In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, Chris Allbritton puts a name to the feeling that I’ve had more and more frequently when I’m up high and looking down: l’appel du vide, or the call of the void. He describes it this way:
“It’s an urge, when you reach the edge of a high drop, to throw yourself into the great beyond. It has called to me at the edge of cliffs, on the observation deck of the Empire State Building and even at the top of stepladders when I’ve been changing light bulbs. It’s a feeling that starts in the pit of my stomach–and has engendered in me a profound terror of heights.”
Ditto, except for the stepladder.
But who knew there was a name for this? And a French name, at that.
I had never heard it described this way. I have never mentioned that I experience this feeling to anyone. But it’s the reason I stay away from ledges, edges, and balconies. I won’t pause to admire the view if there isn’t a wall and a window in front of me. It’s the reason I refused to pose for a picture on the edge of a cliff in Sydney when my husband suggested it, even though plenty of people sat right down on a jutting-over-the abyss rock and smiled for the camera. I practically jumped away from it and wouldn’t even let him sit there for a picture. I found out there was another ledge right below, hidden from view–but I still kept far away.
The first time I really noticed this urge was on a trip to Hawaii several years ago, when I had to back away from the small patio overlooking the hotel grounds, even though I felt almost hypnotically compelled to stand there and look down at the palm trees, the plumeria, and the rushing waterfall far below. I freaked myself out. Mai Tais were in order, and thankfully the bar was at ground level.
In “One Giant Leap,” Allbritton describes how he conquered his fear of heights and the call of the void: he strapped on a parachute and jumped out of an airplane over New Zealand’s South Island.
Good for him.
As for me, I’m not sure it’s the way I’d choose to deal with this fear. His dive sounds wonderful in a way. But just reading about it caused me some discomfort. I worried about him all the way through his observations of what he saw as he plummeted for 19,500 feet near the Franz Josef Glacier. While it was pleasant to revisit my trip to New Zealand and my own climb on a glacier as I read the travel information in the sidebar, I do not feel tempted to make a 3.7-mile leap from an airplane any time soon.
Though the jump left Allbritton’s fear of heights behind him (at least for the moment, after he landed on terra firma), he didn’t know if it would be a permanent life-change.
He claims that the jump left him “drunk on thrill.” He had me at drunk.
I do admire his chutzpah for facing his fear in such a dramatic fashion, but I’ll have to figure out another way for myself.
I’m working up to it.
I hear writing about it is a good step towards coming to terms with the things we fear. 😉
Thanks for posting this. I hadn’t heard about “the call of the void” before either, and though I don’t fear heights, I’m definitely uncomfortable with my own moments of “l’appel du vide,” which is why I always grip tightly to the railings when looking over balconies, and I have not stopped to admire the view when driving through the hills!