On the first day of David Wong Louie’s creative writing class last year, he asked us all to introduce ourselves by stating our names, our favorite books, what we’d done over the summer, and our greatest fear. I seem to remember most people named pretty common fears, like heights, spiders and snakes, public speaking, etc. I named two: never making anything of myself, and deep water.
If articulating a thing helps to cement its existence, then I only started being afraid of deep water after fifth grade, since that’s when I began specifically thinking of it as my greatest fear. Before that time, I don’t know what I would have said if you’d asked me — the dark, maybe? But I wasn’t really frightened of the dark, except after scary movies. But deep water always creeped me out. I remember being at nighttime swim practices in the diving pool at the Swim and Racquet Club, trying to reassure myself that there was nothing scary in the pool, even though I couldn’t see into the depths. This worked because I knew I was in a safe place. But it was after I started reading those dreadful Reader’s Digest real-life stories about shark attacks and being stranded at sea that I really started to think about what it would mean to be trapped in deep water.
Deep water evokes in me a feeling similar to the one I get when I’m dreaming of falling: the sense of descending horrifyingly quickly into an abyss from which there is no return. I guess there might be a sense of inevitability about everyone’s deepest fears; it’s that feeling of being unable to do anything to escape or to help ourselves that makes the thing so scary in the first place. Deep water certainly isn’t the only thing I’m afraid of, but it may be the one that provokes my most visceral reaction; it evokes the possibility of so many of the other things I fear: slow suffocation, annihilation, inescapable darkness, helplessness, uncertainty, the complete unknown. In that sense, it’s much like my fear of death.
I saw this picture today on Bill Hocker‘s beautiful photography site. Although it’s a lovely photograph, my first reaction to it was fear. There’s grey nothingness all around — who knows how far we are from land — who even knows where we are? The water looks dark, cold, and filled with murky God-knows-whats that will tangle my limbs and drag me into the depths. And, worst of all, it doesn’t look like there’s any escape, since the only apparent source of shelter and safety — the building — looks like it could fall apart at any second.
[original image link broken, but it was either this photo or something similar. Bill Hocker photo.]
Now, the more I look at this photo, the more I think my first reaction was just irrational and unwarranted. That’s obviously a dock; how on earth would a building get out into the middle of the ocean, anyway? And, of course, since a person took this photograph, there’s probably land right under his feet. The photo looks peaceful, even prosaic, after staring at it for a while.
But then I imagine myself actually in that building, and I get a little freaked out again. I guess if you take away the dock and imagine that there’s no land close by, this picture represents the scariest thing that could happen to me.* I’m out in the middle of nowhere, nothing but deep water all around me, nothing to do but wait to be pulled under, my fear compounded by the false safety of the building and the uncertainty of not knowing when the building will collapse.
*Well, obviously, the most horrible thing I can imagine involves the death or torture of my loved ones. But I don’t think of that kind of fear as being in the same category as the deep-water-snakes-and-spiders category.
[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at satsumabug.livejournal.com.]