12/16/2012 09:36 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2013

Be Careful What You Ask For

When your birthday falls around Christmas, like mine does, you really want to think about what you want -- people's' largess only goes so far, especially in this economy. But regardless of the time of year, you should think carefully about what you wish for, because you might actually get it. OK, that old truism has been beaten to death. But it's still the case. I'd like to relay a true story that shows how dangerous getting what you ask for can be.

Back in 1991, I was sitting with my wife, Kat, on the porch of our cliff-side house, watching the local bi-planes do their unofficial air show that consisted of loops, flips, and other daredevilish maneuvers over the Pacific Ocean. One beautiful red plane caught my eye as it floated across the sky, lazily dipping its wings as if were piloted by an invisible puppeteer. The plane did a few stunts, then did a swirling plunge toward the water, followed by a last-second climb to safety. It fired up my adrenaline, this death-defying act of courage.

"I want to do that," I said to Kat. She cocked her head and smiled, knowing that there were three problems with my declaration. First, I didn't have a pilot's license. Second, I didn't have the patience to get one -- I wanted to experience the maneuvers right then. Third, I wasn't comfortable in airplanes at all.

"Really, flyboy?" she asked, "Why don't you start with a passenger ride in one of those things. I'll buy you one for your birthday."

I was ecstatic. What could be a better present?

The next morning, we hopped in the car and drove to a small airport a few miles from our home. A sign on the fence listed the ride rates: $125 for 20 minutes, $400 for an hour. Nearby was the red plane I saw yesterday. It was a magnificent piece of machinery, one that conjured up images of dashing young aviators who took to the skies and engaged in life-and-death duels without breaking a bead of sweat. Tom Cruise, Top Gun types of men with nerves of steel. Real men who thrived on danger, just like me. But as I looked at the open cockpits and the wires keeping the wings in place, my bravado began to wane. "Um, 20 minutes will be fine -- this time," I said.

The pilot explained that he'd been doing this for 40 years. "Never had a single accident," he said, handing me a helmet, goggles, and a leather jacket. He then strapped me into the seat directly behind his.

We took off far more abruptly than I'd expected. The roar of the engine was deafening and the wind felt like a brick wall. But my stomach settled down after a few minutes, and I began to enjoy the incredible panoramic view. There was my house! And there was Kat, who'd driven home to watch the show from the cliff.

Upon seeing her, my cockiness crept back in. We weren't doing anything really scary or death-defying, I thought, just a little wing tipping. So I tapped the pilot on the shoulder and yelled as loud as I could, "Hey, do some of those backward flips, you know, those twirly things!"

"Are you sure?" he yelled back.

"Oh, for God's sake, what do you think, you're going to scare me?" I hollered.

With that, he let the nose drop, and we started spinning around toward the ocean like we were going to crash. Immediately, I screamed into the wind, "Are you nuts? Forty years without an accident? You're due for one. I'm suing you! I'll have your license revoked!"

The engine noise swallowed my howling, and we continued our plunge into the drink. Just when I was certain we were about to become shark bait, he swooped up and leveled off. We floated along, smooth as could be, as if nothing had happened. And me? I was too busy swearing a blue streak to notice that we were still alive.

We landed five minutes later and taxied to the space by the parking lot. The pilot hopped out with a big grin on his face. "Great ride!" he enthused, reaching over to unbuckle my harness. "Did you have fun?"

Apparently, he didn't notice the front of my pee-stained pants and my knocking knees. I was about to give him a piece of my mind when I realized that he gave me exactly what I asked for. He wasn't at fault. My wife was.

The second I got into the car I bellowed, "What's wrong with you!? Why would you set me up for something like this!"

"Set you up?" she responded calmly. "You asked for it, Rob."

"But why did you listen to me?" My bellowing had become a plaintive whine. She smiled in that way that can only come from a person who truly loves you.

When we got home from the airport, I showered, changed my clothes, then plunked myself in a comfy porch chair next to Kat and promptly dozed off, vaguely aware of the bi-planes dancing about the sky.

How audacious of me to think that merely wanting to be a stunt pilot would have changed my inner feelings about flying. Even today, the feeling of plunging toward the ocean creeps up on me whenever my motivation is false or misdirected. It's so easy to convince ourselves that what we crave is what we believe is good for us, and that every yearning should lead to happiness. But, deep down, we know better.

If we examine our motivations and are truly mindful, then we'll end up with what we authentically want instead of something we hope will fill the holes in our hearts. And, if we're mindful enough to follow our honest motivations instead of giving into our false cravings, we can avoid embarking on adventures that takes us to hell and back.

So, what do you really want this holiday season?

For more by Rob White, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.