For much of my life, I was nervous around heights. That’s why I took up hang gliding. It took some determined work and a year of therapy, but I can now leap fearlessly leap off clifftops; as long as I have a firm grip on the bar of a hang glider. What helped me to feel comfortable with heights is that I visualized the space on the edge and the space into which I launch as no different from one another. They are both one all-inclusive, undivided and supportive medium.
I have benefited from this hard-won confidence for several years now and I took it for granted that I had also overcome my childhood fear of heights. Then one Friday, as I was waiting by the elevator doors, my briefcase packed with papers for stocks that would be trading early the next morning on the Hong Kong exchanges, one of the partners at the investment firm where I work came into the hallway, shouting, “Jim is on the roof threatening to jump!”
I have to admit I was more than ready to respond to an emergency I felt I was uniquely qualified to handle. I even had the thought, absurd I know, as I sprinted for the stairs to the roof, that it was too bad I didn’t have my hang glider with me so that Jim and I could leap off the building together and glide between the skyscrapers along the length of Wall Street.
I felt ready for whatever might happen when I reached the top of the stairs and opened the door onto the roof. That feeling of readiness stayed with me as I hurried across the gravel toward where I saw the back of Jim’s head as he sat facing the street, his legs dangling above 33 floors of empty space.
Before I reached him, he raised his body off the ledge and I saw light between his trousers and the steel balustrade. Suddenly I lost all strength in my legs, stumbled, and pitched head first into the raised edge that rimmed the rooftop. My head must have hit hard because I blacked out.
In the moments before I lost consciousness, I was back in my childhood, reliving an incident that I had buried so deeply that months of therapy had failed to reach it. Now, on the rooftop, it welled up like the sulphureous fumes of Pandemonium greeting Satan.
My stepfather was holding me by my ankles over our apartment balcony, laughing and pretending to lose his grip. My bladder and bowels lost control and I was so ashamed that I never told another living soul. For years after, I had experienced a crippling fear of heights, which could attack me without warning, even climbing a flight of stairs; but I had forgotten why.
Later as an adult, I believed that I had successfully banished my fear of heights; until that day, when I discovered that I had been skating across a sheet of ice that could crack at any time.
Jim must have heard me moaning. My first image upon coming to, was of his face a few feet from mine asking if I was OK. I learned that Jim had just been eating a sandwich in one of his favorite spots, in preparation for a long night at his desk. More significantly, I discovered that–while I had been rushing to his rescue, his fearless savior–I was the one who needed saving.
Now I am working with a new visualization: the space I had been sailing across was really more like a river into which I was free to relax and float comfortably along in its current. I had been afraid that the ice across which I was skating might crack at any time, but it was only when it did crack, and I fell in, that I learned that the water I believed was rushing beneath had never been a threat. How could it be: since there is nothing separating the river and the one swimming in it?