10 January 2012

Dizziness of Freedom

I am somewhat scared of heights. I wouldn’t call myself acrophobic, in the sense that I am not paralysed by the experience of heights, and don’t suffer panic attacks or anything of the like. But I am uncomfortable with heights, and with the feelings I get from them.
There are obvious reasons why a fear of heights would be favoured by evolution; it doesn’t take much to see why an individual who shy’s away from cliffs may be more likely to survive than their friend who likes playing on the precipice. Likewise there can be obvious discomforts associated with heights, most common being a feeling of vertigo or loss of balance as the visual cues our brain uses to correct our motion move further into the distance, and thus afford us less accurate points of reference to work with.
However these examples are too biological to fully satisfy me with regard to my own reaction to heights. It is all well and good to say that these physiological things can compound into a fear of heights, or at least a discomfort with them; but us homo sapiens’ are one of the lucky species able to not only understand out evolutionary origins, but to also (in a sense) overcome them. There are other natural fears, such as a fear of spiders or darkness, which we can use our reason to overcome. Yet I still find myself experiencing a visceral response when I am elevated beyond the norm.
Plus this photo freaks my eyes out....
Though I may know that the handrail is secure, and that I won’t be falling; I still feel the primal pull towards something less than pleasant. I can be in a tall building, staring out a window in the complete knowledge that I am as safe as the thousands of people who use it every day; yet the pit of my stomach beckons. My mind can reason, but it is nevertheless still contained in a brain, and subject to its evolutionary idiosyncrasies.
I did however find another satisfying explanation a few years back when was reading about Kierkegaard. I came across his idea of the ‘dizziness of freedom’, whereby in some cases the fear of heights can be described not as a fear of the simple fact of being at a considerable height, but rather the second hand fear, or subconscious dread, associated with the fact that you could at any point choose to throw yourself off the edge. Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom he said; the fact that you have the will within yourself to do these things brings up an unfocused fear inside merely because of this fact.
"I must find a truth that is true for me. And someone who can draw bodies" -  Kierkegaard
This to me was a more satisfactory explanation of my own feelings regarding heights. I am not afraid of height in itself, but rather of the possibility (and dare I say urge) to throw oneself over the edge.
I get the same feeling, that quiver at the base of my stomach, when I am a passenger in a car going at speed along a highway. The knowledge that just outside my door is a similar drop to a closer, but equally fatal, moving highway. Accessible with a simple exercising of my own free will; I could just as easily open the door and plunge to the asphalt, as I could defenestrate myself from a sky-scraper.
I don’t want to do these things, for the obvious fear of the consequences; but it is a possibility, and something seemingly only kept at bay by the very will which could bring about its execution.
Though I guess as with a lot of explanations, this is just pushing the onus back a bit further. After all, then we have to wonder why the tacit acknowledgement of such possible manifestations of the will is something that our subconscious minds can fixate upon. After all I feel the unfocused fear of this action much more than I do any number of other possible, yet undesirable, actions that are in my arsenal. I don’t feel the dizziness of freedom when I am near a fire, though I know I could throw myself in, nor do I feel anxiety when I am in the presence of poisons, though I know I could imbibe them.

Though some poison I do indulge in
It must simply be the undeniable visual cues, the involuntary sense data that enters our minds via the optic nerve, and sets its subconscious processes working against us. After all to recognise that we are up high takes a lot less deliberative effort than it does to understand some of the other threats mentioned.
Also, at the end of the day, it is much easier on ones pride to shy away from heights based on a reasoned philosophical argument, than it is to just admit that you are scared of heights. So perhaps I will just stick to that for now.

Sidenote here: In Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre described vertigo as “anguish to the extent that I am afraid not of falling over the precipice, but of throwing myself over”, which seems to be similar to what we are talking about here. Except for the fact that vertigo and a fear of heights aren’t exactly the same thing. Vertigo is more a sense of spinning when one is remaining still. It is often associated with a fear of heights (not to mention classic movies (see above), or Arrested Development skits), but can be experienced at any time.
[Oh, and I couldn't find the vertigo clips from Arrested Development, so i settled with the best of Tobias.]

And with that I declare this random post complete.

1 comment:

  1. When in china there was 3 of us afraid of heights - Dad, Nat and I. We each had a different type of fear though. Dad's was like you mentioned. He said he has a little voice in his head telling him to jump. Nat could hardly move when up high and was absolutely petrified. When I am up high I am not afraid of falling, nor do I feel like I might want to throw myself off the edge! I simply go a bit dizzy, and my knees go weak, and I don't like feeling that so don't like to be high. Isn't it strange how people's brains work?