November 03, 2009
The Rev. Dr. Scott Stoner
It is interesting how the term "autopilot" has made its way into our everyday speech, even though most of us will never fly an airplane. Going through the motions of an activity that we have done numerous times, and then suddenly realizing that we forgot an appointment or dropped the ball on what we were doing, we are likely to say, "I don't know what I was thinking--I must have been on autopilot." Just last week two pilots for Northwest Airlines probably found themselves saying something like that as they flew 150 miles past their Minneapolis destination. It was not until a flight attendant called them to see what time they would be landing that they realized that they had not been paying attention to their flight plan and progress for quite some time.
While the plane these two pilots were flying was clearly on autopilot, their explanation for their lapse in attention and their unresponsiveness to the repeated calls from air traffic control, was that they were busy on their laptops trying to understand their employer's new and complex pilot schedule. Because they never heard or responded to the many attempts by the airport control tower to contact them, some experts hypothesize that they had actually fallen asleep in the cockpit, something they both strongly deny.
Whether the pilots in question were distracted or asleep, I found myself thinking "how could pilots of all people--whose jobs are so crucial--become distracted or possibly allow fatigue to compromise their job, and the care of all their passengers?" As soon as I get to feeling all self-righteous, I am reminded of the many times I have done less than my best in my role as father, husband, pastor, therapist, brother, son or friend because I was living my life on autopilot. Who amongst us has not been distracted or fatigued in the important roles of our lives because we were going through the motions and just not paying attention?
Here are a few things we can all learn from this that will help us as we navigate the important roles in our lives. First, pay attention to what you are doing. Be fully present to even the routine tasks of your life. You may be helping your child with homework for the 1,000th time, or kissing your spouse good-bye at the door, or talking on the phone with a friend you have known for most of your life, or going to worship, or going to work--just remember the important thing is to show up and to be present! Each and every moment is a precious gift, unlike any other that has ever occurred, even if it seems routine. Next, be sure you are getting enough rest in your life so that fatigue doesn't cause you to become distracted or unable to hear what others are trying to say to you. We so value busyness in our culture that many of us are walking around sleep deprived on a daily basis, half awake to what is going on around us.
There is one important advantage we have over pilots when it comes to observing how well we are navigating our lives. When a pilot flies a given route repeatedly there is little that can be new or different except the weather conditions. The route will be pretty much the exact same each time. In our lives though, one of the ways to keep ourselves awake and alert is to occasionally change up the roles and routines in our lives. We are each free to be as creative as we choose to be in the various roles in our lives, and yet too often we live our lives on autopilot, as if we are flying a flight plan that someone else has chosen for us. Add some spice and shake up the important relationships in your life from time to time.
These Northwest pilots made a very serious mistake and certainly need to face the consequences for their actions. But before we spend too much energy seeing the speck in their eye, let's take the plank out of our own so that we can see some creative new ways to live out the most important roles in our lives. Once the pilots realized their mistake, they turned the plane around and landed safely. You and I can do the same. And just as with the pilots, this is so very, very important--because others are depending on us.