There are two kinds of people in this world.
Obviously there are a lot more than just the two kinds but being a binary kind of person (there are two kinds of people in this world: binary and analogue) I tend to view life as a binary kind of place. Man or woman. Old or young. Gay or straight. Good or evil. I know theoretically there are other kinds of people in between who’re not quite one or the other, but my world view is pinched in the middle and, like toothpaste in a tube, everyone’s pushed to one extreme, conglomerating at the ends.
When faced with the abyss there are two kinds of people in this world: those who want to hide and those who want to jump.
It’s instinctual. It’s primal. In 1960 psychologists Eleanor J. Gibson and R. D. Walk used apparatus that gave the illusion of a drop from a cliff to test the depth perception of a number of different animals including human babies. The cliff–in actuality a safe layer of perspex– provoked an acrophobic response in the babies; even when coaxed into motion by their mothers they were reluctant to cross what they perceived as a sheer drop into a chasm.
It’s something many of us still feel as adults. Even in similarly safe simulations to the Gibson and Walk visual cliff–in a video game, say–we still feel vertiginous. My sister downright refused to play Ico on the Playstation 2 because it upset her acrophobia so badly. In many places throughout both games Ico and it’s spiritual successor Shadow of the Colossus give the illusion of dangerous falls using various visual tricks such as swirling mists and muddied depth of focus. The vertigo felt by players is used to wicked aplomb with certain plot twists hinging upon it–just mention ‘the bridge’ to any Ico fan and he’ll instantly know what you’re talking about.
Though so few of us have experienced long drops we know such a fall could break our legs, our ankles or worse. Exploring high on a seafront or standing on the top of a steep flight of stairs some of us will reel back, perhaps even clutching onto something sturdy in case we should fall.
Others, on the other hand, might feel a certain push from within, an urge to jump, to feel the wind rush past as the ground comes up to meet us.
There are two kinds of people in this world. I’m one of the second kind.
And though I’ve never jumped or tempted fate by cocking a leg over a protective barrier or deliberately leaning too far–if I have done, inadvertently, I’ve always feel a sharp cramp of fear between my stomach and spine and have shied away to safer ground–I often feel the urge to leap and fly. There are no crowds in open air, only birds and flies and few of those. There’s a great stillness beyond the leap where man daren’t tread, and sometimes–standing on the top floor of a mall perhaps, behind glass and railing, overlooking the food court far beneath–I wonder what it would be like to step another step and fall fleetingly. What would it sound like when I hit the ground? Would it sound like a hand slapping on tiles? Would I burst like a water balloon or thud and lie broken?
Would people scream? Would I survive? Would anyone notice either way?
In those thin moments all that lies between me and my death–or a semblance of life too close to tell the difference; there are two types of people in this world, remember?–is a single step untaken.
And I move away and the world rushes back noisy as ever it is, and I wonder how many others have stood at this intersection and considered stepping again, just to see what happens next.
Right now I’m not so much jumping off a cliff as standing timorously on it throwing parts of myself over the edge. I’m moving house–to another country, no less–and in order to move I have to pack everything I’ve accumulated over the years or choose to leave it behind. This is a difficult choice to make and not just because it will be so expensive to freight everything across the Atlantic ocean.
Moved from place to place but never so far as this, I’ve accumulated my junk over a lifetime: this is my mark etched as surely as a brand, left in lieu of something worthy. If a man is remembered by the sum of his deeds then I could sink as into quicksand with nary a reminder I ever lived. But if a man is remembered by his worldly possessions then, should I die tomorrow, people might say of me: there was someone who owned an awful lot of crap.
People say you can’t take it with you. They neglect to mention that you wouldn’t be aware of being without it once you’re gone–or of anything else, for that matter.
This is a juvenile attitude to have, I know–a ‘his bit of cake is bigger than mine’ attitude. I’m an inveterate hoarder; I’d be better off without everything I own but for all the daredevil flying-into-the-abyss romanticism I harbour I’m just as scared as everyone else, gripping his possessions like an anchor. There’s a wonderful scene in Labyrinth where the lead character forgets her identity and is coaxed into rebuilding it from childhood junk. It’s a scene that probably resonates more with adult viewers than it does with the kids watching, to whom a pair of bunny slippers and a toy sweet shop would be cool things to own. As adults we’re supposed to have put away our childish things and moved onto owning slightly more grown-up objects like cars and blenders and Sky TV.
Yet here I am, sorting through VHS cassettes so useless charity shops refuse to take them and old computer games, which in the last two decades have only been played with by spiders using them as adventure playgrounds.
Still, it’s amazing how many memories I have attached to these things. This was the dance mat on which I was DDRing when Al-Qaeda flew jets into the World Trade Centre. I cut these cassette box inlays from magazines my grandfather used to buy me, picking them up once a month at his local newsagent until the day he died. These birthday cards were signed by people I no longer talk to, some of whom are no longer alive.
And I cast them one by one into the abyss, so they don’t weigh me down when I finally take to the sky.
The end of this life has been a slow realisation, and now it strikes–a subtle blade–I’m starting to panic about the things and people I leave behind. It’s not as simple as a move from house to house: time and ways and people are different over the sea. It’s an alien world over there, unfathomable even for someone who’s visited frequently and who married into their culture. Anchored by stuff I’ve been doomed to repeat the same day over and over, but now my days are running out I find myself clinging desperately to every grain of sand as it jounces, rolls and falls, spent.
I don’t know what happens next. And I’m scared.
There’s excitement too, but it’s so far away it can barely be seen. There will be no alternative recourse; if I skin my knee I’ll apply my own damned plaster, not sob home for bickies and soothing words. I’ll be a spaceman orbiting distant suns, having to plan conversations with those at home far in advance, because travelling so far away even the speed of light isn’t fast enough.
I hear echoes of my future. Nobody’s ever looked forward to seeing me before; I wonder when I’ll ruin things and life will return to normal. Untethered there will be no way back home, only an endless swim through endless space.
I hope I’ll do well but I’m worried I won’t. There are only two kinds of people in this world and I’ve always been a pessimist.
The abyss yawns before me as it sometimes does for all of us. It’s frightening, but that’s a good thing.
And our choice is binary, black or white, back or forth. Like babies on a visual cliff we can stay where we know, where we’re safe, where we’ve always been.
Or we can be birds and spacemen, and fly.