Here’s an admission: I love the movie View from the Top. Yes, it’s a formulaic romantic comedy, but underneath is a great story about pursuing your dreams and gaining perspective and looking to the horizon and going beyond yourself to connect with something larger. There’s a scene that comes early in the movie where veteran flight attendant Sally Weston, played by Candice Bergen, shows trainee Donna Jensen, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, her old Royalty Airlines uniform, couture of course, and guides her in repeating her new mantra: Paris, First Class, International. “It’s your destiny,”1 Sally tells Donna. Her destiny!
I like the movie because, in a way, I can relate to it. For about seven years before I became a Jesuit, I worked as a flight attendant for a major U.S. airline. And yes, I did on occasion work Paris, First Class, International (but not usually all three at the same time). And parts of the movie were pretty spot-on, even if overly stylized: the training drills, the unpredictable and even mundane life on reserve (on call), even the loneliness sometimes experienced on a layover far from home.
Recently, I listened to flight attendant Faye Lane tell a wonderful story on The Moth Podcast called Fireworks from Above about her own glamorous career in the skies (h/t John Shea). Much of Faye’s story resonated with my own experience, from the excitement of training to the reality of being “on the line” and how people make the most surprising requests when you’re dealing with an emergency (see footnote). Even her most eye opening revelation had a ring of truth, and maybe not just for flight attendants: “This job is hard and people are horrible.”
Of course that’s a bit of exaggeration and totally a set-up, and you’ll have to listen to her tell her story to hear where she takes you from there. But, without spoiling the story, she makes a really powerful point about finding purpose in life. She says, “This job enables me to be a part of something bigger than me and to be connected to other people.” And despite the headaches and bruises, that’s what keeps her flying – purpose found outside of herself – her destiny, even.
For me, in the end, that purpose wasn’t found in serving 7-Up, diet soda, and $5 snack boxes at 35,000 feet. As I used to joke when people found out about my pending career change, “The higher the plane, the closer to God!” And I think, in a way, this what each of us has a chance to look beyond yourself and seek out in life: some greater purpose, your own Paris, First Class, International, with or without the couture uniform.
- Before you ask, here are answers to a few of the questions you may want to ask a former flight attendant: 1. Mostly domestic, but sometimes international, usually Europe. 2. Buenos Aires as a layover, but Vancouver B.C. probably had the best airport. 3. No, I never saw anyone join that club. 4. Yes, many! Like Neil Young, who was super nice and ordered the ribs, and John Waters, who was also really nice and, interestingly, only ordered water. 5. And, thankfully, just once. The plane lost hydraulics on a 727, which required the Second Officer to manually crank down the landing gear. We landed fine, but in the midst of emergency landing preparations, one passenger actually stopped me and said, “Hey, I know you’re busy but could I get a Diet Pepsi?” Can you believe that? I mean, we didn’t even serve Pepsi products! ↩