I have a terrible fear of heights but it’s really my only “irrational” fear (except my fear of being decapitated on roller coasters but that one is less pervasive). I used to blame it on being tall but when I think about it I’m really just about six or seven inches taller than the average man so it’s not like I’m just extra fearful of falling that half a foot. I mean, sure when I’m on a ladder looking down at the ground I have a longer way to fall but let’s be honest; the ground hurts everyone the same when it comes up to meet you. I think probably I’m just a gigantic baby. I think maybe I’m afraid of getting hurt and being in pain or breaking a bone (which I have never done before so that fear is multiplied by the fear of the unknown as well as recently watching “LOST” on Netflix in which everyone had at least six compound fractures each season and that looks like it hurts).
I call it an “irrational” fear because it really is something that never happens but it still consumes my thoughts. I’ve never fallen off of a ladder. I’ve never been blown by a rogue gust of wind off of the top of a building. I’ve never been sucked out of an airplane mid flight and subsequently impaled on a mountain top. And yet when I do something as simple as stand on a chair I feel like making a preemptive 911 call just to know there’s someone on standby.
I remember growing up that my Mom was horribly afraid of flying. She had always said that before she had kids she used to love flying (and, coincidentally, roller coasters) but that since she had kids it had become terrifying to her. So we didn’t fly places much which was fine for me because when we did we always had to sit in the smoking section of the plane and it always felt like being in a smoldering phone booth anyway. When we couldn't avoid plane travel it was mostly during take off and landing that Mom would be frightened. Her face would grimace and she would grab on to my Dad’s arm as though it wasn’t also going to be sucked out of the plane with her as we hurtled helplessly toward earth in a fiery crash. With tears in her eyes she would look at us kids as if to say “You ruined every bit of fun I ever had in my life” and then she would cry. It was always a fun way to start a vacation.
What I find ironic is that now, after all of us kids have grown and are marginally happy, my Mom’s fear of flying is substantially less severe. Now, with a good prescription and a pre-flight cocktail, Mom is flying to
every other year like a seasoned world traveler. I’m happy for her. She deserves to have this pleasure and go to
places she’s always wanted to visit. But
it made me wonder about what happened to the fear.
I think most times that what we say we are afraid of is not what we are really afraid of. I don’t think my Mom was as afraid of flying as she was of not being there for her kids, to take care of us if something happened to her. I think that’s a common maternal instinct and probably a paternal instinct too (though clearly my Dad had other things to occupy his mind during take off and landing, like the Hulk-like grip of my mother threatening to cut off the circulation in his hand).
When I woke up this morning I was filled with excitement to start writing my play and to add another entry to this blog. I couldn’t wait to get started so I came in to work, got the coffee made and started writing. Ironically the light bulb on the second floor of the gallery had burned out and I had to get up on the tall ladder to change it so I could see to write. I got my ladder, the extension pole and the new bulb and eagerly climbed to the top and effortlessly changed the bulb. I didn’t get dizzy. My hands didn’t get clammy. I didn’t envision myself falling onto the floor, head-first and tumbling onto the decorative pointy, phallic ceramic sculpture. By the time I realized I had done it I was sitting back here, happily writing, doing the thing in the world I most love doing, plowing forward into my dreams without a thought to what might go wrong.
Maybe fears are not what they seem to be. Maybe fears are just a reaction to our own sense of the limited time we have on Earth to accomplish the things we dream of doing. Maybe we aren’t afraid of falling so much as not having the courage to climb. It’s funny how when things feel ok in the world it seems so much less fearful. It does for me anyway. Of course I will still duck my head the next time I’m on a roller coaster. You don’t get to find out whether or not you’re going to be decapitated more than once.