The Good in Feeling Bad

Not all negative emotions are bad for you. Plus, greeting obstacles with joy, pain but not suffering, nastiness and what matters to us.

All the Bridges Falling Down

How a “bridge phobia” can actually be a successful survival technique

After the Skagit River Bridge collapse, May 23, 2013, Interstate 5, Mount Vernon, Washington (Image: http://media.komonews.com)
[Geek Dad welcomes guest blogger Sari Boren]

Back in May, when a bridge over Washington state's Skagit River collapsed I thought, I told you so.

I have a bridge phobia. When I drive over the two-mile long monstrosity of Boston's Tobin Bridge, which manages to be simultaneously too claustrophobic and too exposed, I fret that the lanes are too narrow, that the man I see reaching for his Dunkin's cup while driving with one hand is going to swerve and force my car over the aging safety railings, or that I'm going to have a completely unprecedented mental breakdown and drive the car off the bridge myself. But even the Tobin is a magic carpet ride compared to driving over New York's Tappan Zee Bridge.

In January, New York magazine published an article on the decrepit state of the Tappan Zee Bridge, a three-mile-span in such disrepair that chunks of concrete regularly break loose from the bridge and fall into the Hudson River, sometimes "creating holes in the roadway through which the river below can be seen."

This should be the opening scene of an aliens/climatic chaos/terrorist blockbuster movie—chunks of bridge falling from the sky, crushing barges and sending helpless ducklings paddling for cover—not an everyday surface refreshing of a major traffic artery. Bridges should not exfoliate.

The Tappan Zee, it so happens, is the bridge I must cross the many times each year I drive from my home in Cambridge, Massachusetts to my mother's on the Jersey shore, and back again.

In President Obama's last State of the Union address, he talked of addressing America's "nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country." But now, with the country mired in the sequestration, and federal agency budgets targeted for cuts with the precision of a blindfolded Congress pinning a tail to a donkey's ass, I wonder what's to become of Obama's big talk on bridges.

A phobia is defined as an "unreasonable fear," but with all this talk of bridges falling down and slashed budgets, my phobia has started to seem not so unreasonable after all. I think my "bridge phobia" (scare quotes!) is instead a successful survival technique.

We do have some fears hardwired to keep us alive. The book Phobias: Fighting the Fear describes how scientists took monkeys raised in labs, who had no learned fear of predators, and conditioned them to fear snakes, a standard monkey-eater in the wild. The scientists could not, however, condition the monkeys to fear flowers.

Our human brains are a more complex cauldron of fears, illustrated by the nearly endless list of physical, social and philosophical phobias such as alliumphobia (fear of garlic), apeirophobia (fear of infinity) and, yes, anthrophobia (fear of flowers). So maybe we should delineate the actual phobias of unreasonable fears from survival-related fears.

Take, for example, my moderate fear of heights. It's not a debilitating fear. Sure, when friends dragged me up to the viewing platform encircling a historic lighthouse, I had to keep my back pressed against the structure as I scuttled like a crab around the narrow deck. So what. I'm sure those coastal vistas were not any more breathtaking from the insubstantial railing a mere three feet away. That was an aesthetic preference, not an unreasonable fear. As it happens, there is a legitimate scientific theory that a fear of heights is an inborn evolutionary advantage. Makes sense. Those who don't fear heights are doomed to tumble from a cliff while hunting a wooly mammoth, or to fall over a lighthouse platform railing in pursuit of a better photo composition of ocean, scrubby pine, and flailing limbs.

When I first learned to scuba dive I had to consciously ignore the voice in my head insisting (screaming) that I couldn't breath underwater. That voice was not entirely wrong. We shouldn't be able to breath underwater. We are not designed to cross rivers without getting wet. Our early ancestors did not stand at floor-to-ceiling windows on the 78th floor of a skyscraper with nothing between them and death-by-impact than an inch-thick slab of clear glass trembling in high-velocity winds.

Rather than skulking from the shame of our phobias maybe we can take a small bit of pride in having made it through the evolutionary gauntlet. Those of us with not-so-unreasonable, reality-based fears can take comfort in knowing we aren't cowards; we have insufficient survival suppression skills.

Perhaps this new perspective will inspire innovative behavioral approaches for managing fears. In the meantime, my personal technique for driving across bridges, deployed only when I'm driving alone, is not about facing my fear or reconditioning my response. It's simply a coping mechanism to get to the other side. Like a chicken.

I expel my anxious energy by singing-screaming the song "High Hopes" at the top of my lungs (you see why I reserve this technique for solo journeys). I consider this a kind of adaptive, albeit recessive, trait. The combined power of the physical effort, the song's absurdity, and even the inspiration of that little old ant, distracts me from the guardrails.

If high-apple-pie-in-the-sky-hopes can get an itty bitty ant to move that proportionally gigantic rubber tree plant, then maybe I can manage to drive across that damned three-mile-long Tappan Zee Bridge in one piece with my higher-order psyche intact.

That's one structurally deficient bridge conquered, and hopefully 69,999 I can manage to detour around.

Sari Boren is a partner, exhibit developer and writer at the exhibit design firm Wondercabinet Interpretive Design, Inc. Her nonfiction work has appeared in Alimentum; War, Literature and the Arts; and The Unesco Courier. Read more at sariboren.com.

The Good in Feeling Bad