The Four Forces of Flight
There’s an analogy I want to imprint on your mind today. It’s one I intend to come back to repeatedly as I go about writing my high-flying book.
It concerns something known in aviation as the four forces of flight. To give you a quick lesson in aerodynamics, those are thrust, lift, weight and drag. Thrust counteracts drag, whereas lift counteracts weight.
If the forces of lift and thrust are greater than the forces of weight and drag your aeroplane will climb, if they are less you will descend. When they are balanced, well, then, Bob’s your uncle.
That means your flying straight and level – sitting pretty while cruising at your optimum altitude. Here’s a nice picture:
Now, pay attention because this bit is important.
I want you to imagine you’re sat fat, dumb and happy, at your optimum cruising level, with all four forces in perfect harmony, when, all of a sudden, for reasons that Bob can’t understand, you bring the thrust back to idle.
Now let’s pretend, for reasons that Bob really can’t understand, you decide you want to stay at your cruisy cruising level, despite the fact you brought the thrust back to idle.
How do you do that?
Well, the only thing you can do is pitch up. You must increasingly pitch up to counteract the loss of energy so that the sum of the four forces remain equal.
The problem with this is, by pitching up, although you increase lift, you also increase drag. Unless you come to your senses and increase thrust, you will continue to lose energy.
If you keep pitching up in desperation, eventually you will reach a critical angle of attack (the direction of the aerofoil relative to the airflow) where the air starts to separate from the top of the wing resulting in a substantial loss of lift.
This is what’s known as the stall.
When this happens Bob is no longer your uncle. In fact, Bob is fucking furious. (It’s possible he may be the Captain.) The only way to make Bob happy again is to do the one thing you don’t want to. Unless you have enough thrust to blast off into space (and you don’t), you must pitch the nose down.
You must bring the angle of attack down in order to regain lift. You must come back to earth – you must sacrifice height for energy. It’s the only way to recover from a stall.
As you might have guessed, this isn’t just a crucial lesson for aviators but all of us. Which leads us to the first critical life lesson and the central thesis of my (soon to be) high-flying book:
When we stall in life the only way to regain lift is to let go. We must let go so we can find our feet again in the present. So we may accept and face our reality as it stands. This is what grounds us. We let go of what we can’t control in order to regain control of what we can.
Now, hold on to your pilots hat because I’m about to take this analogy to new heights!
The Four Forces of Life
As it happens there are – broadly speaking – four forces that act on you at anyone time. These are known (by Bob at least) as the four forces of life.
They work, of course, just like the four forces of flight. Those are your health (which is equal to thrust), purpose or meaning (which is equal to lift), responsibility (which is equal to weight) and life itself (which is equal to drag).
Just like an aeroplane, when the forces of health and meaning are greater than the forces of responsibility and life, the human aeroplane that is you, will climb. If it is less, you will descend.
If they are balanced, well, then you’ve found the sweet spot. You have full health and enough meaning to carry the weight of your responsibilities. You’ve achieved that tricky thing known as life balance.
Here’s another pretty picture:
Now, let’s imagine you suddenly lose your health. Maybe you get ill or suffer a depilating disease or break you leg. What ever it is, suddenly you don’t have the capacity to carry on to destination. Does that mean you’ve stalled? No, although it can lead there if you try to soldier on. What it does mean is you need to come back to earth – pronto!
It’s like when Captain Sullenberg ingested birds in both his engines. Did he stall? No, but he suddenly became a big-ass heavy-weight glider. That meant he had to come back to earth, and fast.
He understood how crucial it was to let go of everything that wasn’t absolutely pertinent to the emergency at hand. Had he not had that clarity of purpose – had he not been able to accept what had happened – well, the end result would have been much worse.
Stalling in Life
So, what do I mean, exactly, when I use the term stalling in life. What causes us to stall? Of course, all four forces act on and interplay with one another, but fundamentally the reason an aeroplane stalls is because it’s lost lift.
This is why I use this analogy. Fundamentally, the reason we stall in life is because we’ve lost meaning. That’s what my book will concern itself with. Specifically the loss of meaning so many of us appear to be experiencing in the modern developed world.
The reason we lose meaning is because we’re clinging to something. Ironically it’s often something we find meaningful that we’re unable (or refuse) to let go of. A belief that clashes with our current reality. This prevents us from instilling or finding new meaning in what currently is.
When I ended my 12 year career in aviation and left the city I’d called home for most of my life, that resulted in a substantial loss of lift. Did I stall? You bet your bottom dollar I did! Letting go of that was one of the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. But, of course, I had to. I had to let it go in order to find meaning in my current circumstances. My present reality.
As it happens, this is why I’m writing this book. It’s part of my stall recovery. I’m not only letting go of my past in the process – I’m subsuming that past and including it as part of my present day narrative. It’s the whole idea for this (soon to be) high-flying book. It’s so fucking meaningful to me, so fucking poetic, I could cry. (Provided we skip over the irony that my answer to having an existential midlife crisis is to write a book about it.)
Not only is this important, as I will attempt to argue, it’s absolutely necessary. We must continually replace meaning in our lives. We must let go of old limiting beliefs and update them with new, slightly less limiting, ones. We must keep doing this. We must keep dying to ourselves over and over and over again.
But there’s a deadly important caveat. Not only do we need to instil meaning in our lives, ultimately we need to learn to transcend meaning altogether. We need to see through meaning itself.
We need to let go and take control – we need to transcend and give meaning – at the same time.
Now, I’m going to circle back to this particular paradox and the question of how, but first it’s important to understand why. Why it is we find it so hard to let go. What it is at our core we’re unable to come to terms with.
I suggest you buckle up boys and girls. I’m about to teach you how to fly.
This is part one of a series of posts on the subject of stalling in life.
You can find more of AP2’s writing here at: https://clear-air-turbulence.com
You can also find him on Medium at: https://anxiouspilot2.medium.com
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