By James Wysong Travel columnist
updated 2/6/2007 11:23:55 AM ET 2007-02-06T16:23:55

We spend our lives worrying, preoccupied with matters of the mind, heart and soul. Thoughts circle like clouds in our minds — self-centered thoughts about family, jobs, possessions and status. You don’t like so-and-so, you think you can’t afford a new car, or you wonder how global warming will affect your future. Envy rears its ugly head from time to time, too, but we take solace in the fact that we are not as bad off as others. But all these thoughts are just filler, meaningless fluff in between brief moments of clarity.

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It’s the same when flying. You board an airplane in a bad mood — delayed, tired and fed-up. You make your unhappiness known in a rude comment to the flight attendant which shocks even you. You simmer silently in your pint-sized middle seat wishing you were somewhere else, when out of nowhere comes the worst bout of turbulence. The flight attendants strap into their jump seats and try to put calm expressions on their faces. The captain makes an announcement that the turbulence is present at all altitudes and that the rest of the flight will be a bumpy ride.

At first the turbulence doesn’t bother you. But when you begin to hear babies cry and smell the sour odor of others being sick, you start to get concerned. You look out at the wings and wonder just how much stress they can actually take. The engines start to roar and it feels like you are dropping hundreds of feet with one bounce. The man beside you, who is secretly afraid of flying, starts sobbing uncontrollably, and even the flight attendants begin to look worried.

The turbulence continues for an hour with no break. Although you’ve been through bad weather flights before, you start thinking about the worst-case scenario. If your life ended right now, what would you miss? You start thinking about your spouse, your children, retirement, grandchildren, old age, enjoying your life. You want to live and can’t believe how petty and ridiculous you’ve been acting recently.

In that brief moment, you have reached clarity. You realize what is truly important in your life and what is meaningless. If you make it through the flight you will no doubt be determined to change your life. You will resolve to be a nicer person, get healthy, stop worrying about the small things. When your flight eventually lands safely, you feel a changed person. Your worst flight has just become the turnaround point in your life. Unfortunately, many people don’t grasp that moment of clarity tightly enough, and they resort back to their old ways before long.

I am currently holding onto one of those brief moments of clarity. My 11-month-old son was recently overcome with a fast-acting fever. He had been the perfect picture of health until that day. Suddenly, his fever spiked to 105 degrees and his body went limp. As my wife and I anxiously waited for the ambulance, we held our son in our arms and had our moment of clarity. Just the day before, we had been in a whirl of pressures from every side — deadlines, commitments, bills and no time for anything else. All of a sudden, none of that was important. Although he had been in our lives for a very short time, nothing mattered except our son. We would have given up anything at that moment for him to be OK.

Slideshow: Around the World My son underwent an MRI, a lumbar puncture and an EEG. He stayed in the ER and then the ICU. Fortunately, he made a complete recovery and doesn’t remember a thing — something I cannot say for his parents. God bless the nursing staff, which worked tirelessly around the clock amongst so much pain and suffering — and does so every day.

If you need some clarity, just visit the neonatal intensive care unit of a hospital near you. You’ll see babies no bigger than your palm fighting to stay alive, and parents who have yet to take their baby home more than six weeks after delivery. All your worries and annoyances will disappear in an instant.

I wore the plastic hospital bracelet for a few days to remember my moment of clarity, and have since replaced it with a more permanent band. Now, when I feel depressed, lost or annoyed, I look down at the band around my wrist and smile. It continues to remind me that most things are not worth obsessing about.

If and when you reach your brief moment of clarity, embrace and remember it. Sweating the small stuff is just a waste of time.

Every day truly is a gift.

James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please visit his Web site or e-mail him.


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