I recently came to understand not everyone feels sharp, almost electrical pangs shooting up their thighs when standing on the edge of a precipice. Mine are severe enough that I can’t stand on the edge of a cliff to watch an ocean sunset. Or, I should say, I won’t. At least not at the very edge. It hadn’t occurred to me not to assume everyone feels fear of heights to that same degree.
Paradoxically, I’m well aware that fear is subjective. I’m aware some people are terrified of dogs. Meanwhile, I love dogs, and don’t even mind them galloping toward me, off their leash, while I’m walking, say, along the shore. I know dogs usually just want to urgently meet me, briefly but exuberantly. Kites, on the other hand. I don’t know what they want from me. That scares me.
I recently joked that I might have a kite phobia, at a job interview where one of my job duties may or may not have been providing support for the annual (maybe more often than that) kite festival. Unfortunately, after masking up so long for COVID, I’ve gotten lax on facial expressions. The face is key when making an in-person joke that might also be taken as a true and serious statement. Ambiguity is perhaps why something ends up funny. Complicating matters, what’s been to laugh at for a few years now, right? No ambiguity about a global pandemic. So I’m not sure if the panel I was facing—literally, me on one side of the long table, four people opposite, everyone maskless—took me seriously or what. It wouldn’t be the first interview I’d flubbed. An interview at Nike for a contract to purportedly do writing/editing work comes to mind. At one point there was a pause, and then I was asked if I used any phone apps. I blanked! I actually kind of hate smart phones, and especially did at that moment. I was still using a several-years-old iPhone that wouldn’t even run Google maps properly. I was about to say I didn’t use any apps when (cue sound of angelic choir) I remembered one my sister had told me about, that we both made profiles for but rarely used: My Fitness Pal. This is an app I later read had gotten hacked and been bought out—no, first bought out, then hacked. Oh and by the way, it was Under Armour who’d bought it. A major competitor of Nike’s. This was a fact I was blissfully unaware of at the time of my interview. The answer to your question is, “yes, I did.” The answer to your next question is, “no, I didn’t.” But these things tend to work out for the best, or at least work out. Sometimes I think my Higher Self knows something I don’t know, and steps in to make sure the “me” doing the interview comes off like an idiot, to make sure I take some other fork in the road.
Anyway. I don’t have an actual kite phobia. Or do I? When walking underneath them it’s at least fair to say I’m paranoid. Kites are right on the borderline of being funny and not funny, much like interview bungling. Or like the time I was about six, and sprinted bridge-of-nose-first into some hot wire. Luckily it was not “hot,” aka, plugged in, at the time, so to anyone who saw me do it, it was pretty funny. To this day I am wary of running into wire, string, even retractable dog leashes. And there’s also that buzz certain kites make. Like a hornet, or a wayward drone. It can really harsh my mellow. Kites are pointy, and sharp, and the people holding the string rarely seem in control of this wired piece of whipping, diving canvas. Still, I’d never launch a campaign to stop kite flying in public (I mean, c’mon).
The cliché is that there’s rational fear and irrational fear. But really there’s only the rationalizing of fear. Sometimes people argue that a particular fear cannot be rationalized; they say the only rational response to a particular feared thing is to recreate infrastructure around it, whether through laws and abstractions such as speed limits (which merely get raised if most people disobey them), or physically protective barriers, which can alter land permanently. Many road safety laws dream of being a bollard in their next life, while bollards live forever. In other words, to quell a fear that’s been made conscious, removing or changing the circumstances that result in the fear can help. But quantum theory states even the act of observing something changes the observed thing. Perhaps more sustainably, can the circumstances of an uncomfortable fear ever be changed personally? Something I myself can quietly do something about?
One afternoon, a stranger on the beach decided to demonstrate to me—without asking permission—just how much control he was in. Look how this kite dips toward me and hovers, before the human at the other end protectively pulls it back, not harming me. I’d have been justified (perhaps) to have perceived the kite as a threat, and react with extreme annoyance, but I noticed ambiguity. I felt choice appear. The moment I recognized choice, I knew I was going to allow a feeling of something besides irritation. And it was fun, to respond instead with delight and connection. It was as if that person knew I was afraid he wasn’t in control, knew I didn’t trust the situation, and he was going to help me change that by teaching me I was safe in his hands. The little joke we shared is that sometimes, as long as the wind is right, strangers can help each other be a little less afraid, and gain a little more trust.