I wasn’t always afraid of heights. I can remember having that fear for as long as I can remember anything else, but I wasn’t born with it. My mother recalls times when, as a kid, I would wander out onto our apartment’s balcony, climb up and let my feet dangle off the small slip in the guardrail. She, of course, would freak out at the sight (as I would today) and beg and scream till I climbed back down to safety.
I have no recollection of those memories, but then again I vaguely remember anything from of my early years. I can imagine I enjoyed feeling free as I gazed out into the open sky while being caressed by the wind. Even today, when I temporarily overcome my fears and stand tall on heights, I feel the same. But that fear was picked up somewhere along the way because that little boy sitting on the ledge obviously wasn’t anxious.
Perhaps it was the way I saw my mother react. Any boy my age would make note of his mother yelling frantically and take steps to prevent it happening again. It could just as well have been passed down from my father, as he’s repeatedly admitted his “dislike” of heights. As children, we learn an awful lot by imitating our elders, especially our parents. Out of all the good that usually comes out of it, some of their weaknesses slide into our arsenal of learned behaviours too.
But it can’t be an effect of conditioning alone. It’s safe to say that humans, like most animals, have learned to be wary of heights. After all, what we truly fear is not height itself, but the risk of falling to our death. Learning to treat potential harm with caution offers an evolutionary advantage; survival, the most basic of all instincts. I can’t imagine descending from a bloodline of reckless ancestors who were predisposed to falling to their deaths! Not exactly the kind of smart genes that get passed down, huh?
Naturally, I’m extra wary when I’m around any edges – or free fall hotspots as I see them. Balconies, large windows, unguarded balconies, mountain ridges, etc. You get the idea. The same goes for diving into water anywhere, except water feels friendlier. I often visualise all possible scenarios where I could slip (pun intended) and turn into a flat blob of pain. Pretty graphic images, huh? My mental simulator can get the better of me sometimes I guess.
My fear isn’t even contained to me. It extends to basically anyone around heights. If I see someone relying too heavily (again, pun intended) on a guardrail or sitting on a window sill, they get pulled into my mental scenarios. In them, I sometimes get dragged down trying to save someone! I can’t rest at ease until I’ve voiced my concern and cautioned them (meanwhile trying not to sound freaky). Call it pessimism if you will. I call it caring.
Back when I was studying at the University of Tehran, I was living in a dorm with my high-school friends.We all came from Rasht which, like any other city in Iran, paled in comparison to Tehran. We were excited to see what this metropolis had to offer. Around 2007, we discovered Tochal’s bungee-jump. We might have passed on it individually, but no one nearing their 20’s likes to look wimpy in front of their friends.
So we headed to Tochal, the so-called rooftop of Tehran, and walked up to the tall structure visible from afar. Did I say tall? I meant TALL! Towering over the capital, the bungee platform looked like a sword lodged in the side of Alborz’s rocky mountains (Excalibur anyone?). I marvelled at this “thorn in my eye“, half scared and half eager. We walked into the office where we were weighed and asked to sign a form of consent. “Nothing good ever happens when you’re asked to waive your right to sue, ” I said to myself as the three of us walked out and headed for the tower.
I wanted to fight my fear of heights, but that didn’t mean I actually liked the process. As I climbed the steps, I kept a firm grip on the guardrails which ironically provoked my palms to sweat. I kept my head down and focused on the steps, but that didn’t make things much easier because I could also see my slow ascent. By the time I had reached the top of the tower, my worry levels were as high as I was. To make things worse, I realised something that had gone undetected looking up: the platform was swaying subtly in the wind!
We sat on a welded bench as the instructor put on our safety harnesses and walked us through the procedure: “Get up. Walk towards the edge slowly. Stop when you feel the bump under the arch of your feet. DON’T LOOK DOWN! Cross your arms. Lean forward into your fall.” He also mentioned something about not swearing mid-air and enjoying the experience, but by then it was all a blur. All I could think of was the jump.
My friends agreed to let me go first, so I wouldn’t have to watch in agony as they screamed for their lives. That was nice of them! So, as instructed, I dragged my feet towards the edge as the dude lifted the bar, removing the only thing standing between me and the void that was about to engulf me. I was determined not to look down, but seeing the mountain tops and electrical towers was enough to get a sense of how high up I was. All of sudden, everything seemed to be about the dimension of height. I stood there, arms folded and set to jump, as thoughts raced around inside my head.
“What if I jump and the cord snaps? Will the air-filled pad below cushion my fall? What if I can’t do it? Oh these guys are such a**holes for not giving cowards refunds! Maybe I should just sit down a bit longer and let the guys go first. Did the scale show my weight accurately? I’ve studied engineering, I know the power of miscalculation. Should I close my eyes or keep them open? What about my mouth? They never said anything about doing this on an empty or full stomach…”
While this was going on, the instructor had already given the office my name via his walkie-talkie. You traitor, trickster, fiend, you! Now everyone standing within a kilometre’s radius of the tower knew the name of that tiny figure standing on the edge, waiting to jump. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they were amping it up with daring adjectives like “brave athlete” and “courageous jumper”. There really was no going back now. I’d either die a hero or climb down and hide my face for eternity. I know that sounds exaggerated but I was pumping hormones at the time, so sue me!
Finally, came the dreaded countdown.
For a brief moment, my head was vacant of all thought. As I leant forward, I could feel gravity doing her part. I might have closed my eyes momentarily, but I remember all too well how racing towards the ground at G-force acceleration looked like. In mere seconds, the pad blew up to colossal size and my arms opened to embrace it. I let out a shriek of ecstasy, devoid of cursing and swearing, thanks to my polite manner; or self-imposed limitations that not everyone has, as we heard loud and clear in subsequent jumps.
After what seemed like an eternity, the cord rebounded and I was bouncing back up for yet another free fall. Fortunately for me, the physical world is subject to energy loss, making my second fall shorter. I suppose hell could have neverending bungee-jumps for height-fearing deviants! After the motion came to a stop, I was lowered down onto the pad and guided off, shaken but safe. Mixed emotions were booming, but the thrill of satisfaction dominated and it sounded something like this:
I did it! I overcome my fear of heights and bungee-jumped off a 40-meter tower. I’m my own hero today.
The first jump didn’t fully kill off my fear of heights. Neither did the second one, a year or so later. Though I dare say I managed to make a small leap second time round. To me, that’s courage. Facing your fears over and over again, each time more adamant and less worried than before. Thanks to the experience I was able to gather my strength and stand up at high altitudes thereon. The breeze sweeping over my face, the same that gave flight to eagles, was all the reward I needed.
I believe that our fears are a compass, pointing us towards the mental blocks hindering our growth. Every now and then I muster the courage to engage in a stare down with my fears. When I prevail, I know I’ve worn down their pseudo-rational basis, effectively giving my mind a boost to overcome them. But I don’t always win the duel. More often than not, I will stall when faced with a frightful situation, even if I “know” it’s not critically dangerous.
My friend, Rasool, was an intriguing case, bungee or not. He was always the one who emphasised reliance on logic and rational thinking for getting through life. That might have gotten him to make the first jump, but it failed him on the second one. When the countdown ended, we saw him squat, then hesitate. In that ridiculous position, it looked as if the plump bird perched on the steel frame was about to lay an egg! He later told us that it was harder the second time because he knew what to expect and he couldn’t get his mind to jump. Personally, I think his rationale was sound both times but that he failed to realise one key fact about overcoming fear. When it comes to making a leap of faith, the only thing that will get you to do it is actually doing it, plain and simple. No amount of thinking, reasoning, planning or goal-setting will get the hard thing done if it isn’t coupled with decisive action.
There are certain moments in life that feel like those few seconds standing on the edge. You know what I mean. We all have them: asking your crush out, letting go of a failed relationship, giving your colleague/boss your honest opinion, or changing the course of your life in any significant way. All those times we KNOW we can do something courageous, but linger. Not all of them are as scary as jumping off a ledge though; some are much scarier. We have to remember that the desire to change is real, but not the fear. Because before we got in position to make a leap of faith, we had already thought it through and accepted the odds. The doubts, as serious as they may seem in those moments, are just repercussions of our mental attitude bouncing off our fears. Once we make the jump, they’ll take effect full force and blow that fear away.
Writing about this experience put me back on that edge. Silly as it might sound, it wasn’t easy. In part because I went through those intimidating moments and anxious emotions once more. But more than that, because for a newbie blogger like me, every time I decide to write is a bungee-jump. I course through all my insecurities and incentives to write and share experiences of personal value, and when the clock counts down, I’m left with only one choice: DO or DON’T. I’m happy every time I go for do.
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