changesWhat creates the motivation for change?

Popular mythology states that “near death” experiences create meaningful life changes. Yet a February 7, 2009, New York Times article (below), titled “Old Habits Bedevil Plane Crash Survivors Who Vow to Change,” challenged that belief: “Some passengers who survived plane crashes said they had, indeed, kept the promises they made to themselves. But for every one of those survivors, another one acknowledged having given up on a new-life resolution, or found that keeping one had become its own nagging struggle.”

So what does motivate change? Perhaps we need to look more inward. Perhaps it is that we simply choose to change when we make up our minds to do so, then and no sooner. Perhaps it is that simple. Not necessarily easy, but simple.

Or perhaps it is a matter of framing, how we choose to see or interpret events. Two passengers in a 2005 Air France crash in Toronto had very different outcomes. One, a yoga instructor and Reiki master, ended up divorced as a result of the crash-related stress (but who better trained to handle stress?), and yet another passenger never suffered. “ ‘My number of dinner invitations has gone up exponentially,’ he said. ‘If anything, life has become better.’ “

So go figure. Maybe we do determine, in ways small and large, our own fate. Maybe Shakespeare had it right:
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

— Julius Caesar (I, ii, 140-141), Cassius speaking

Old Habits Bedevil Plane Crash Survivors Who Vow to Change

Published: February 7, 2009

Your plane crashed. You survived. Now what?

Conventional wisdom and many a Hollywood script hold that after surviving a near-death experience, one vows to change one’s life for the better in some way great or small. Quit smoking. Spend more time with the kids. Volunteer. Adopt. Travel.

Many of the passengers aboard US Airways Flight 1549 were still dealing with the new blur to their lives — the adrenaline rush of relief, the scrum of reporters and the instant celebrity — in the days after the jet’s landing in the Hudson River on Jan. 15. It remains to be seen whether any changes they may be considering really stick.

Just seven weeks ago, Mike Wilson survived a jet crash in Denver. Mr. Wilson, 37, said he vowed to spend more time at home with his wife after years of working as a software developer at least 60 hours a week.

“Right after the incident, it was kind of a high priority for me,” said Mr. Wilson, who is not related to this reporter. But the change did not last, he said, and soon he was working long hours again.

“The old saying ‘Time heals all wounds,’ it’s true,” he said. “It kind of lasts a real brief amount of time, at least for me. Then the realities of life set in. I think it’s really easy to fall back into those old habits.”

In recent interviews, some passengers who survived plane crashes — the one in Denver on Dec. 20 and another more than three years ago in Toronto — said they had, indeed, kept the promises they made to themselves. But for every one of those survivors, another one acknowledged having given up on a new-life resolution, or found that keeping one had become its own nagging struggle.

Maria and Gabriel Trejos got off the plane together after the crash in Denver. Their Continental Airlines jet had veered off a runway and slid into a ravine, breaking off an engine and the landing gear. All the passengers and crew members survived with little more than minor injuries.

Mrs. Trejos, 30, who works at night while her husband, 28, works during the day, said that since then, she has tried to be more patient and generous.

“Like not getting mad when it’s 5 o’clock in the morning and you just got in at 1:30 and your husband has to get up and you have to make coffee,” she said.

Then there was the time when “a guy came to the window and said, ‘My car’s broken down,’ and we went out and helped him,” she added. “Normally, we may have said, ‘Sorry, we don’t have any cables.’ ”

Her husband, who drives a truck that picks up shredded business documents, said he was so grateful to be alive that he vowed never to gripe again. “I really don’t have a right to complain anymore,” he said. “It’s just kind of a waste of breath, you know?”

But at times he struggles, he acknowledged, like the day recently in Colorado Springs when he realized a co-worker had forgotten to give him an order for a pickup and he had to drive 30 minutes extra to retrieve it.

“I started complaining about it with another colleague,” he said. Then he caught himself. “I said, ‘What am I complaining for? Things happen.’ ”

He said his friends were not used to the new Gabriel. “I used to complain a lot with my buddies at the warehouse,” he said. “Sometimes I tell them how I don’t complain anymore. I’ve been through a plane crash. They go, ‘Oh, yeah,’ and start talking about something else.”

(The Trejoses had been on the plane with their son, Elijah, then 13 months old, who they believe became inspired to change his own young life. “He was walking the next day,” Mrs. Trejos said. “I think he said, ‘I need another way to get around.’ ”)

A fellow passenger, Kelsey Anderson, 26, a weight loss counselor, has found it hard to keep a promise that she made to another passenger. “We promised to keep in touch,” she said. The other woman has left two messages since then. “I feel guilty about not having responded to her,” she said. “For some reason, I don’t want to. I think I just don’t want to talk about it.”

Jeb Tilly, 37, a Denver passenger who was traveling with his wife, Ashley, 31, described his modest attempts at change.

“You come to conclusions about how you’re living,” Mr. Tilly said, “and just make little tweaks to highlight the meaningful things and lessen the things that are less meaningful for you.”

He said that saying things like “ ‘I’m going to quit my job and run off and do what I want’ — there was really none of that. People talked about buying lottery tickets. That’s probably, sadly, the extent of what people were going to do.”

On Aug. 2, 2005, an Air France plane ran off the end of a rain-slicked runway at Pearson International Airport in Toronto. The plane was destroyed by fire, but all 309 aboard escaped.

While those passengers have had much longer than those from the Denver flight to recover from the trauma, the harrowing images of the burning Air France plane continue to haunt some of them.

Lisa Popow, 19, was just 15 when the crash occurred, and she was flying alone. For a year afterward, she sought the help of a psychiatrist. “Driving cars, when it’s raining — anything brings me back,” she said. Simply moving forward with life felt like a big change. “I’m now at a point where I can talk about it and not get emotional,” she said.

Philippe Lacaille, 54, a yoga instructor and Reiki master who was on the same flight with his wife and two of their four children, said the stress from the crash led to the breakup of his marriage. But he added that he had struggled to do something positive.

“I decided to live life fully,” he said. “I wanted to give back to people who needed help. I started volunteering. I decided to go to homeless shelters and shelters for kids who come out of jail.”

For all the good, though, he said he missed his life before the crash. “I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” he said.

At least one fellow passenger, Roel Bramer, 68, said he never suffered after the crash. “My number of dinner invitations has gone up exponentially,” he said. “If anything, life has become better.” He added that when Air France called him five days after the crash and asked if he had any urgent needs, “I said, ‘As a matter of fact, I do. I’ve run out of Veuve Clicquot. Can you send me a case?’ If you’ve survived a plane crash, you’ve got a lot to be thankful for.”

Carl Bazarian, 62, an investment banker who was a passenger on the flight that landed in the Hudson River, said he had flown to Chile and to California from his home near Miami since the crash. “I live life very, very aggressively,” he said. He said he had considered certain changes, but concluded, “I volunteer, I go to church, I help people. What else am I going to do?”

Then he thought of something he could do differently, he said. “I’m going to have very little tolerance for people who you feel are not good people, who are untrustworthy,” he said. “I just don’t want to deal with them — people you don’t want to have business with.”

He added: “Really, life is too short. We really only have so much time here. Make sure you allocate that time to good people.”