I remember a time I was hosting a programmer from Romania (yes, that guy). And he wanted to take some pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge before he left. So I drove him over to the north side of the bridge where there is parking with a great view of the bay and the city. And it is just a short walk to the bridge itself. I went with him. But after only 30 feet onto the bridge, I had to leave him. I was suffering from extreme acrophobia. I was panicked.
I had suffered with acrophobia my entire life, yet this was a little surprising to me. As part of my work at that time, I spent a tremendous amount of time flying around in a little 2-seat Cessna. It was something that I very much did not want to do when the company had started. But the hardware/software system that we were developing was so complicated and fragile at the time that I was the only one who could do it. I managed it in part by just focusing on the work I had to do. But the truth is that it wasn’t that big a deal regardless. I have never had aerophobia — the fear of flying.
(I do have a very rational fear the wings falling off planes because I’ve known too many engineers in my life and I don’t have a high opinion of them. But that’s another issue.)
The truth is that I don’t have to be on the Gold Gate Bridge to have a panic attack. I get pretty much the same thing walking over an overpass. And I’ve come to think that the basis of my acrophobia is my sense of free will. (I don’t believe in actual free will, of course.) It doesn’t much matter that I’m not suicidal. When I see a ledge that I could run to and throw myself over, I panic. It’s not the ledge; it’s my imagination that terrifies me.
I’m the same way when I watch films. I’ve seen The Matrix a dozen times, and every time Neo goes out on that ledge, I squirm in my seat. I’m doing so right now just thinking about it. The mind is a crazy thing and what goes on inside it is often much more threatening than what’s going on outside in the “real” world.
None of this is to say that I don’t have a general fear of heights. But if I’m in something like an aerial tram, I might be ill at ease, but I’m not freaking out. On the other hand, if the tram was open air, I’d be lying on the floor convulsing. And to be honest, I’m not sure I would want to get rid of this kind of fear. One of my better abilities is to visualize hypotheticals really well in my mind. I’d hate to lose that just for the sake of being able to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge.
How can you hate a fear that allows you to imagine what it would be like to take that step — even if the the reality is tragic?