Going Over a Cliff

Years ago, Dave and Nathan and I went on a trip out west. One place where we stopped was the Grand Canyon.

I have been aware for a long time that I am really afraid of heights, more so than a lot of people. I don’t like to get on a ladder. Oddly, I’m not overly frightened of flying, but I suspect that’s because I’m enclosed in the plane.

This fear pretty much destroyed my experience at the Grand Canyon, and even though I didn’t mean for it to, that of my family.

I took this photo. I took it under pressure. I remember it well. The feeling going through me was sheer horror. Not only were they standing next to the rail – Dave was more or less leaning on it. They didn’t linger there. I snapped the picture and they came back closer to me.

A really bad thing for me at the Grand Canyon was that so many areas didn’t have any guard rails at all.

We saw people doing this, and even took a photo of a guy with his dog on the edge, but I can’t find it now. This is not our photo, but even looking at it gives me the willies.

And I can think about this rationally and still freak out. Even if Nathan and Dave were standing more than a body’s length from the edge, so it was physically impossible for them to fall over, I still couldn’t watch them. I stayed in a panic most of the time we were there. I knew I was seriously diminishing their experience, but I couldn’t help it.

And what’s sort of odd is that the guard rails help. I’m still uncomfortable, but it’s not nearly as bad if there is a rail.

Years ago, I bought a copy of this book. For one thing, I thought the title was so cool that I wanted it on my bookshelf. Note: It’s a Christian book. As such, I do not recommend it now. Read stuff like that at your own risk.

Anyway, I cannot be absolutely certain, and I tossed my copy long ago, but I think the basic framework of the analogy that I am employing here came from that book. I have enlarged on it and embellished it over the years, but I do want to acknowledge the original source.

I don’t like cliffs.  I don’t like them really a lot, as I’ve mentioned. But almost nobody would think it was a great idea to jump off one.

So, on overlooks, the parks department or the maintenance folks put up fences. You can pretty easily climb over the fence if you wish, but they are there to say, “Stay behind the fence and you’ll be safe from the risk of falling off the cliff.”

And it works pretty well. The fence is a psychological security blanket.

Consider this photo. This is 1982, me with Nathan on a ferry. I was decidedly uncomfortable here, not because I have any fear of water ( both Nathan and I could swim well), but because the barrier was netting.

Same ferry, same trip. Solid barrier. Happier Mom. The only reason I’m holding him is to hold him up for the camera.

One of the things that the workmen have to decide is where to put the fence. How far back from the edge of the cliff, or the pothole, or the work site, or whatever perceived danger? Six feet? Two? Fifty?

That’s a subjective call, and it’s based on a number of things, including the condition of the ground along the proposed fence site, the available spare ground in the area, and the perception of how dangerous the situation is in the first place.

We set all sorts of fences in life. Everyone’s comfort zone is different. This is all okay. Some of us are okay with setting our fences right on the edge of the cliff, and having them very low. Others get hives at the thought and like fences set way, way back from the edge. They’re like me. They want that fence back so far that if you fell over it head first, the worst thing that could happen is a bump on the forehead.

The problem comes when we start to get the fence and cliff confused.

The fence is not the cliff. Each individual can have a fence in a different place and that does not change the location or the danger of the cliff.

Authoritarian religion (call it “fundamentalism,” call it “evangelicalism,” or do what I do and call it “fundigelicalism”) gets this very muddled. In their world, the fences are all cliffs. If you put your toe over their fence, you just fell off the cliff. If they acknowledge that you have a separate fence (something that’s not always a given), they are very critical if your fence is a foot closer to the cliff than theirs is.

In some cases, they refuse to admit anyone to their little club if the fences aren’t in the “approved” places.

They insist, of course, that they figure out where to place their fences using their book, but all 30,000 Christian denominations are using the book and the fences are all over the place.

The truth is that we place our fences where we are comfortable with them, where they alleviate our anxiety.

And that is why crossing a fence is really hard.


This is Calvary Memorial Church, Southern Pines, North Carolina. I refer to it affectionately as “The Fundy Church From Hell.” We spent about 14 years there, with a break of a few years in the middle.

I will never forget the last time we went there. I knew we were going to leave. There was no way we could stay. I got up after the morning service, just knowing I was walking out the door and never coming back, and I was crossing the fence.  I was walking out beyond the barrier.

The cliff was there, I thought, and I was going to fall off. Only I had to climb over the fence.

This was in 1993, so it’s been almost twenty years ago, and I can still shudder when I think about it. I can also laugh at the insanity of my delusional idea, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t actually feel the horror.

That’s one way to breach a fence. Just climb the hell over it. It’s fairly sudden and pretty scary.

It feels like that – like walking into a dark tunnel where you can’t see the cliff.

There’s another way to do it, though. It’s not sudden, and it’s very hard work, as you can see. You can move the fence.

Neither solution is easy. Because of that, it’s important to think about fences before you build them, and be sure you like their location for the long haul.

More importantly though, it’s important to keep the fence and the cliff separate. They are not the same thing. 

The fence is simply a psychological security device.

The cliff is, well. . . what exactly is the cliff?

That’s where the hard part comes in. Are there any cliffs?  Sure there are. If I drink and drive, I’m coming really close to the “wreck-the-car-and-possibly-kill-my-sorry-ass” cliff.

But we invent cliffs, too. I would venture to suggest that religious people invent a lot of cliffs.

The cliff I was so afraid of when I walked out of the Fundy Church From Hell that last time didn’t exist at all. It was entirely a figment of my imagination, a bogeyman hiding in the dark.

After breaching the fence, the one I’d built (with help from the pulpit at the Fundy Church From Hell), I spent several years not only moving fences, but also evaluating the existence of cliffs and in many cases, removing fences altogether because I came to realize that the cliffs were imaginary.

But I see this issue as a real basic difference between authoritarian religion and more progressive religion.  The people I know who are still religious and who can tolerate me for more than twenty seconds have a tendency to have the difference between cliffs and fences better established in their minds than those who think I’m evil incarnate.

When I was at the Grand Canyon, I was confusing fences and cliffs and I was doing this to other people – my son and my husband. I was demanding that, for my personal comfort, they see my fence and stay behind it.

I really don’t like doing that. I don’t like it when people do that to me. I understand entirely what is happening when people do it because of love and concern and because they can’t help it – why can’t I see the fence? Why don’t I understand that there is a cliff out there?

You can get paralyzed with fear that somebody you love is in mortal danger because they have put their fence in a different place, or because they don’t even have any fence at all, and oh my god, there is a cliff there.

Doing so does not protect them. It doesn’t make the cliff real. Your fear is real, I know that. My fear at the Grand Canyon was so real I was crying some of the time. But I wasn’t protecting my family. I was just making them miserable.

Confusing fences with cliffs does not do anything but create barriers.

Do you know what our dog does when she sees this?

She saves us from it. Loudly. Vigorously.

And she cannot understand why we are not grateful.


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