I didn’t even look up.
We were boarded and buckled in, our phones were on airplane mode, and the flight attendants were standing in the aisles. They were each holding one of those yellow life preservers, showing us how to inflate them by blowing through that little plastic tube. I’d kept my eyes on my book, my noise cancelling headphones on my ears, and I’d barely noticed it was happening.
I did notice the little girl, though.
While everyone around her stared down at tablets and phones and books and magazines, she had taken off her pink headphones and she was peering over the top of her seat. She was focused. Her attention was wrapt.
In her, I saw my once upon a time self.
The first time I flew on a plane, I gave this life vest routine my fullest attention. I knew it might be the difference between life and death, and I didn’t want to miss a thing. Over the years, though, with repetition, I’ve gradually become desensitized to it. In part because I’ve learned it and I no longer need the instruction. But even more so, because I’ve habituated to it. Habituation is what happens when something becomes so familiar that we stop perceiving it altogether.
We habituate to many of the most important things in life.
Not because they are inconsequential, but because they are repetitive and ordinary, and because we are looking down at new things and exciting things. We fail to look up and notice the slow dance of dust motes in a long shaft of sunlight. We fail to look up at the lengthening crinkles around the corners of our loved one’s eyes. We fail to look inward and notice the quiet whisper of intuition or grace or soul or spirit—whatever you would like to call it.
In the words of musician Ryan O’Neal, we fail to notice “there’s magic in all of this.”
While the flight attendants showed the little girl and I how to cinch that waist strap on the life vest, I recalled the night before. I’d decided to treat the evening as if it would be my last, as if tomorrow my plane would crash. Not surprisingly, I didn’t use the time to search for new content on my new streaming device. I didn’t wonder what news was breaking on CNN. I didn’t think about posting a farewell photo on Instagram. (Okay, maybe I did, for a minute or two, but can we all agree that would have been a little weird?) I didn’t keep my eyes cast downward at all of these things.
Instead, I looked up.
While my wife read Caitlin her bedtime book, I curled up in the chair at the foot of Caitlin’s bed, and I watched. I noticed how Caitlin held her mother’s hand the whole time, intermittently intertwining their fingers together, then separating them, then intertwining them again. I noticed how Caitlin’s left fingernails were polished, but not her right, because she’s not yet dexterous enough with her left hand to paint her right. I wished I’d taken a moment earlier in the day to paint those fingernails for her.
I looked up at my oldest son Aidan, too.
He’d just picked up his little brother Quinn from a friend’s house. When they’d gotten home, Quinn had found out his plans with friends for the next day were going to disrupted by a soccer practice, and he’d become distraught. Aidan had gone into Quinn’s room and told him that when crappy things happen, you oftentimes can’t change them, but you can decide how to make the best of them. Quinn had calmed down. I told Aidan I was grateful for him and his care for his brother. I told him I admired him.
I looked up at Quinn, too.
I went into his room and he immediately apologized for his reaction to the news. He said he’d go to soccer practice without a fuss. I asked him if he was still sad about not going to his friend’s house. He said yes. I asked him if he was happy about how he was handling it. He said yes. I told him I was proud of him for learning those two things can go together. I told him he’s learning that almost three decades ahead of me, and I couldn’t be happier to be losing at something.
I looked up at everything.
On an otherwise unremarkable evening, I acted like a little girl with discarded pink headphones, enthralled by the yellow life vest that is my life. I re-sensitized myself to my moments. I noticed there was magic in all of it. There’s magic in bedtime books and in unfinished fingernails, in disappointment and in sorrow, in tenderness and in brotherhood, in forgiveness and in resilience, in grief filled goodbyes and in hoped for homecomings, in the tenuousness and in the sacredness of it all. In the ordinary moments making up our ordinary lives.
For today, at least, let’s look up at all of it.
Let’s look up at the magic show.
Connect with Kelly
Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable, and his next book, True Companions, will be published in 2021.