me to work hard to stay connected.
Unfortunately this can lead to human beings doing things like remaining with an abusive partner, staying in a job they don’t like, and changing their outward appearance and behavior in a way that they think will manipulate people to like them. Our mind is wired to keep us safe, not to keep us happy. Our relationship satisfaction, our job satisfaction, our ability to live altruistically and authentically all come second to remaining connected to the tribe.
And how related to reality is all of this? I have a strong suspicion that the flight attendant didn’t give a second thought to me asking to take the seat she was standing in front of. I suspect her response was simply one of a person doing her job and making sure she understood what I wanted. Overt reassurances that I’m loved aren’t offered that frequently in my life because, surprisingly, people don’t exist to make me feel safe even if I desperately need them to make me feel safe. This pain of disconnection happens all the time for all of us.
So, as the flight comes to an end, I am relieved by the understanding that this woman has nothing against me. We’d probably have a lovely conversation if we ever had the chance. We are connected because we exist together, we share the human experience, we both want to be loved. And sometimes, knowing that is all I need.