Depending on the person, panic can subside by varying degrees – especially when you’re in free-fall and the cold darkness of space.
I should explain.
I’m an atheist.
Easiest thing in the world to say.
Harder to understand. For me, anyway. I still haven’t fully grasped what it means to be finally alone, despite being fundamentally the same as the rest of the universe. Probably never will.
Dreaming About Flying
It’s worth bringing this up now, and explaining why later.
Just about everybody I know has had a dream at some point where they fly like Superman, and it seems like the most normal thing in the world. I had those dreams all the time as a kid. I remember once visiting at a prehistoric zoo with a friend, and a mastodon the size of a school broke loose from its enormous cage in a towering and terrifying fit of what was probably righteous anger. The natural thing for us to do was say “Fuck this,” leave the ground, fly around the monster’s head a couple times, and piss off.
Don’t remember exactly when, but somewhere in my early teens I stopped having dreams like that. Dreams became so mundane that I began to have trouble distinguishing them from reality. As a result, I have apologized for inappropriate behavior that never actually happened. That’s almost as embarrassing as it sounds. Waking and Dreaming became the same sort of bad comedy, with no flight.
Blame clinical depression for now. I think depression is symptomatic of a deeper problem, but whatever. That’s a topic for another time.
God is Like a Rope.
I never had that joyful moment of realizing there’s no God, even though I was dyed in the wool with the Baltimore Catechism (and all the infantile solemnity that goes with it – a properly dreadful book). It was more of a gradual thing, and sort of half-assed.
God’s existence and omnipotence were, after all, the basis of my system of ethics and morals, and the final consolation that my consciousness would be saved on the Big Hard Drive in the Sky when my hardware’s warrantee was up. Safe even from magnets.
I can tell you from experience that there’s a deep sense of relief in *knowing* the universe has an omnipotent Boss, and that the Boss is on your side. When it comes to a thing like that, you don’t just drop it without something else to grab onto.
When in Doubt, Flip Out.
And then one day, without warning, that grouchy old fart Lao Tse reached across the centuries and snatched out the tenuous thread of certainty that held me out of the bottomless pit of meaninglessness. It didn’t take much, just a few words and a bit of time. That fucking “Book of Tao” or whatever was just sitting there in the library, right where anybody could see it. Irresponsible to leave a thing like that around.
Good thing it only dawned on me gradually too. With the headspace I’d been in for the previous 24 years, it would have struck me as an insurmountable bummer that the bottomless pit is all there is.
I was too young to appreciate the irony at the time.
Another layer of irony was that my then-favorite writer (the late journalist, humorist, and Catholic apologist GK Chesterton) had a knack for flipping just about every imaginable concept upside-down. It should have been obvious; but again, I was young and stupid.
And panicky. Never underestimate the blinding power of panic. Especially when you’re in free-fall, and the cold darkness of space. And that’s all the time.
Interestingly enough, it was shortly after this that I started dreaming about leaving the ground again. The circumstances continued in the same down-to-earth way (as down-to-earth as I ever get anyway), and dreams were still indistinguishable from the waking world. So naturally it was a surprise to me the first time it happened. Here’s how:
I was in New Hampshire for some reason (a place I swore some years ago to avoid, over things I might eventually get into), and accidentally floated about two feet above the ground. As soon as I noticed it, I began to sink. The more I tried to levitate, the lower I sank. A metaphor for my time there, maybe.
I closed my eyes and took a deep, slow breath. I let go – first of flying, then of the ground. It’s a lot harder than it sounds. It was like letting part of who I am just fall away. Couldn’t do it all at once.
When I opened my eyes, I was about thirty feet up. Letting go became easier with altitude. I rose a little further, and could see I was above the turnpike a few miles out of Nashua. I went up a mile, and gradually lost the capacity to worry about what a rotten place New Hampshire had been.*
This still happens. I’ll be walking down the street somewhere, strides imperceptibly becoming longer. Then I’ll notice I haven’t touched the sidewalk in a while. I’ll test myself, see how far up the road I can just float, and how quickly. Really blows people’s minds when they notice what’s going on. And I can never tell I’m dreaming at the time.
I’m never disappointed when I wake up either. Sometimes in the waking world I’ll let go of the ground, just to see if I’m dreaming. I’ll only know for sure it if I stay put. And that’s the main difference between dreams and reality, right?
That isn’t necessarily a rhetorical question either.
Falling is a Kindness.
The panic is mostly gone now, though sometimes I forget which way I’m falling, and it starts again. In those moments I just have to take slow, deep breaths, and remember what I’ve learned over the past 15 years or so:
You aren’t falling. You’ve been ascending uncontrollably this whole time.
Or you would be, if you weren’t holding onto the ground so goddamn tight.
It was the realization that I was never held up by the ground I stood on, but tied to it.
Chesterton liked to say, “Angels fly because they take themselves lightly, while the Devil fell by the force of gravity.” For years I agreed. Now I would submit that angels can let go and fall, while devils hold on like fucking badgers.
Puts that exchange between Woody and Buzz Lightyear in a funny frame too.
It’s just a matter of recognizing which way “up” and “down” really are. Which is nowhere. And that makes them everywhere.
*with sincere apologies to the good people of New Hampshire. I know they exist. My experience was narrow, however interminable.