Airplanes, Graves, and Art: How An Airshow Rocked My World

I know that airplanes make men fly—I guess I’ve always known that—but I’m just now realizing how significant that is. A couple weeks ago I got to see The Thunderbirds perform at the local Air Force base (Moody AFB), which was the first time I’d seen something like that since my early teens. I thought I knew what to expect—after all my Dad is a pilot and an ex-fighter pilot—but I didn’t. I came expecting to be wowed with an expo-like display of technological strength and might, but what I saw was more dance than expo.

The Dance that Left Me Reeling

It’s not done to cry at these air shows, but I did. Weird, I know. And I know I am an easy crier these days, but—and I even expected it (the crying)—but instead of chalking it up to my sensitivity, I’m actually trying to figure this one out. Because in the moment, I realized that what I was feeling wasn’t anger or happiness: I was just maxed out. My existential footprint was under attack. So I’ve been mulling it over for a couple weeks now, finally sitting down to make sense of it.

I Feel Small

Because of the brilliance of the men who built these planes and that entire technological heritage that made it all happen. (You realize how unbelievable that machine is right?). Because of the physics (i.e., the laws of nature), which are so reliable these planes can fly inches away without wondering if the Universe will shift even a centimeter. Because of the bigness of it all, how God created an entire planet which has air all around it—so what I mean is these planes are flying up to me, but down to China, but I’m so small their 10k foot “climbs” exceed my line of sight.

I Feel Moved

I can’t explain this one. But it’s the same thing that happens in dance. I used to get dance about as much as I got calculus, but with the help of professional-dancer Twyla Tharp and her excellent book on creativity, I’ve learned to appreciate it. And what she says that sums it all up is that dance is the most powerful art form in sheer ability to move you. Beyond words and sounds, dance simply takes the raw materials of life and forms patterns out of them.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then dance, because it moves, may be worth ten thousand.” ~Twyla Tharp

So as I stood there watching four of those planes come blasting by in a unit, perpendicular to the ground, all in perfect sync, the sheer power that came from that was like when dancers all come together in unison, from chaos to order, in a single moment of clarity and punch. Against the chaos of the world, the clouds, trees, sun, people, here came a group of dancers in a moment of perfection. That moment is what kills me. It takes your breath away, and if you’re able to listen to yourself, you’ll hear your heart high-five-ing itself. Not just because of the ability of the pilots, you’re not super concerned with them at the moment. It’s something bigger. It’s like the perfection itself is calling to you, and, in my case, wrecking you.

I Feel Inspired

Again, not just by the pilots themselves, but by the whole thing. It all comes together in something greater than the sum of its parts, and for some reason what I want to do—against all odds and all opposition—is to go conquer the world. Whatever part of the world I can get my hands on. Just to go give myself to it, full-speed ahead, in every ounce of my effort and attention.

Making Sense of It

In order to work through all this (and a lot of other personal junk) I took a road trip to Savannah last week, a city whose downtown is, for me, one of the most inspirational places within driving distance. I went with a full heart and full mind, ready to just sit and spread some of my confusion out in the Live Oak trees, if maybe their strong arms would help me understand what it means to be human. After riding in three hours of virtual silence, eating in silence, and listening to the wind in the leaves, Whim led me to a cemetery where I found graves from the 18th century. And I got that feeling again. It all came back, and I turn out to be breathing slowly and walking quietly so as not to chase it away, semi-hustling myself off to the closest coffee shop where I spent almost three hours, face buried in my journal, trying to write myself clear.

And the main question that I was asking myself was Why is this such a big deal? Which is to say, why does dance, and everything associated with it, have such power over me? What does it mean to be human if being human is associated with these feelings which can’t be explained in the ordinary language of emotions? And what was it about the experience that rocked me?

I hinted at the answer earlier when I said that about perfection. The answer I’ve come to embrace (for the time being—until the next airshow) is that, my response is the same response of any sensitive human who experiences great art. Because the same thing happens to me in great music, especially live music, but mainly only when I can see the humans up there who are making this beautiful glory. (Actually, last summer I went to a Symphony and had a very similar reaction.) There’s something about humans expressing goodness and truth and beauty to each other in the best way they know how, in excellence of dance, music, technological performance—whatever—that communicates something more to me than humans alone are able to do. They (the performers) are tapping into something other, something higher and greater-than, and we (the observers) are led to experience something greater than who and what they are alone. Those pilots aren’t who I’m amazed by; I’m amazed by something else.

In Pursuit of the Something Else

That something else is what I’m writing about. I guess the simplest way to put it is I’m amazed by perfection—and what resembles perfection to me and my small humanity—and I’m moved to tears to see it break through my world and into my space; and to see it do that through my fellow humans is somehow so compelling that it means twice as much to me than if it were just plastered onto the sky from Above. It’s glorious to see. To behold great art is to experience a momentary flash of another world, a world like Narnia, parallel to our reality, a world like fantasy, where good always wins, and everyone lives happily ever after, a world of perfection unhindered and unchallenged. But to see that in this world, this broken, jaded, dull and beige world, is to experience such dissonance that it’s no wonder it took me two weeks to work my way through it. To find perfection in the face of a war machine is just something I wasn’t prepared for.

That something else is art, yes, but it’s something more, one other thing I couldn’t find until the cemetery, when, crouching there among the dust of human bones, it hit me. I saw evidence right before my eyes that life ends, but what kept flashing up were images of those airplanes defying gravity, defying seemingly every limitation on us humans—even death. The graves called to me to see the limitations of life—it’s shortness, it’s absurdity, it’s finality—while the airshow told me a different story, one of human strength, ingenuity, power, and significance. And I think it drew tears because it invaded my life of limitation with a story of limitless freedom, perfection, and power. And down deep, those are the longings of all our hearts, not just mine.

Art lifts our eyes to have a transcendent experience which awakens the deep longings of our hearts for The Transcendent. But this other, this defying death, that is what we pay good money for. We jump out of airplanes, ride roller coasters, climb sheer rock-faces, dive to thousands of feet below water, rocket ourselves into space, all to run from death, weakness, limitation. Those things awaken something deep and primal within us, the deepest and most human thing we have. Life and the love of living.

The reason this all hit me, I think, is that chronic fatigue has made me more aware of my a) desire for the Transcendent and b) yearning for Life over death, and so I’m more easily affected by art and displays of perfection. I’m raw, an excellent test-subject for humanity at large. That’s why I knew, even as those planes shook my chest, that this was something I had to write about, an experience I had to share with my fellow humans. Because we all experience these feelings, these deep inner yearnings, everyday. We’ve just become so used to them, sometimes we forget to listen. And as I focused on God and His perfections, His creation and its glory, and myself and my own frailty, I found so much courage to press on in the hardships of life.

Because after all, the glory of an airshow is just a taste of what’s next. Perfection and limitless Life are coming, and every now and then I hear their footsteps at the door. I know that God hasn’t left Himself without a voice in the world—echoes of His presence are all around me—but I had no idea I’d hear it at an airshow.

Adam Setser

I'm a seminary student, blogger, and pastoral intern. I used to race bicycles but now I'm chained to a recliner with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Lyme disease, which I’m currently in the process of writing a book about. I love the piano, reading and writing (and a bit of 'rithmetic). Overall I’m a pretty decent human being, I think, though I'm still trying to get my tongue out of my cheek.