Fear of the Fall
I have a fear of heights, have had it as long as I can remember. I suppose that it’s more appropriate to say that I have a fear of falling, as the state of being up off the ground itself doesn’t really bother me. Years ago, when I visited the Eiffel Tower and was walking around the first landing, I felt no discomfort until I actually stood at the railing in order to see the city, a view of Paris that you can get nowhere else, and rather than focusing on the mesmerizing sprawl of tumultuous urban romance laid out before me, I could only see in a single vector directed straight at the pavement below, images of myself plummeting weightlessly towards the ground freefalling through my mind in an air of terror. I descended as quickly and composedly as I was able.
It’s the one fear, rational or otherwise, that I have yet to shake. I am no longer gripped by the what ifs of a basement’s darkness, or the possibility that the scratching upon my neck as I sit reading beneath a tree might be some wandering, eight-legged dread. I’m confident enough now, at this point in my life, to speak in public, and enclosed spaces have begun to offer their own comfort in my recent experiences, as if some subconscious call back to the serenity of a swaddled infant. But the sickening feeling of my stomach floating in a cloud of my internal organs as I fall will seemingly always be too much to bear.
I used to go cliff jumping in Hawaii, only about thirty or so feet above gentle waves that passed over deep water, and the inner conflict I would experience before every jump would leave me at the top of the rock for huge chunks of time, until I would finally gather the confidence to let go of my fear just long enough to step off the edge, a fraction of a second, and as I hurtled towards the vicious blueness anxiety would rush upward at me in the very air, only to be washed away by adrenaline’s relief ten feet below the glassy surface, submerged in silence, leaving only the question of what, exactly, I was afraid of in the first place. Being unable to answer myself in my newfound excitement and scrambling back up the face, I would be brimming with confidence… until I got back to the edge, of course, when I would once again ask myself, What the hell am I doing here? Rinse and repeat.
And then, counterintuitively, I started climbing. Bouldering, at first, which never brought me more than twenty feet off the ground in my early and tentative ambition. Without protection, I knew the exact distance of any fall I might take, with the promise of padding meeting me on the ground. But when I started leading, trailing a rope behind me past heights I would never have imagined myself ever wanting to reach, everything became suddenly ambiguous. Every fall I take, every risk, is constructed upon an entire network of variables within a system, mine to assess, my responsibility to learn to read, a brand new language that can be taught in only such a limited capacity through any medium other than total immersion. It was immediately clear to me that, in order to become comfortable with falling, I would have to fall.
Because that’s what it has revealed itself to be, my fear. Not something that I can necessarily conquer, but something that I can learn to live with symbiotically, a useful apprehension that forces my awareness while also demanding a state of conjured calm. My distress must be overcome in the moment, because it is surely not resolved permanently – though I endeavor to create a peaceful space along the wall in which I may focus my energy toward a singular goal, upon descent and with feet planted once again firmly on the ground, the vertiginous height of whatever impenetrable cliff face I was just praying to stirs in me uneasy feelings of my own mortality, regardless of any tranquility I may have attained just moments before.
My acrophobia may be waiting for me when I return to earth, ready to nestle again sinister in some dark corner of my heart, but so, too, are the lessons in transcendence that my aspirations in climbing have taught me. When I attempt to ascend, I have finite strength, both physical and mental – I must be discerningly selective of what I carry with me, on my harness and in my head. There is no space for excess metal or misgiving. Anything that will hinder my progress must be left behind, branded dead weight. It must be let go.
In a recent conversation with friends, we all lamented our frustration with a seeming lack of control in so many aspects of our lives, and I began to wonder what it is exactly over which I really need control. I used to think that the answer was everything – never truly believing in fate or kismet, I have always seen authority over every detail as a shield against misfortune, the world’s cruel indifference. But perhaps all that this has amounted to is a sabotage of the self.
For all of my adult life, I have had the idea that a clean physical space is a clean mental space, that one is a reflection of the other and vice versa. I am no longer sure of this – I sort of feel that I have been trying to force this concept into reality for years, organizing a world of tangible things into some structure that would hopefully bleed into the abstract. But it turns out that my mind is far less penetrable than to be permeated by simple organization. If anything, my desire to structure everything to the most minute detail has probably led to more anxiety, fear, more things over which to wring my hands, instead of the emotional reliability that has been desired.
My mind has been cluttered, yes, but I am trying to clean it out now in much more direct, effective ways. Just as worrying about whether or not I left my car unlocked in the parking lot when I’m dangling hundreds of feet in the air will be detrimental to my rising, the infinite list of all else that can in the end be considered frivolous will only serve to derail me on my chosen paths towards what I think to be truly, actually important. I just want to climb, to write, to read. To drive. To live. Is it irresponsible to devalue all other things in my life, or to eschew them altogether? Am I becoming irresponsible? Will I be irresponsible, if I shrink the aperture of my ambition to remove so much clutter from the frame?
I can’t be sure, but I don’t think so. It’s fine if I don’t do laundry every week, because I actually have enough clothing to last longer than that, come to find out. It’s fine if my desk isn’t organized at all times, as long as I know where my pen is when I need to pick it up. And it’s fine if I don’t always sleep eight hours per night, as long as I’m getting to work, doing my job, and feeling in some way accomplished by the way I make my living.
This is not meant to be some romantic, bohemian rhapsodization on the virtues of not sweating the small stuff or the beauty of entropy in our lives or succumbing to the freeform delight of disorder in an effort to prevent becoming uptight. It’s more of a reflection on my time here on Earth, a finite resource, my awareness of its limited availability becoming more and more acute as it passes through my fingers like so much sand.
I don’t want to worry about whether or not there is a place for everything and if everything is in its place. I want fewer things. I don’t want to anxiously watch the clock. I want to spend those cumulative seconds painting with the colors of my life, forgetting time as a concept while in the grip of afflatus. My goal in a broader sense is to gain control over what is actually important, how I spend my time. The ways in which I will realize my ambitions, and how I can do what will make me feel wholly, actually fulfilled. Is that an organized desk? No, probably not. Sure, I can take pride in the little things, but I won’t count on remembering them if I am ever faced with the reality of my own transience in some uncatchable fall. I would like to think that, should the rushing air one day double as the monotone melody of a requiem, I will need not be concerned with what memories will fill my head, and trust that I did all I could to make as many of them as beautiful as possible.