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A void like that is terrifying. Prisoner of a morsel of space, you will struggle desperately against occult elements: the absence of matter, the smell of balance, vertigo from all sides, and the dark desire to return to the ground, even to fall. This dizziness is the drama of high-wire walking, but that is not what I am afraid of.
After long hours of training for a walk, a moment comes when there are no more difficulties. It is at this moment that many have perished. But in this moment I am also not afraid.
If an exercise resists me during rehearsal, and if it continues to do so a little more each day, to the point of becoming untenable, I prepare a substitute exercise—in case panic grabs me during a performance. I approach it slyly, surreptitiously. But I always want to persist, to feel the pride of conquering it. In spite of that, I sometimes give up the struggle. But I do so without any fear. I am never afraid on the wire. I am too busy.
But you are afraid of something. I can hear it in your voice. What is it?
Sometimes the sky grows dark around the wire, the wind rises, the cable gets cold, the audience becomes worried. At those moments I hear fear screaming at me.
To imagine that one evening I will have to give up the wire, that I will have to say, “I was afraid, I met Holy Fear, it invaded me and sucked my blood”—I, the fragile walker of wires, the tiniest of men, will turn away to hide my tears—and yes, how afraid I am.
On the ground I profess to know no fear, but I lie. I will confess, with self-mockery, to arachnophobia and cynophobia. Because I see fear as an absence of knowledge, it would be simple for me to conquer such silly terrors. “I am too busy these days,” I’ll say, “but when I decide it’s time to get rid of my aversion to animals with too many legs (or not enough legs—snakes are not my friends, either), I know exactly how to proceed.” I will read science reports, watch documentaries, visit the zoo. I will interview spider-wranglers (is there such a profession?) to discover how these creatures evolved, how they hunt, mate, sleep, and, most importantly, what frightens the hairy, scary beast. Then, like James Bond, I won’t have any problem having a tarantula dance a tarantella on my forearm.
The body language of fear
The inner motion of fear is a thick book of old tricks that brims with almost invisible, almost silent improvisations—that’s why it cannot be anticipated. Those who let themselves be brushed by that trailing shadow see their linear path transformed into a vertical whirlpool that carries them, in slow motion, into an abyss of angst.
The body language of fear is contagious. The body language of fear is devious. Before you feel it, strings are tied to your limbs. You are a puppet being made to dance. All spins and whirls, you never actually see the body of fear, only its shadow. The shadow of a doubt. It may glide behind you like a stealth hovercraft, tiptoe like a fox, or slither like a coral snake. If it runs out of deceptive moves, it will invent one on the spot.
Atychiphobia, the fear of failure, often focuses on the physical. That type of fear will do anything to block your path. It is responsible for the hesitation that delays some free-soloing rock climbers hundreds of feet above the ground from grabbing a tiny handhold during a crux move; it is determined to prevent them from continuing their ascent.
The taste of fear
Yom asal, yom basal. The Arabic proverb is true to life: “One day honey, one day onion.” Honey is sweet and good, onion pungent and bitter. We taste both at once when our lips glue to the cup of fear.
There are signs. The good, the sweet, is what happens when a thought makes us salivate in joyous anticipation. The bitterness could be the acid taste blending with adrenaline on our palate just before we throw up in panic. Combined, the two opposite elements form a displeasing mixture that is hard to identify because nothing tastes quite like it.
The music of fear
It is a mistake to expect the music of fear to be like the soundtrack of a bad horror movie, door creaking, bat wings flapping, and the backward whispers of ancient Greek. At times the song of fear resembles rattling laughter. At times fear speaks in a devious tongue that transmutes your entire being from ears to toes into a frozen sentence from an unknown dialect that no one understands.
The music of fear is a deceptive blend. It may overlap a nice melody with a tune of an opposite style, an ice melody, like a radio stuck between two different channels. (For example, take a throbbing composition from Stephen Kent, the non-aboriginal master of the didgeridoo. Mix it with a musical opposite, say, Klaus Nomi performing his “The Cold Song.”) The irritating potpourri you hear is akin to the music of fear. The more you listen to it, the more it dulls your senses—think of the Pied Piper, think of the mermaids serenading Ulysses—it lures you to surrender your sanity. At that point, fear is often so close, it sings while leaning against you. Then it starts to walk away. And you, already deaf, follow its song. You follow its meandering path to your doom.
The music of fear acts like the flute of a snake charmer I remember from Jamaa al-Fna square. From the first moment of fright when the lid of the wicker basket is removed and the cobra emerges, Marrakesh tourists are led to believe the snake’s undulations are produced by the melody. In fact, having been hit on the head by the flute so many times, the cobra follows the subtle movements of the musical wooden stick, not its notes. The snake is not dancing for you, but avoiding corporal punishment out of fear.
How to resist being hypnotized by the central element in a portrait of fear; or for that matter, being swallowed by a larger-than-life moment of dread? Assemble weapons to destroy fear. Start by reacting to fright not by burying your head in the sand but by burying your mind in knowledge; then follow with specifics.
How to disrupt the body language of fear
Before my high-wire walk across the Seine to the second story of the Eiffel Tower, the seven-hundred-yard-long inclined cable looked so steep, the shadow of fear so real, I worried. Had there been an error in rigging calculations? No. I had just forgotten how high were my expectations, how mad I was to have conceived such a project. On the spot I vanquished my anxiety by imagining the best outcome: my victorious last step above a cheering crowd of 250,000.
If imagination does not work, turn to the physical side of things. Give yourself a time-limit ultimatum: start counting! Yes, choose a number—not too high—and when you hear footsteps on your porch at three am, unfreeze your trepidation by whispering to yourself, “At ten, I open the door! One, two, three, four...”
A clever tool in the arsenal to destroy fear: if a nightmare taps you on the shoulder, do not turn around immediately expecting to be scared. Pause and expect more, exaggerate. Be ready to be very afraid, to scream in terror. The more delirious your expectation, the safer you will be when you see that reality is much less horrifying than what you had envisioned. Now turn around. See? It was not that bad—and you’re already smiling.
How to eliminate the taste of fear
Use your intuition as well as your tongue to test the air. Since the taste of fear is hard to recognize, as soon as you taste something odd, unknown, strange, spit it out without a single thought and step on it with the sole of your shoe and grind it into the ground—like people do with a cigarette. That will short-circuit the chemical process. Do not look at what you’ve done; just move on.
Sometimes, to confuse us, fear transforms taste into odor. A smell by association can usher in anxiety and lead to phobia. Some people react drastically to the smell of fire; they think total destruction has already started. My brother dreaded the smell of garbage. He associated it with the kind of decomposition that invites final decay and death. He saw nonexistent rats gather, he heard them plot an invading plague, he smelled the annihilation of humanity. I pulled him into the nearest vegetable garden and served him a premeditated show-and-tell on a different kind of garbage, compost. I convinced him of the benefits of such a mixture and made its odor positive. I forced his mind to run o with a different association: the smell of rebirth, of growth, of the Garden of Eden. He is now cured.
How to silence the music of fear
Never cover your ears. On the contrary, face the music and explore its layered construction. Sometimes you will recognize more than two musical pieces overlapping. No matter, note after note, extract the silences that fell inside the staves. Once the silences are caught, walk away with them swiftly and peacefully. You’ve just rendered fear speechless by altering its voice. You’re done. You’re safe.
One more weapon. When an inner howl assails me, the wild longing to see an alarming situation, I counter the chorus of fear by amplifying it to the extreme. Distorted, it then exudes a single voice. The voice of courage, which I let scream at me because it makes me stronger.
Lastly, the ultimate weapon of fear destruction, valid for all of the above
When you’re about to shrink with fear, instead do what the peacocks (and many mammals) do: frighten fear by enlarging your silhouette. Blow yourself up—mentally—feel unbreakable, wear self-confidence like a rhinoceros its carapace, appear immortal. Deadly fear will immediately run away, its scythe between its legs.
To fear in life is human. And difficult to avoid. And a rude awakening each time. If it seizes you, be proud of your fifteen minutes of fear. Like when you were about to jump from that ten-meter-tall high-diving platform and, well...had second thoughts. You forced yourself to go anyway—and it felt like suicide. You had the choice: disgrace or suicide. And, bravo, you chose suicide—your victory.
To live in fear of what’s about to happen is for many people today—owing to our current political situation—a reality.
But to live in fear, period, is a horror, a torture. You have forgotten fear was the culprit, and you have been obliterated, replaced by a shameful black hole, which breathes—or not—in your stead.
This evening—outside, a murder of crows darkens the air with its flying formation, announcing the storm of the century, the end of the world—this evening, to live in fear will be my definition of death.
Dread attends the unknown.—Nadine Gordimer, 1998
Who lives in fear will never be a free man.—Horace, 19 BC
Philippe Petit is a high-wire artist. He has made ninety high-wire walks around the world. An artist in residence of the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York City, he is also the author of ten books, including To Reach the Clouds: My High-Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers and Creativity: The Perfect Crime.
Back to Issue
I first read about the study when I was in the midst of a breakup. Each time I thought of leaving, my heart overruled my brain. I felt stuck. So, like a good academic, I turned to science, hoping there was a way to love smarter.
I explained the study to my university acquaintance. A heterosexual man and woman enter the lab through separate doors. They sit face to face and answer a series of increasingly personal questions. Then they stare silently into each other’s eyes for four minutes. The most tantalizing detail: Six months later, two participants were married. They invited the entire lab to the ceremony.
“Let’s try it,” he said.
Let me acknowledge the ways our experiment already fails to line up with the study. First, we were in a bar, not a lab. Second, we weren’t strangers. Not only that, but I see now that one neither suggests nor agrees to try an experiment designed to create romantic love if one isn’t open to this happening.
I Googled Dr. Aron’s questions; there are 36. We spent the next two hours passing my iPhone across the table, alternately posing each question.
They began innocuously: “Would you like to be famous? In what way?” And “When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?”
But they quickly became probing.
In response to the prompt, “Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common,” he looked at me and said, “I think we’re both interested in each other.”
I grinned and gulped my beer as he listed two more commonalities I then promptly forgot. We exchanged stories about the last time we each cried, and confessed the one thing we’d like to ask a fortuneteller. We explained our relationships with our mothers.
The questions reminded me of the infamous boiling frog experiment in which the frog doesn’t feel the water getting hotter until it’s too late. With us, because the level of vulnerability increased gradually, I didn’t notice we had entered intimate territory until we were already there, a process that can typically take weeks or months.
I liked learning about myself through my answers, but I liked learning things about him even more. The bar, which was empty when we arrived, had filled up by the time we paused for a bathroom break.
I sat alone at our table, aware of my surroundings for the first time in an hour, and wondered if anyone had been listening to our conversation. If they had, I hadn’t noticed. And I didn’t notice as the crowd thinned and the night got late.
We all have a narrative of ourselves that we offer up to strangers and acquaintances, but Dr. Aron’s questions make it impossible to rely on that narrative. Ours was the kind of accelerated intimacy I remembered from summer camp, staying up all night with a new friend, exchanging the details of our short lives. At 13, away from home for the first time, it felt natural to get to know someone quickly. But rarely does adult life present us with such circumstances.
The moments I found most uncomfortable were not when I had to make confessions about myself, but had to venture opinions about my partner. For example: “Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner, a total of five items” (Question 22), and “Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time saying things you might not say to someone you’ve just met” (Question 28).
Much of Dr. Aron’s research focuses on creating interpersonal closeness. In particular, several studies investigate the ways we incorporate others into our sense of self. It’s easy to see how the questions encourage what they call “self-expansion.” Saying things like, “I like your voice, your taste in beer, the way all your friends seem to admire you,” makes certain positive qualities belonging to one person explicitly valuable to the other.
It’s astounding, really, to hear what someone admires in you. I don’t know why we don’t go around thoughtfully complimenting one another all the time.
We finished at midnight, taking far longer than the 90 minutes for the original study. Looking around the bar, I felt as if I had just woken up. “That wasn’t so bad,” I said. “Definitely less uncomfortable than the staring into each other’s eyes part would be.”
He hesitated and asked. “Do you think we should do that, too?”
“Here?” I looked around the bar. It seemed too weird, too public.
“We could stand on the bridge,” he said, turning toward the window.
The night was warm and I was wide-awake. We walked to the highest point, then turned to face each other. I fumbled with my phone as I set the timer.
“O.K.,” I said, inhaling sharply.
“O.K.,” he said, smiling.
I’ve skied steep slopes and hung from a rock face by a short length of rope, but staring into someone’s eyes for four silent minutes was one of the more thrilling and terrifying experiences of my life. I spent the first couple of minutes just trying to breathe properly. There was a lot of nervous smiling until, eventually, we settled in.
I know the eyes are the windows to the soul or whatever, but the real crux of the moment was not just that I was really seeing someone, but that I was seeing someone really seeing me. Once I embraced the terror of this realization and gave it time to subside, I arrived somewhere unexpected.
I felt brave, and in a state of wonder. Part of that wonder was at my own vulnerability and part was the weird kind of wonder you get from saying a word over and over until it loses its meaning and becomes what it actually is: an assemblage of sounds.
So it was with the eye, which is not a window to anything but rather a clump of very useful cells. The sentiment associated with the eye fell away and I was struck by its astounding biological reality: the spherical nature of the eyeball, the visible musculature of the iris and the smooth wet glass of the cornea. It was strange and exquisite.
When the timer buzzed, I was surprised — and a little relieved. But I also felt a sense of loss. Already I was beginning to see our evening through the surreal and unreliable lens of retrospect.
Most of us think about love as something that happens to us. We fall. We get crushed.
But what I like about this study is how it assumes that love is an action. It assumes that what matters to my partner matters to me because we have at least three things in common, because we have close relationships with our mothers, and because he let me look at him.
I wondered what would come of our interaction. If nothing else, I thought it would make a good story. But I see now that the story isn’t about us; it’s about what it means to bother to know someone, which is really a story about what it means to be known.
It’s true you can’t choose who loves you, although I’ve spent years hoping otherwise, and you can’t create romantic feelings based on convenience alone. Science tells us biology matters; our pheromones and hormones do a lot of work behind the scenes.
But despite all this, I’ve begun to think love is a more pliable thing than we make it out to be. Arthur Aron’s study taught me that it’s possible — simple, even — to generate trust and intimacy, the feelings love needs to thrive.
You’re probably wondering if he and I fell in love. Well, we did. Although it’s hard to the study entirely (it may have happened anyway), the study did give us a way into a relationship that feels deliberate. We spent weeks in the intimate space we created that night, waiting to see what it could become.
Love didn’t happen to us. We’re in love because we each made the choice to be.Continue reading the main story