I had just boarded a flight from Hawaii back to the mainland, taking my window seat. I am not a prolific flyer, but I have been on plenty of flights throughout my life, so I was accustomed to the routine. I settled in and had a brief chat with the man next to me. I am an introvert and usually shy away from small talk, but it was a pleasant enough conversation. The flight attendants prepared us for takeoff, we buckled our seatbelts, and the flight began. It was well past dinnertime, so there was no dinner service, just drinks and snacks. I read a bit, and eventually they shut off the lights in the cabin. I intended to settle in for some sleep, or at least a little rest, as we crossed the Pacific.
But I couldn’t sleep, and gradually, I realized I couldn’t rest either. I felt a tightness in my chest and across my lungs that gradually grew stronger. My breathing became shallow, a sense developing in my mind that I was trapped. I was locked into a small metal tube hurtling at tremendous speed over the ocean, trapped in my particular seat by the two men in the aisle and middle seats, who were now deeply asleep. I tried closing my eyes, but it did not help. I looked at the man sleeping next to me. I didn’t want to wake him…but I had to wake him. I shook his arm. He wasn’t moving. I shook his arm harder, and he started to shift in his seat. “Excuse me,” I said to him urgently, “I have to use the bathroom.” He and the man next to him moved to allow me through, a look of annoyance on their faces. But by this time, I was in a full-blown panic. I had to get out.
I struggled past them into the aisle and stumbled back toward the bathroom. I stood in the aisle, taking deep breaths for some time. After a few minutes, while I was not comfortable, I could breathe a little more easily. I stood by the bathroom, went inside for a bit, then came back and stood in the aisle again. Gradually, I realized that if I stood there much longer, I would start to draw attention to myself.
I returned to my row, roused my seating companions again, and slumped back into my seat. For a moment, I felt unsettled but believed I could manage my emotions. Then, I felt the tension creeping back into my chest. I couldn’t keep getting out of my seat, so I looked out over the seat in front of me, repeating to myself, “Look at all this space. So much space in front of you.” I found that this calmed me for a short time, until my awareness shifted back to the tight quarters around me. But I kept at it, moving my focus to the entirety of the plane, taking deep breaths. Gradually, I grew more and more tired, even within my panic. I put some music on my headphones and stared out into space until my eyes finally drooped into sleep.
I tucked this experience away after the flight, not thinking much about it. It was an isolated ordeal, and one I hoped never to repeat. But I recently recalled it, as the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders went out, first in my town of Oak Park, then for the state of Illinois, then in states across the country. I again felt the sense of being locked down, prevented from moving, boxed in. I sensed that I was no longer in control of how or where I moved my body, that my physical self had just been constrained. And slowly, I realized that I also have experienced this feeling at other times throughout my life. It is the same recurring fear I have of the ultimate constraint of death, the sense that one day my freedom of movement will ultimately cease.
Perhaps I am addicted to the illusion that I control my own body, myself, and my movement because white, middle-class, heterosexual men — privileged people like myself — have been allowed that illusion. But our illusion of control has come at a price: the control that we have enacted over the bodies of people of color, of women, of the poor, of LGBTQ people. All of them have learned to live with constraints on their freedom. Not straight, white, middle-class men like me. But now under COVID-19, we must also learn to live with constraints. We are all constrained now. We are told what we can and cannot do, where we can and cannot go, with whom we can and cannot be.
But these are different constraints than the racist, misogynist, homphobic constraints that we have put on other people throughout history. Those were designed to normalize people like me, to give us power at the expense of others. These current constraints are designed to protect all of our lives. Indeed, we must embrace these constraints, because they are what will set us free. We volunteer to give up certain aspects of our physical movement to protect others and ourselves. That is not to say that we all encounter these new constraints equally. The old prejudices still exist, and they mean that the burdens of the coronavirus fall on us unevenly. Black people make up the majority of cases and deaths in our country. Poor people do not have the health care they need to protect themselves. People with essential jobs have to go into work, while those of us with white-collar jobs can work from home. Women are still expected to do the majority of the caring work in families while we shelter. But white, middle-class, heterosexual men like me can and should learn from this experience. It teaches me that I should accept some constraints on my freedoms to protect our community — indeed that accepting those constraints represents an act of freedom if I do so willingly.
The claustrophobia I experienced on the flight, and which recurred at the onset of the stay-at-home orders, makes clear the fears I have about losing control of my own body…in both life and death. But loss of control is, at its core, about what we choose freely and what we struggle against. We must struggle against the life-destroying choice to constrain and marginalize people based on their race, gender, sexuality, or any other marker of their identity. If we can do so safely while providing for ourselves and our families, we should freely choose to stay at home to prevent the spread of the virus. And although it can seem impossible to imagine, we should embrace the impermanence of life, and that we ourselves must die, and through this embrace of death, also embrace the joy that we have now in life. This choice — what we struggle against and how, what we choose and why, what and whom we embrace — is the core choice of each of our lives. In some sense, this choice defines each of us.
I am learning that sometimes, we must choose certain constraints on one level to free ourselves on another. As on my flight, we must breathe deeply and embrace these new constraints so that we can imagine and create a world free from the heterosexism, sexism, racism, and all the other prejudices that we use to constrain ourselves and one another.
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