We must ‘keep the plane flying’ despite year’s hardships, crises

This column was originally published as part of my “Looking Homeward” series at Herald-Dispatch.com.

My father often told the story about his friend, Tom, an airplane pilot he’d flown with many times. They had become good friends through the years during long flights as my father sometimes joined Tom in the cockpit.

One day, they were discussing the crises that develop in life, especially in business. In the course of their conversation, my father asked Tom, “When a crisis develops with the airplane, and you’re thousands of feet off the ground, what do you do?”

“You keep the plane flying,” Tom said immediately, without hesitation.

“As a pilot, that’s your purpose. Once you have stabilized the aircraft, and it’s flying, then you start looking around to see what caused the crisis. If you can fix it, you do. If not, you look for a place to set the plane down. But the main thing,” he emphasized, “is to keep the plane flying. If you don’t, nothing else you do makes any difference anyhow.”

Tom’s story gives us a good pattern to use in almost any crisis: Keep the plane flying. That is, stick with the purpose of what you are doing before you start looking around to find out what’s causing the crisis and decide the next steps of action.

As we turn the page on 2008, many of us feel like a pilot who is dealing with a mid-air crisis. This year’s unprecedented turbulence has altered our own course in dramatic and relentless fashion. The dark fingers of economic uncertainty have touched both Wall Street and Main Street and then demonstrated their powerful reach and impact on global markets.

Recent events have jolted our innate optimism, shaking the foundation of our confident living. We worry about our jobs, our careers and the bright futures we’ve come to expect.

But for some, this year held crises of extraordinary personal losses of love and life that will forever alter their homes and families. Death is hard. Untimely death is tragic. And some have had more tragedy than most.

Yet, we all must keep the plane flying.

Granted, uncertainty lies ahead, and it is appropriate to be concerned. But if we let fear freeze us in our crises, we can lose our focus and forget our purpose. If we don’t keep the plane flying, we will find ourselves in a zone of inertia that can smother the life out of what’s left after loss.

We must keep steady and stabilize, as our pilot Tom suggests. Then we can decide what can be repaired, retooled or reinvested.

But most importantly, we must be resolved in our efforts to keep moving.

Our aquatic friends affirm that principle, as my son once told me after a favorite television feature. “Sharks must swim constantly, Mom,” he announced, “or they will sink.”

And we will too, especially during a crisis.

However, beyond the fear and uncertainty, crisis can also present extraordinary opportunities for growth. We can stabilize, regroup and respond with steadfast resilience.

With effort, we can be equal to the opportunities ahead.