Escape Velocity: Allowing Myself to Take Flight

I never had the chance to see a space shuttle liftoff in person, but someone once told me it jumps off the launch pad like a bullet. On TV it always appeared a bit sluggish to me for the first few seconds, but in reality, just 30 seconds after liftoff it’s already traveling 500 mph.

In fact, for a spacecraft to enter orbit it needs to reach speeds of 25,000 miles per hour. That’s fast…like 7 miles per second fast. Achieving this speed has been considered one of the most technically challenging aspects of space travel. It’s called “escape velocity,” which is defined as the minimum speed an object needs to travel to escape the gravitational pull of a massive body, such as the earth.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the things that hold us down as individuals, the invisible forces that weigh on us when we want nothing more than to soar into orbit. I personally face this feeling regularly. It might be at a dinner party where I want to fully participate, but because of the company, the topic or just my mood, I feel stuck, unable to smile or laugh. It might be at a concert or at a wedding, where I want to let loose and dance, to just let my body react casually and naturally to the music, but I feel restrained, as if I’m in a straitjacket.

It’s a feeling of being bound, of being unable to outwardly express emotion, positive or negative. It’s a sense of lacking permission to be free, to experience levity, as if it’s not deserved. It’s a self-imposed yet deeply unwanted heavy, tense emotional flatness. And it sucks.

It can happen with people I’m close to, friends and family, and it can happen with strangers. It can happen when I’m otherwise feeling content, and it can happen more predictably, when I’m already feeling anxious or down. And it can happen in very safe environments and in those that make me feel less secure.

Sometimes I am able to break through these invisible forces, and it feels great. It feels like cracking a glow stick, where the solid insides suddenly start to liquefy and emit light. Just like the shuttle struggling to overcome the gravitational pull of the earth, though, it can take tremendous effort, a seemingly impossible-to-generate amount of energy to achieve my personal escape velocity.

Recently I bumped into an acquaintance who politely asked me, “How are you?” to which I responded, “Mostly fine. Things are just generally crazy.” Her response was great. She paused, looked at me thoughtfully, smiled and said, “Oh, you’re a duck!” Seeing that I was a bit dumbfounded, she explained that a duck is what she calls people who, on the surface, seem generally serene, unstressed and moving forward at a steady pace, but all the while, just beneath the surface, their little webbed feet are fluttering speedily.

I suppose she’s right. While I might just appear pensive, stoic, shy or even standoffish on the surface, it’s entirely likely that at any given moment, just beneath the surface, I’m actually firing all my engines hoping to generate just enough lift to be that guy I truly want to be, but who is far too often reluctant to take flight.

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