The Science of Fear

As a roadie, even when (merely) part of the local crew, you get confronted with all kinds of bad things. Often we have to deal with aggression, frustration, sleep deprivation, pain (you haven’t worked if you’re not bleeding), all kinds of weather extremes, claustrophobic, awkward of just plain disgusting situations… It doesn’t end.

But! The one issue I’ve been confronted with lately is fear. The festival season has started, and our primary occupation has transformed into the construction of scaffolding. In other words, climbing.

It is one thing to locate a tree or rock and climb up it. It is something else completely to walk up to an empty spot and build your own structure to climb. Nobody is one hundred percent reliable, and although I think I can build a pretty solid structure, I can’t say I never make mistakes. Things like forgetting a pin, a safety,…
As I go up together with my (luckily very capable) colleagues, I become acutely aware that such dumb mistakes become progressively more lethal. The stress level rises, and actions that are laughably simple at floor level, gradually become impossible because of the simple presence of fear.

There are three kinds of fear, by my experience. Or three levels, more like:

– There’s the obvious kind. The fear of pain, of aggression and so on. So many things, that we’re hardly even aware of it.
– Then there’s the peak. The heart stopping, blood freezing shock of realization when shit hits the fan. Just today I saw my colleague use a ledger for support that I thought was free to pivot away from him, giving him the illusion of security where there was none. Luckily I was wrong and the ledger was, in fact, secure, but it took me a few moments to calm down. When standards rotate, when hammers fall, when ledgers spring loose: that “Oh Jesus Fuck I killed him/myself” moment.
– But the worst kind has to be the latent type of fear. The knowledge that accidents happen and it’s not a matter of “if”, but “when” they happen. The idea that you are bound to fall to your death sooner or later, and either you will quit the job before that, or you won’t. Safety measures, although I shouldn’t admit this, aren’t always possible if you want to keep up, and can be ironically dangerous to yourself and those around you.

Every time I go to work, a die is thrown. Either an accident will happen that day, or it won’t. What my colleague and I were talking about the other day, is that we both feel we are “overdue”. With the frequency of the accidents that happen around us, those that we witness and those we only hear about, we get the idea that somehow, we’re cheating death. I’ve been at it for five and a half years now, and while he’s much more experienced than I am, he is much more focused and controlled- I’ll probably take a dive long before he will.

I seem to have lost the habit of considering the fact that I might not be coming home that night, every time I go to work. I used to, but it’s an exhausting thought and starting the day off with that third type of fear in the back of your head, only contributes to the statistics already working against me.
It’s what we do, and what we love to do. We look out for ourselves and each other, and thank heavens (and again, ourselves and each other) every night we come home with no more than a few scratches.

I’m glad that we’re not too big to talk about it, either. I have no problem admitting that I get really afraid when I get tired, and they understand completely, often agree. When I see someone struggle, I ask if they’re alright and if they aren’t, if they want to trade places. It’s one more effort towards avoiding accidents; an important one. To work together in such situations with confidence, there has to be respect and trust all around. For that reason,, I wouldn’t want to share a tower with anyone else right now.

When in a tight spot, I often tell myself I have “nothing to lose”. While that couldn’t be further away from the truth, it allows for a fatalistic kind of self-confidence that gets things done. It’s funny how a few mental tricks can switch off the fear factor for a little while, especially for someone like me who usually doesn’t bullshit himself.

So yeah, when I do fuck up some time (or my colleague does), I hope things turn out alright. People have fallen from aeroplanes and lived, while others die from an icy patch on the sidewalk. Either way, I will probably catch a kind of fear that can’t just be fixed with a mental workaround.
We’ll see, I guess. But not too soon, please.

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