by Olivia Chandrasekhar
It’s fourth Wednesday. You and three friends left campus hours ago, hitting I-70 with a car packed full of tortilla chips and camping gear. Your final destination is somewhere near Moab, but you’re not there yet; instead, you’ve taken a detour, turning off on a dirt road and driving towards some “sweet-looking bluffs” a few miles west.
As the light begins to fade, you find yourself on top of a cliff. It’s a desert cliff, the kind with a wind-swept top, the red rock still warm from the afternoon sun. Beneath your feet, the surface feels more like sand than stone. The air is dry and cool, and the wind stings your nose and leaves grit in the back of your throat. A handful of feet away from where you stand, the land drops off, sheer, ending in a deep blue pool that shimmers with the last of the light. A river, branching out in two directions and winding sluggishly downhill, feeds the pool. It looks to you like a 1,000 foot drop, but you realize it’s probably less.
You need to jump. To clarify, there’s no pressing physical reason for you to do so—you are not, for example, being chased—you simply intend to, maybe for fun. If you jump correctly, you’ll be just fine; the water is deep, and you’re a strong swimmer. However, it is imperative that you do actually leap, throw yourself upwards and outwards, vault over the abyss. The pool isn’t wide; you can’t just step and fall. If you drop like a stone, you will land among the rocks.
You’re terrified. Your fear is so acute that it has become difficult for you to move your feet; you find it nearly impossible to take the several steps to the edge of the cliff. Your thoughts turn into a stream of abuse—don’t be so scared, man up and do it, seriously, what’s wrong with you?
A good friend of yours, a neuroscience major, got drunk last Wednesday and went on a rant about the science of fear. You didn’t get too much out of the pseudo-lecture, but you do remember that fear is wrongly thought of as an emotion. Really, it’s a hormonal response to stimuli, which becomes increasingly clear as your adrenal glands flood your bloodstream with epinephrine. A normal heart beats about 60 times a minute, she told you; a heart on adrenaline, up to three times that.
Currently, your blood is moving at such a speed that you can hear it roaring past your eardrums. Your palms are slick. When you make a fist and uncurl it, every joint aches. You’re freaked out, your body is reacting and you know exactly how; the issue is, there’s nothing you can do about it. Physiologically, you’re done for. What’s more, one of your friends has already landed in the pool. This is getting embarrassing.
You try to goad yourself into jumping—what are you afraid of? Even though the thought of the vertiginous drop makes you slightly nauseous, you realize that you’re not actually afraid of falling or of pain. What scares you is the possibility of dying upon impact with the rocks below you. Shit, you think. It actually makes sense to be afraid of death.
Despite your 20-year-old psyche, you are acutely aware that you are not immortal. Unfortunately, you also have a pressing need to take risks and impress your friends, and that’s taking priority at the moment. The best way to get through this, you decide, is to convince yourself there’s nothing to be afraid of.
You close your eyes, lose your balance and nearly fall over. That won’t work.
Okay, you tell yourself. How can I convince myself to not be afraid of dying?
You can justify being afraid if, somehow, that fear will be productive—if it can help get you out of the situation. You can also justify being afraid if you don’t know what the outcome of the situation will be; when your future is unsure, it makes sense to fear or favor one possibility over another.
A potentially fatal jump, however, fails to satisfy either of your conditions for sensible fear; death is not an unknown and dying is not a resolvable situation. There’s nothing you can do to avoid dying eventually so, really, there’s no use being afraid of it. Of course, telling yourself this doesn’t help your current situation a bit; your heart is still racing and your legs still feel like jelly. Damn.
Maybe what you’re afraid of, then, isn’t death but imminent death. I haven’t been around for that long, you think, and I’m not sure if a scenic panorama of the highway is the last thing I ever want to see.
In the United States, the leading causes of death are heart disease, cancer and respiratory disease, in that order. None of these options strike you as particularly compelling; death by cliff jumping, on the other hand, would be a downright aesthetic experience. When it comes to your final moments, you would take hurtling towards still water and slick rock over watching florescent hospital lights slowly fade any day. Still, you’re not convinced. Does the merit of a beautiful, thrilling final moment outweigh the benefit of living another sixty years? The tricky thing, you realize, is that you have absolutely no way of knowing—the rest of your life is just as likely to be dismal as it is wonderful.
Also, if you’re going to start thinking in terms of cost-benefit analysis, you might as well consider the chance that this fall will actually end in your death, which, all things considered, is pretty low. In fact, all three of your friends have already jumped, and, as their voices echo off the cliffs, it occurs to you that they’re beginning to sound annoyed.
“Get your ass down here!”
“The water’s still warm!”
“Hurry up, man, I forgot to lock the car!”
You ignore them; you’re on the brink of something important.
You’re not exactly afraid of losing life, you realize, but of lack of life. So far, living’s been pretty good, you think. Death, on the other hand, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You don’t believe in hell, or anything like that. When you go, you’re expecting nothingness; it doesn’t make sense, to you, to be afraid of that. The absence of a good is not inherently bad—you’re fairly certain you once quoted someone saying that in a paper.
Still, it’s possible that losing life—which you see as a good thing—is bad and, therefore, worth being afraid of. That being said, you’ve already come to the conclusion that the eventual loss of life is unavoidable and irresolvable, so you’re back where you began.
As far as you can reason, your fear of death—of jumping—is irrational. Inconveniently for you, that means it isn’t logical, or even possible, to try and talk yourself through your current situation. Irrational problems do not have rational solutions, you think. Oh well.
Your breathing has slowed slightly, your palms have regressed from dripping to damp, and you’re starting to get mad again. This was, after all, supposed to be fun. As you take two slow, shuffling steps forward, you conclude that the only way to overcome an irrational fear is with an irrational action—like jumping off a cliff.
You’ll see your friends at the bottom.