I have a thing about heights. Being up high, or even just standing next to subway tracks, is a source of sometimes significant anxiety, and it has always been that way. Thus, whenever I have been invited to sit on an outside patio on a high-rise building, take a look at a beautiful view from a cliff, or found myself in a position were falling was a possibility, I have a stew of unpleasant emotions stirring within me.
As a kid, when waiting for the subway (which I rode to and from school, and later work, every day), I would occasionally be faced with the reality of my mortality, and of the fear how easy it would be to just jump into those tracks at any moment.
Or slip. Or be peeking to see how close the train was along the tracks, and then lose my balance and just fall.
Or, you know, what was actually stopping me from jumping? And this last thought was not about depression or suicide, it was just a realization that I could, if I wanted to, just jump off that platform, that cliff, or that high-rise patio. This was a disquieting realization, that I started having when I was around 7 or 8, if my memory serves me.
Later, when I was in high school and I discovered philosophy, I read bits and pieces of Jean-Paul Sartre’s work, and was somewhat relieved, but also somewhat gobsmacked, that this experience was not mine alone.
Sartre describes the experience of radical freedom, and being burdened with the realities and consequences of that freedom, and I felt like I had found someone who understand what it was like inside my head, most of the time.
Because did I distrust myself? Was there reason to think that, given the radically free choices I could make, I could make one which could end or significantly damage my life? Always.
Sometimes, what becomes most clear to me is how easy it would be to destroy everything, how fragile it all is, and how even if you were to act in such a damaging way just because you can, you cannot take it back. Because knowing that you could have not done something (whatever that means, right Dan Dennett?*), when in fact you did is not sufficient if you did it, right?
Perhaps. But I think that we know ourselves best when we can tell the difference between something we could not help doing and something we could have done differently, but didn’t do so for bad reasons. And what’s worse is that when those who have been on the receiving end of those actions cannot understand, will not hear, or don’t care about that distinction.
River Tubing, Ropes, and climbing that tree
Cut to this past weekend.
A few weeks ago, I went to party at a college-friend’s house. I had not seen him in a couple of years, I had the day free, and so I drove out to the Lambertville area to see him with my girlfriend Kristen and some other people close to me, and we had a great time eating, drinking, and enjoying his well-kept grounds on a lovely summer day.
At the party, my friend mentioned that he was going river tubing on the Delaware, north of New Hope, PA, and this sounded like a lovely idea and so Kristen and I planned to go. While tubing (which was awesome), someone mentioned a rope swing. Having a good time and being carried away by their enthusiasm, I proclaimed some interest in swinging out on a rope. And we floated on some more.
And then I saw the rope.
I saw people swinging out, and it looked like fun. And then I saw the rickety steps going up the side of the tall tree from which the rope hung, and as I thought about climbing up to the platform (which was essentially some wood nailed to a tree), I felt my stomach tighten. But I climbed up anyway (not to the highest platform, because I’m not crazy like Kristen is, who climbed up there like she was strolling in the park), and grabbed a solid hold on the rope and felt the acceleration of gravity swing me over the water, until I felt the rope reach it’s maximum height, before it would swing back, and I launched myself into the air and landed safely into the water.
It was so much fun that I did it again. And, of course, my stomach clenched as I climbed the side of the tree the second time, but it didn’t stop me. The fear was still there. It was unpleasant, but I knew that the effort would be worth it. I would not allow my fear to prevent me from enjoying the thrill of flying through the air before plunging into the cool water on a hot summer day.
And then we got back onto our tubes, rafts, and inflatable boats and kept drifting down the river with friends.
And I’ll do it all again, if I’m lucky enough to have the chance.
We all have our internal emotional and psychological landscapes, and we all have these little things that are terrifying to us which seem like nothing to other people. Climbing up on that tree was not easy for me, but I knew there was a payoff that I wanted. And the second time climbing up? It was slightly less scary. Perhaps the 3rd and 4th, next time I float down the river, will be easier yet.
Boundaries are important to recognize and to communicate, both with ourselves and to others. But we need to push those boundaries from time to time, or we stagnate. Is something scary? Fine, but don’t let that, alone, stop you from making the attempt to find out why it is scary, if perhaps the fear is unfounded,, and maybe to see if there is something on the other side of that fear which is worth investigating anyway.
If you don’t push your own boundaries, and if you ask that others do not do it for you, then you will never grow. And sometime, the scariest things are the things we should challenge the most.
Carpe Diem (et noctis)!
FYI, The title of this post is derived fro a lyric from Bruce Springsteen’s The River, which was a favorite of mine from my childhood. Here it is, for all of you not familiar with The Boss’s deeper tracks.
* “l have not yet touched the central issue of free will, for I have not yet declared a position on the “could have done otherwise” principle: the principle that holds that one has acted freely (and responsibly) only if one could have done otherwise. It is time, at last, to turn to this central, stable area in the logical geography of the free will problem. I will show that this widely accepted principle is simply false.”
“The “could have done otherwise” principle has been debated for generations, and the favorite strategy of compatibilists – who must show that free will and determinism are compatible after all — is to maintain that “could have done otherwise” does not mean what it seems at first to mean; the sense of the phrase denied by determinism is irrelevant to the sense required for freedom.”