Fear comes in many forms. It also comes at many heights. This famous 1932 photograph shows eleven men—without safety harnesses—taking a lunch break during construction of the Rockefeller Center in New York City.
Simply looking at the picture of them leaning in various poses as they casually converse with one another is enough to send shivers up the spine of someone suffering from acrophobia.
I don’t personally have an “irrational fear of heights.” After all, I’ve enjoyed forays into the sky via the Eiffel Tower, the Tokyo Tower and the Space Needle in nearby Seattle. Still, I must confess that when I stand high above the earth on a piece of clear glass or acrylic that I do find it a bit disconcerting. It’s not as if I doubt the building is secure . . . but precisely what clear substance like that is worth trusting our lives to?
In fact, not long ago, a group of people were standing on just such a viewing panel when it began to crack. Two facts, it was new (opened in 2009) and it was on the 103rd floor of the Chicago building. The quaintly named “Ledge” was certified to 10,000 pounds, and it’s difficult to imagine the family standing on it, when it fractured, as exceeding that weight.
Let’s return for a moment to 1932. There’s a lesser known photo, taken the same day as the renowned image. It is even more disturbing. Check this out.
This shot was taken after the men had staged the lunch picture for the press. They were simply resting after eating, before returning to work.
Now, I appreciate rest as much as anyone, and far more than most. But, if I was on that steel girder, 840 feet above the pavement, I would be so hyper vigilant a tranquilizer dart couldn’t put me down.
That picture, frankly, scares me.
Fortunately, C.S. Lewis reminds us that there is nothing wrong with fear. Beyond sometimes protecting us from foolish risk-taking, the fear itself does not determine our reaction to it. In other words, a soldier can rightly be afraid on the battlefield, yet overcome that fear and do something heroic. Common men and women often surprise themselves when they overcome fear they might have thought would cripple them.
C.S. Lewis says it this way. “The act of cowardice is all that matters; the emotion of fear is, in itself, no sin” (The Screwtape Letters).
I’ve learned through the years that there is wisdom in learning about one’s own fears. Sometimes what we learn diminishes the fear. At other times, understanding our fears can prevent us from misattributing our emotions to another source.
For example, you might think you dislike a person who frequently invites you to share your thoughts with a group. When, in actuality, it might merely be your fear of public speaking, or your fear of having your ideas rejected that troubles you. Upon recognizing this, you might even grow to like the other person, seeing how they are confident that you have something of value to offer to the discussion.
Like every other fallen human being, I’m riddled with fears and buried under worries. It is beyond comprehension how God has manifested his love for us in his only begotten Son . . . truly we can cast all of our burdens onto his compassionate and willing shoulders.
In fact, it is during our darkest hours when, assailed by our personal terrors, we lean most upon his strength. Without a doubt, if severe unemployment has forced me to be one of those construction workers nearly a century ago, I would most definitely have been one praying man!
P.S. – Oh, and if anyone is curious about the flask held by the construction worker on the right, I’m sure it only contained water and not some useless form of “liquid courage.”
10 thoughts on “Rational Fears”
Those pictures are scary! Interesting that many of those men were Native Americans who worked in construction there.
Fear keeps you out of trouble – and gives you a chance to grow. (Just keep some commonsense handy, too?)
Another entertaining post!
I’ve read in the past that many high rise workers were recruited from some Southwest tribes because fear of heights was something unknown to them… but in this case the largest number apparently came from recent European immigrants.
Courage and determination aren’t restricted to any one group…those are the qualities we should hope endure and spread.
I would say that a person who is not afraid of anything is just foolish. Understanding fear can be helpful. And working through fear is what we call courage.
In whose voice did Lewis pen the quote you attribute to him from _The_Screwtape_Letters_? His own or one of the characters in the letters?
That’s a good question. In The Screwtape Letters, all of the words (aside from the preface) are from the pen of Screwtape, the senior tempter. Thus, they are the counsel of someone “evil” offering advice to an (also evil) protege. That, of course, doesn’t mean that the words are not true–simply that they come from one whose goals and values are dramatically/demonically skewed.
In this case, Screwtape is advising the junior tempter not to be content with getting his human subject to experience fear and consider taking a cowardly course. Everyone experiences temptation, and that is neither good nor bad. Screwtape says we want people to make the incorrect choice and follow the wrong path… in this case, to be the coward. Here is the fuller context of the sentence quoted above:
“This, indeed, is probably one of the Enemy’s [i.e. Screwtape’s ‘Enemy,’ who is actually God] motives for creating a dangerous world—a world in which moral issues really come to the point. He sees as well as you do that courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky.
“It is therefore possible to lose as much as we gain by making your man a coward; he may learn too much about himself! There is, of course, always the chance, not of chloroforming the shame, but of aggravating it and producing Despair. This would be a great triumph. It would show that he had believed in, and accepted, the Enemy’s forgiveness of his other sins only because he himself did not fully feel their sinfulness— that in respect of the one vice which he really understands in its full depth of dis-honour he cannot seek, nor credit, the Mercy. But I fear you have already let him get too far in the Enemy’s school, and he knows that Despair is a greater sin than any of the sins which provoke it.
“As to the actual technique of temptations to cowardice, not much need be said. The main point is that precautions have a tendency to increase fear. The precautions publicly enjoined on your patient, however, soon become a matter of routine and this effect disappears. What you must do is to keep running in his mind (side by side with the conscious intention of doing his duty) the vague idea of all sorts of things he can do or not do, inside the framework of the duty, which seem to make him a little safer. Get his mind off the simple rule (‘I’ve got to stay here and do so-and-so’) into a series of imaginary life lines (‘If A happened— though I very much hope it won’t— I could do B— and if the worst came to the worst, I could always do C’).
“Superstitions, if not recognised as such, can be awakened. The point is to keep him feeling that he has something, other than the Enemy and courage the Enemy supplies, to fall back on, so that what was intended to be a total commitment to duty becomes honeycombed all through with little unconscious reservations. By building up a series of imaginary expedients to prevent ‘the worst coming to the worst’ you may produce, at that level of his will which he is not aware of, a determination that the worst shall not come to the worst. Then, at the moment of real terror, rush it out into his nerves and muscles and you may get the fatal act done before he knows what you’re about. For remember, the act of cowardice is all that matters; the emotion of fear is, in itself, no sin and, though we enjoy it, does us no good…”
To all the points you made Rob…so true…so true! I believe in the novel Dune it was said, “Fear is the mind killer.” Those men laying on the steel beam were pretty fearless I think. If they fell they would have surely died but not having fear didn’t pull them off the “straight-and-narrow” beams they walked. Excellent post sir!
Thanks. I wish I possessed a fearless faith that could always keep me on track.
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