Fear and the Monument
Fear is one of the most powerful and universal emotions in the human experience—perhaps second only to love in how dramatically it can affect our behavior. Whether or not all fear is learned is open to debate, but we definitely learn both good and bad fears. Good Fears include those that help keep us safe—survival instincts and remnants of our lizard brains designed to trigger fight or flight responses. Fire, falling, and physical threats are a few examples of Good Fears. We also tend to learn fears that are more esoteric or even existential. For the sake of argument, we’ll call these Bad Fears; they include fear of failure, rejection and my personal favorite, uncertainty. While Good Fears can keep us from experiencing pain or harm, Bad Fears can often paralyze us, keeping us from experiencing growth, joy and even love.
Despite my share of scrapes, sprains and breaks in my youth, I was far from what you would call a “fearless” child. In fact, most of my injuries were the result of my own clumsiness or simply overestimating my own ability, occasionally to serious (but far more often to comical) ends. I was adventurous, but never to the point of being reckless—I was aware of, and respected, the Good Fears. However, the divorce of my parents when I was four set in motion a series of beliefs and behaviors that I wouldn’t become conscious of for decades. For years, these beliefs germinated just below the surface of my own awareness, growing into Bad Fears: abandonment, issues around self-worth and a belief that I didn’t deserve happiness, success or to be loved. I blamed myself for my parents’ divorce until my mid 30s, a belief that eroded the fabric of virtually every relationship I was in up to that point, with the resulting patterns of self-sabotage ultimately dooming them to failure.
Somewhere along the way, I developed a fear of heights. Actually, strike that; I developed a fear of certain types of heights, mostly around man-made objects—though even that’s not quite right. For example, I love to fly, in both large planes and small (I prefer small planes) and was never bothered by having an office on the 35th floor of the Universal Studios tower, despite one wall being floor-to-ceiling windows. I do, however, get very uncomfortable on suspension bridges and was terrified to hike to the top of Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park, not because of the rocks or the heights, but rather the fear that the chain handholds would somehow give way, sending me plummeting to my end. So while my fear was rooted in something rational (heights), my application or experience of it was wholly without reason or merit and ultimately irrational. This is one of my Bad Fears, one of many rooted in uncertainty. Historically, I have also owned a fear of failure, which I had assumed was a byproduct of a fear of success, or rather my potential inability to sustain any sort of success, which got me back to a fear of failure. Do you see how pathological you need to become when held at bay by irrational fears? As batshit crazy as Gary Busey is, he has a great way of defining fear: F-false E-evidence A-appearing R-real. The reality around my fear of failure is that I have never failed at anything, not really. Have there been things that didn’t work out the way I had hoped or even planned? Absolutely, but each of them were also learning experiences, so there really was no failure. Again, my fear was irrational (not to mention misplaced) and based on the belief that I simply didn’t deserve success.
By now you may be wondering, “So where does The Monument fit into all of this?” Good question. The Monument (in this case, the Washington Monument) became a touchstone, of sorts, for many of my irrational fears, specifically, my fear of heights (again, certain types of heights) and my anxiety around uncertain outcomes (what if a 9.0 earthquake or a missile strike occurs while I’m inside of it?). I thought if I could conquer this, and show that these irrational beliefs had no power over me, what other Bad Fears could I rid myself of? Any of them? All of them? Even some of them would be a massive leap forward. Only one way to find out—and that way was up.
For three days I tried to get tickets to the Monument, psyching myself up each morning to step into the elevator and make the 500 foot ascent to the observation deck—yet each day they were sold out. Sunday was my last day in DC and I was determined to conquer this fear before I left. In that moment of decision, nothing else about the trip mattered. It was about 27 °F when I arrived to wait in line—of course the 25mph gusts across the Mall made it feel even colder. It was a little after 7am and there were already 50 or so people ahead of me, waiting for the ticket window to open at 8:30. Just ahead of me was Chad, a residential architect from Birmingham, Alabama who was waiting with his 10 year old daughter Miller. As much as I was trying to focus on having a conversation with him, occasionally my attention would drift to the Monument, its surface bright and defiant in the morning sun, as if challenging my resolve. “Are you sure about this?” it whispered repeatedly. “I am today,” I said to myself.
For the next hour or so, while I tried to stay present in the moment, I was reminded of Robert Rauschenberg famously erasing a de Kooning. As Rauschenberg tells the story, he went to de Kooning’s door with a bottle of Jack Daniels, hoping that de Kooning wasn’t home so that the attempt would be the work. When de Kooning answered, Rauschenberg explained what he wanted to do, again hoping that if de Kooning said no, the work would be in the attempt. When de Kooning reluctantly agreed, Rauschenberg was faced with having to do the work. On each of the three days prior when I was denied a ticket, I thought “Oh well, at least I tried,” and in fact was a little relieved. Sunday was different. The work was no longer in the attempt but in the doing. A little after 8am, the line began to move. They tape a list of available times to the window of the ticket booth, crossing them off as they fill up. 9am looked to be available—the first group of the day.
Ticket in hand, I headed up the hill to the Monument itself, only to wait for another 45 minutes or so in a blustery cold that belied the brightness of the day. As I looked at my ticket, the waves of angst temporarily gave way to a nervous excitement at the thought of crossing a Bad Fear off the list. However, when the line to the elevator began to move the fear found a way back in, like water finding its own level. Though the metal detectors, down the hall, the doors to the elevator open. No turning back now. Here we go.
Over the next 60 odd seconds, I could feel my heart begin to race. About halfway up, the docent informs us that the Washington Monument is the tallest free-standing stone structure in the world. All I could think of at that moment was that this would have been nice to learn on the ground. Then again, if I had, chances are I would still be there. The elevator doors face east, so when they open at 9am, it takes your eyes a minute to adjust to the morning sun flooding into the observation deck. When they finally do, you see the Capitol in the distance and the Mall leading up to the Monument. It’s breathtaking. I was the last person out of the elevator and as I raised my left foot to step out, I paused for what seemed like a full minute, though I’m sure it was much less. I gently lowered my foot onto the floor of the deck, as if testing the icy surface of a frozen lake, making sure I wouldn’t fall through. A deep exhale and I was there, 500 feet above the ground below. My eyes welled up with tears—part relief, part excitement, but mostly the realization that this Bad Fear was now mine to control, not the other way round. I stayed on the observation deck for about 45 minutes, during which time I took photos out all four sides of the Monument, including several up against the glass looking down towards the ground below. Once my boot hit the floor out of the elevator, the anxiety and fear that I had struggled with for so long faded away. There was simply nothing left to fear—and maybe there never was. False evidence appearing real.
In the days that followed, I replayed the events of the Monument over and over, looking for an answer to the question I kept asking myself: “How am I different?” And if I am different, I wondered if that meant I was any better. I began with the declaration that fear is a powerful emotion, but I believe what’s even more powerful is the honest realization that you can no longer be held captive by it. I know—from the doing, not just hypothetically—that I can face my Bad Fears head on and come out the other side, taking back some of the power, the dignity, the control over thoughts and behavior that for years I have allowed to hold my happiness hostage. I’m still very much a work in progress, but for the first time in a long time, I like the direction I’m headed.