L’appel du Vide

People are capable of flight. Landing is the issue.

~Mark Yozart

Acrophobia applies to people with “extreme, irrational and persistent fears of heights and situations associated with them,” according to the APA.

I‘ve often been confused by this. Flying doesn’t scare me, and I’ve tried skydiving more than once (solo—this was before tandem jumping, though that’s a great name for an acoustic duo). Clear-walled elevators are a little scary but more exciting than palm-sweating. Balconies on the 23rd floor? Pit-of-the-stomach, light-headed, get me out of here scary. L’appel du vide is a French phrase that roughly means “the call of the void.” Yet it captures my problem in a lovely few words that sound like romance. I’m not afraid of heights, I’m afraid of the commanding urge to jump.

For some of us, that urge is vague or even absent. And it’s mystifying, like Why would you want to do that? For others (and I raise my hand here), it’s hypnotic. It’s not a made-up thing. I’ve read articles about it, you know, neuroscience and such. And I have great respect for their research as I’m kind of a science geek. But let’s suppose that our best research and data-driven efforts to rationally explain something irrational are not much use to regular folks, especially those of us who experience the magnet of l’appel du vide.

The addiction of binary choices

Thomas Hobbes suggested that we humans have no default setting for morality. We simply see things we want as good, things we don’t want as evil. I don’t buy his argument, but in times of anxiety (like withdrawal for an addict), our mind narrows to a laser-like focus on feeling better, no matter what that takes. So, when confronted by the void (as in vide), some of us have a peculiar wiring that is desperate for the evil, in this case, fear of falling (not falling itself, but the fear), to go away. Voila! Jumping gets rid of that evil (Hobbes’s what we don’t want) directly and quickly, and, like an addict, all other consequences disappear.

We all have a tendency to frame our choices as binary – either/or. In a strange short-circuit of surreal (and bizarre) impulsiveness, jumping clears away discomfort. If we can use one or the other as a model, we don’t have to risk the toil of possibility. Is there an inherent pathway to poor thinking built into our tendency to fear ambiguity?

I work with the recovery community. I know that one of the behaviors that addiction erodes is a consideration for consequences. And this applies to the behavioral addictions of dictators, who always discard the gray for the black-and-white as a societal l’appel du vide. And if they can make us fearful enough, we jump.

This also applies to mild dictators like controlling parents, fear-driven managers, even scout leaders who see themselves as large and in charge. They can only succeed with our complicity, our desire to turn ourselves over to certainty. If we surrender, we’ve traded the discomfort of self-examination for the illusion of safety, the land of us and them, either/or, the void as a solution.

Ambiguity and true safety

What if the way out of this self-defeating but alluring l’appel is to trade certainty for ambiguity as a badge of courage? My friend Steve Pearlman calls this environment the security of uncertainty. Ask yourself if you have ever fled from uncertainty to denial or blame. Maybe l’appel du vide provides a metaphor to explain those who deny science, or unapproachable supervisors. People who refuse to wear masks in public. Conspiracy adherents. Trolls on social media.

“Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought,” suggested John Kennedy. Could it be that some of us choose to jump rather than face ambiguity?

When we jump to escape fear, even metaphorically, we move away from courage. What if embracing the possibility of new ideas is not a sign of weakness but a broadcast of strength. L’appel du vide is the leap into absolutes, and that plummet lands in spiritual darkness.

When we feel absolutely certain, and when that certainty has a strong feeling attached (e.g., Nobody can convince me otherwise, or and the horse you came in on!), consider the possibility that you are succumbing to the whispering voice of l’appel du vide: “Discomfort is bad, I tell you. Jump and it will end.”

It certainly will.


Mac Bogert
Mac Bogert
I fell in love with learning, language, and leadership through the intervention of two professors—I had actually achieved a negative GPA—who kicked my butt for drifting through my first couple of semesters at Washington and Lee University. After graduate school at U. Va., I started teaching English at a large high school in northern Virginia. A terrific principal lit my fire, a terrible one extinguished it. I left after five years (the national average, as it turns out, maybe the only time I did something normal) and started an original folk/blues/rock band. That went well for a time until the record company sponsoring us folded. I toured for some years as an acoustic blues musician, primarily as an opening act for bands like the Muddy Waters Band, Doc, and Merle Watson and such remarkable talent. As that market dried up (disco), I earned my Coast Guard Masters License and worked for the next decade as a charter and delivery captain and sailing instructor. At the same time, I was working part-time as an actor and voice-over artist, selling inflatable boats and encyclopedias, and working as a puppeteer. Itchy feet, I suppose. I came back into the system in 1987 as a teacher specialist in health and drug education in my county school system, also part-time as Education Coordinator (and faculty member) for Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. I ‘departed’ both jobs in 1994 (therein lie more stories than 350 words could hold) and started my own business. AzaLearning is the career I’d been dodging for decades. I serve 200 clients around the country, helping with all kinds of coaching, planning, transforming conflict, creative problem-solving, communication, and mediation (I also trained and worked as a community mediator somewhere during sailing and teaching): learning, language, and leadership. In 2016 I published Learning Chaos: How Disorder Can Save Education and actively contribute to a couple of online education magazines as well as publish a newsletter, a blog, and the learning chaos podcast.

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  1. Thank you, Charlotte.
    I’m always happy to find someone else who has experienced this. If you haven’t, it simply sounds nonsensical, right?
    I’m fortunate in having lived a life of ambiguity, never having had a career but rather following the opportunities that cross my path. Billie Holliday said ,”I never sang the same song twice.” Me too (I did play and sing for a living and still do part time). I cook the same way, so when someone asks me my recipe I can reply, “Just think of what you want it to be and start looking around.” Some don’t appreciate that, but . . . .

  2. Great piece, Mac. As a long time pilot, I must confess that I never once had an impulse to jump, from any height, lucky for my passengers, I suppose. My armchair, back of the envelope theory about this l’appel du vide you mention has some vague, appealingly uncertain connection with our desire to imitate the birds. Too simple by half, I’m sure. One thing I do know: I’ll never read Calvin & Hobbes quite the same way again. No default toward morality? Hmmmm…

    Thanks again.

    • Hi, Byron.
      Thanks. I’m a longtime Calvin and Hobbes fan. I think my favorite series was when Calvin created a double of himself to go back in time and complete the homework he hadn’t done.
      Anyhow, the bird thing makes sense. When I was a kid, I imagined life as either a bird or squirrel would be pretty cool. None of this walking around stuff for me!
      Some of us have the urge, some don’t. Trust me, the feeling is very powerful, a magnetic short-circuit.

  3. I know exactly the draw towards jumping you are talking about, Mac. An interesting metaphor to jumping towards certainty because uncertainty is just too awkward and unpleasant. I guess we can help ourselves by actively insert uncertainty into our day. Take a different route when driving, cook something new, visit a store you don’t normally use. We don’t know in advance what the outcome will be – perhaps we will need to drive to a new restaurant after the cooking experiment?
    But I will still refrain from the experiment of jumping from the 23rd floor balcony because there really is not that much uncertainty about the outcome.