It’s not a fear of falling I struggle with. I am not afraid to fall. I am afraid to jump.
We all have those little snippets of memories from when we were kids. I remember being in a park with my Mom. We were across the street from our house at a playground in the suburbs of Chicago, and we were playing on one of those wooden playhouse structures that has a ladder and a little house at the top and a slide to get back down. It was so bright outside and the wind was blowing.
I was 4 years old, at most, and I just wanted my Mom to experience everything I was experiencing, although, of course, I couldn’t articulate that. I asked her to come up into the little house with me and she said, “No, I can’t. I’m afraid of heights.” I didn’t know what that meant, so I asked. When she tried to explain that she didn’t like being up high, I remember thinking to myself, “I will be afraid of heights, too” or maybe “I should also be afraid of heights.”
I made sense of it as only a child can. My mom is my mom. She knows everything. She knows how to tie my shoes and to look both ways and that high places are scary. So I learned to be afraid.
My adult mind knows this memory—knows that I made a mostly conscious decision to be ‘afraid of heights’—and that doesn’t matter. I don’t know whether I would have naturally been afraid or not, but I am.
I call it a fear of heights, but it’s something else I don’t have a name for. It isn’t vertigo, although I do experience some mild dizziness and my heart starts to race. I get sweaty—that cold kind of sweat where you feel all hot one second and ice cold the next. I stop breathing and I can’t look away and it’s because I know I could jump.
Let’s say this right now for the record: I am not suicidal. I don’t want to hurt myself by leaping to my death. I just know I could. I could make that decision. It would take almost no effort, even less effort than stopping myself maybe. If I just take one more step, I would be over the edge and gone and there would be…nothing.
It isn’t a fantasy. I don’t play out my death in my head when I get close to the edge of a high place. I don’t imagine my funeral or anything about what the fall would actually be like. It’s the choice of falling that scares the crap out of me.
It isn’t just being near a balcony in a tall building, because, let’s be honest, I am not going out on a balcony that’s above the 3rd floor. It’s any high place. When I am driving and I have to cross a bridge over a body of water, I think, “I could just turn the wheel. Just a little bit.”
In that moment I have something at my fingertips that isn’t often so tangible. It’s my own mortality. I have my hands literally on the steering wheel of my life and I can make a tiny choice right then that will change everything. It will end everything, but that isn’t the thought process. It isn’t about the end.
I think our mortality is something we don’t touch very often. Maybe you think about it occasionally when you go to church or when you hear of someone else’s passing on. At most once every couple of months it might cross your mind, but like me, you probably push right past it and move on with your day. Every time I get up high, I recognize the choice I can make about my own life and death. It’s terrifying.
So, I say, “I am afraid of heights,” and people who are not afraid of heights maybe just think I have a common phobia. I think most people who share my fear know that it isn’t the height that scares us. It’s the choice.
This post reflects the views and experiences of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
Or, if you’d like to hear some overall thoughts on fear from Christians at THRED, you can find those over here.