Four Fears: Heights
In 1990, after I learned I had AIDS, I decided I did not want to die afraid. I made a list of everything I was afraid of—
- Public Speaking
And I overcame each fear. In the next few days, I will tell you how (and I will pick a piece of music to listen to that has something to do with either the fear itself or with overcoming it). In previous posts, I have written about water and public speaking; today, I will write about heights.
Why I Was Afraid of Heights
A fear of heights, or of falling, seems innate to mammals: most species, when confronted with a cliff, adopt a defensive posture: as if something threatening is directly before them. Whenever I approached a ledge, whether in a building or on a mountain, I could hardly look down, and I would feel unbalanced, sometimes even sick to my stomach (as when I glanced over the edge of Glenn Canyon Dam). This would also be true for me when I saw photographs taken from heights, or when people in movies were on ledges or cliffs: I wouldn't just hold my breath—my heart would race, and if the scene went on and on, I would start to feel ill.
The fear of falling is more prevalent in those who have fallen, and been injured. Dr. E. Paul Zehr, in his article "Fear of Falling" (Psychology Today, 21 October 2011) states that: "When something unpleasant happens to us, we often develop an aversion to having that unpleasant thing happen again. Not surprisingly, many people who have a fall develop a fear of falling again." When I was eight years old, I threw myself off a tall haystack (it was my first suicide attempt). Obviously, the fall didn't kill me, but it broke my right arm (the official family story was that I broke it playing basketball). So there was a fall resulting in injury in my life, and that may have contributed to my fear of heights.
I studied for six years with a guru. The philosophies of the East talk about past lives, and they teach that we are reborn innumerable times. What happened to us, and what we did in those lives, can affect us in this life. Perhaps, in a past life, I fell and suffered as a result, or died—and that experience has affected me in this life. I am willing, at least, to consider the possibility.
For whatever reason, I was afraid of heights, and it was on my list of fears to overcome.
I found a way.
How I Overcame My Fear of Heights
I discovered something that mattered more to me than my fear—my desire to explore wild Utah and to see things best viewed from heights. I wanted to stand on top of Mount Olympus east of Salt Lake City and look down on fireworks on the Fourth of July: so I climbed that mountain. I wanted to get up and into Anasazi cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, so I climbed up tall ladders and onto narrow ledges (and back down again). I wanted to climb to the bottom of the canyon in Natural Bridges National Monument, then hike along that canyon—and see each bridge from below, so I did.
The more I faced heights, the easier it got. I found that my fear even gave me a useful caution: because of it, I would take more time to study my options, and I often found easier and safer ways up and down than my buddies.
I climbed Mount Olympus (9,030 ft.); Mount Timpanogos (11,753 ft.); Wheeler Peak (13,063 ft.). I climbed down from the summit of Haleakala Volcano on Maui (10,023 ft.) to the sea. I have climbed the highest mountain in England, Scafell Pike (a mere 3,209 ft.), where I was able to look down on a squadron of British military jets as they flew through the canyon below. Ultimately, I joined an eight-day expedition to the summit of Kilimanjaro (19,340 ft.), the highest mountain in Africa, and I saw the Sun rise over the Indian Ocean.
The Psalmist wrote: "I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains, from whence cometh my strength" (Psalm 121:1). I have stood on high places of the Earth, and I am stronger because of it.
I will not die afraid of heights.
Brian Derksen, "I Lift My Eyes Up"
Brian Derksen wrote a setting of Psalm 121, and I have found it a comfort. I miss the hymns of the Mormon church. This is not one of those hymns, but it is a Christian song of hope. Here is a recording of Nigel Briggs, the British singer and songwriter, singing "I Lift My Eyes Up," from the 2004 album Live Vineyard Worship: Winds of Worship—Come Now Is the Time (the song is unavailable for preview on Amazon.com [though the entire album is available]; the link, therefore, is to iTunes):
The photograph, above, is of me on the Summit Plateau of Kilimanjaro (August 1996). Behind and below me is Mount Meru, and beyond it: the sea.