The Fear of Falling: Why it Matters

RIP David Foster Wallace
Image by \ Ryan via Flickr

I originally wrote this back in September, after hearing the news of David Foster Wallace’s suicide. Recent events have caused me to rethink why I was sitting on this post…

Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

The sad irony of this passage is that the man who wrote it as an observer (“you or me”) became the person for whom the fear of falling couldn’t overcome the fear of the flames.

Apparently, David Foster Wallace battled crippling depression for over 20 years. The antidepressants stopped working. I think this is the part that sticks with me. At least two of the most important people in my life are wrestling with depression right now, and it scares me to think someone can get so hopeless that this is the only way out they see.

It might not seem like much to those feeling the flames, and ultimately, it’s trite and cliche, but true. Something like this really does make you think about the big stuff – what’s important – and hopefully let the people you love know that they are just that.


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