I have a longstanding mistrust of ledges. I can't point to any event that kicked off this minor phobia. I never had a cliff face give out underneath me. In fact, this fear rarely even applies directly to myself. It kicks in when other people are near ledges. I remember standing on a wooden bridge in Massachusetts as a young child. My even younger brother was looking through the railing at the bay waters below. It chilled me. He wasn't in any real danger, but I was convinced he would fall. This pattern has continued through life. When people I care about are near ledges, I abandon all faith in physics. I hadn't had these sort of thoughts for quite a while, so I was under the impression that I had overcome this irrational belief. However, this week I've been spending time on a ninth story balcony with my one year old daughter and, guess what, I am not over this phobia!
Let me give a shout out to my girl, Freyja, for helping daddy practice his Stoicism on a daily basis.
When a person falls and hits their head on a hard floor I usually take the Stoic approach.
"What just happened?"
"Someone hit their head."
Then I help the person up and go grab some ice; I'm helpful, I'm calm. I thought this meant I was a decent Stoic, but maybe it just means I'm a bit calloused when it comes to adult human beings? Because when Freyja smacks her head on the hard floor I am not instantly calm and collected. I have to work at it. I have to actively invoke a Stoic perspective. My daughter provides a constant reminder that unconscious 'stoicism' isn't necessarily Stoicism. So thanks, Freyja! You're the best.
My little girl is also good at reminding me of old, and now resurfaced, fears. Is that my baby pressed up against a glass railing with a nine story drop beneath her? Why yes it is! Do I feel nauseated by this fact? Yes. Yes I do!
Stoics often practice Premeditatio Malorum, where potential misfortunes are rehearsed in advance. When people first hear about this, they often assume we're attempting to deaden ourselves to future emotions. That isn't what we're doing. Frankly, if picturing the worse case scenario over and over was in itself psychologically useful, then I'd be long past fretting over my daughter's view of the local skyline. Premeditatio is not about callouses, it's about practicing a useful view of events.
One of my favorite summaries of Stoic thought is by Keith Seddon who wrote, "We must invest our hopes not in the things that happen, but in our capacities to face them as human beings." It's this practice, finding what we can do in light of what is actually happening, that is worthy of rehearsal. I am not, yet, capable of fully reigning in the panic that comes with my ledge phobia, but I have taken the opportunity to practice a Stoic point of view.
I am not, by the way, rehearsing dire thoughts of a baby falling through the sky. I've checked the railing. It suddenly breaking away is about as likely as our balcony getting struck by a meteor. I am, instead, asking myself what is the worst reaction possible concerning my actual feelings of fear. For instance, I could yell at my child whenever she nears the ledge and perhaps pass on my irrational fear to the next generation. Alternatively, I could sit quietly and stew in my emotions as my family hangs out on the balcony ensuring that we all have less fun on vacation than we could have had. It's these thoughts that return me to my senses. Right now, the primal feelings that freak me out are beyond my grasp, but I am able to build up a comfortable buffer of reasonable thoughts and rescue my time with my loved ones. I acknowledge the skipped heart beats that I have from time to time, then I take a breath and continue enjoying everyone's company.
I've been reminded that vacations do not allow a vacation from right thinking and that new experiences can dredge up old habits of thought. I feel fortunate to get to wrestle with these thoughts in a controlled atmosphere! I'm off to play with my daughter on a balcony. Probably a few feet back from the edge, but hey, we'll be enjoying ourselves.