Friday, December 10, 2010

The Failing Aviator

When I was flying in the Marine Corps, we talked quite a bit about "compartmentalization." Compartmentalization for a pilot involved recognizing the many stressors in one's life and understanding what it takes to cope with them while at the same time keeping them isolated from all that needs to happen in preparing for and conducting a flight.

A psychologist lecturer gave a presentation called "The Failing Aviator" in which he discussed compartmentalization and coping with a group of aviators at an aviation safety event.  During his presentation, he talked about relationships and how coping poorly with the stress and strain in relationships and failing to compartmentalize those home issues could pose a danger not just in the cockpit but also in the relationship.

He told about the Marine Corps F-18 pilot whose wife would wear him down about the late nights flying, the uncertainty and danger of his job, not wanting to be left a widow, not being able to handle the separations, and so on. This went on for a while until finally, she pleaded with him to give up flying for the sake of their marriage.

After much delay and clearly taking all of this baggage into the air with him where he was undoubtedly dangerous to himself and others, he walked into his Commanding Officer's office and laid his wings on his desk.  He gave it all up: all of the training and hard work, all of the prestige, all of the honor associated with his profession, all of it.

Well, the now-former F-18 pilot and his wife couldn't hold it together in their new life and they divorced.  He was working elsewhere on the base waiting out the end of his service obligation and she went on her way...sort of.  It turns out some time later she was back at the officer's club dating an F-18 pilot.  Ultimately, she married that F-18 pilot.

It turns out she only thought she couldn't handle the late nights, uncertainty, deployments, and so on.  What she couldn't handle was not being married to the kind of guy who embraced those kinds of challenges, overcame them, and found ways to help her through them as well.

There's a moral to the story that probably doesn't need explaining. Over the years, I've found, however, it doesn't simply apply to relationships at home, it also applies to relationships at work and at play. We are who we are and we are either alright for the people we're with in the aggregate - the good and the bad parts of us - or we're not. We can't always change parts of ourselves without affecting the rest of ourselves.  We need always to challenge ourselves to ensure the changes we make really make us better and don't just make us different. "Different" has its bad sides too.