Gravity kills. That’s a lesson people learn early on, from the time that our first tentative toddling steps end with a crash on the hardwood floor. Me fall down go boom. Ouch. 

Several times over the past few weeks I’ve awoken from terrifying falling dreams. Dreams in which I was tumbling uncontrollably from a great height. A dream interpreter would probably attribute this to a fear of losing control. And I would agree with that interpretation. For the past few months I’ve been put in a situation where my job security is in the hands of others, a situation well beyond my control. And I’m sure that the anxiety of this is behind my falling dreams. Because in my mind, falling is the ultimate loss of control. Once gravity takes over there’s no going back.

I’ve always been afraid of heights. For a long time I viewed this as a deficiency, an irrational fear to be overcome. But as I get older I realize there’s nothing irrational about it. We SHOULD be afraid of heights. Because falling is dangerous. Being afraid of heights isn’t irrational, it’s perfectly rational. Being unafraid of heights is irrational, abnormal. Suicidal, even. I worry about people like the Wallenda family. There’s something very wrong with those guys. As far as I can tell, being afraid of heights has never killed anyone, but the opposite surely has.

Ever since our bipedal ancestors came down from the canopy and stood upright, we have been a species that is threatened by falling. We must now look upon our primate cousins with envy as they leap from tree to tree, flying through the canopy, scaling great heights effortlessly. Do monkeys have falling dreams?

I recently wrote about the menacing monkeys of mayhem that terrorize the grounds of the Grand Palm. They have learned that climbing to the heights is their safest means of escape. After pilfering packets of sugar they invariably scale the nearest tall tree and enjoy their ill gotten gains with impunity. Because they know that their earth-bound lumbering giant cousins will never be able to scale the trees in pursuit. Like an inverse Jack and the Beanstalk story.

Sacrificing climbing skills for the ability to walk upright was a trade-off. I guess it obviously paid off for our species, but not without risk. Even tripping over our own feet can result in a fall that could be damaging or even fatal. Falling from no more than our own height can still hurt us. Falling is among the greatest fears of the elderly. Remember “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up?”

Ironically, for someone who is afraid of heights, I once had a job that involved climbing trees. Very tall trees. Douglas fir trees, which are among the tallest on our planet. I was never comfortable, and to be honest, I was never very good at it. My palms were always sweaty and my heart would race the entire time, but I did manage to perfect the technique and master all the methods. The part that I actually came to enjoy was rigging a rope and rappelling to the ground. Probably because it was the fastest way of getting safely back on the ground and out of the dizzying heights of the canopy.

Interestingly, we have held on to some remnants of our arboreal past. I’ve read that bedrooms are almost always placed in the upper levels of houses, perhaps a throwback to the days when our ancestors built leaf nests high in the canopy each night? For a species so vulnerable to the effects of gravity, we somehow find lots of ways of making ourselves susceptible to it. We defy it as if it doesn’t apply to us. We jump from airplanes with parachutes, we leap from bridges tied to bungee cords, we build high rise buildings that reach into the clouds, we sit strapped into supersonic metal cigars that somehow defy gravity. Yet for all our defiance, sometimes gravity wins.

So, if you’re like me, and afraid of heights. Fear not. Because you’re probably normal. Because as the old saying goes, it wasn’t the fall that killed him, it was the sudden impact at the end. Gravity kills.

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