100 Feet Up: In which I use a ludicrous analogy to explain why not everyone has a “personal choice.”

Imagine, if you will, an outrageously massive and relatively unstable network of interconnected balance beams. Each beam has a platform on one end. Every person has their own platform, where they can choose to wait indefinitely or step off to cross their balance beam.

It’s a mess for a while: tons of people trying and failing to cross their balance beams, willfully unaware of the way their footsteps rattle the beams around them. Many fall off, shaking the beams even more and causing others to fall, who in turn knock over other people trying to cross. The structure shivers and buckles under the weight of so many people. “Stay on your platforms!” the experts shout. Many – though not enough – people listen.

Eventually we get mats installed under the beams, although not everyone chooses to accept one. “It’s my right to cross my beam without a mat!” they shout, rattling the whole structure as they stomp back and forth.

Most people who fall, especially the ones with mats, climb back to their beam (or – if they’re wise – their platform), but a lot of people get hurt. Not everyone survives. About a third of the people who fall sustain long-term injuries that they don’t notice right away. Some people take a long time to recover from the pain; others never do.

And these are just the people whose balance beams are the traditional 4.1 feet off the ground.

“Are you going to stay on that platform forever?” people on the lower beams shout to the ones who haven’t crossed yet.

Some people who had initially waited on their platform now step onto their beams. “It’s a personal choice,” they explain to everyone who will listen. “Each person has to decide what they personally feel comfortable doing.”

Except it’s not that simple, because our balance beams are still connected, the structure is still unstable, and my balance beam is 100 feet in the air.

There are a handful of other people at my height, a whole bunch whose beams are raised 25 or 50 feet, and a few whose beams are much, much higher. Some balance beams are so high that we can’t see the faces of the people on them, and for that reason many people on the lower beams choose to pretend they don’t exist.

Most of us are getting bored and antsy. People weren’t meant to live like this. Sure, we had the opportunity to work together to stabilize the structure – maybe even take it down – but not enough people were willing to help. Alternatively, too many people chose not to. So now we’re all stuck here, and the more we get used to this new normal, the more people venture out onto their beams. Sometimes enough people stand still and the structure stabilizes, but almost instantly people take off onto their beams. The structure shakes and more people fall off. It’s like a circular chain reaction.

As more and more people grow tired of staying on their platforms, there’s a gradual but inevitable shift in public opinion. At first the unreasonable minority were people who tried to pretend the structure didn’t exist, but now the foolish ones are the few people who are still choosing to wait.

“Numbers are down!” people shout in that brief pause before the cycle starts again. “Numbers are down!” they smugly declare while I watch several people fall at the same time. “Numbers are down,” people say so many times that the phrase loses all semblance of its original meaning. Now, if anything, all it means is: “We’ve decided that this is over; out of sheer desperation we have willed an ending into existence.”

“You can’t expect us to stay on the platform forever,” one person says, raising their voice so those of us on the higher beams can hear them.

“Very few people who have mats will die,” the experts announce, facing ahead in hopes that the people above them won’t notice. “The only ones who will die are the people whose beams are too high up anyway.” This news is labeled “encouraging.” For a brief moment, the protests from the higher beams grow too loud be ignored. So we are silenced in other ways.

“You have to choose what you feel comfortable doing,” one person says. I try to explain how high my beam is compared to theirs, but all they do is repeat their statement as if they hadn’t heard me.

“What will it take for you to step off your platform?” another person asks, craning their neck to look at me standing 95.9 feet above them. When I mention the height difference, they mutter “That’s different,” and turn away.

What will it take for me to step off my platform? That question becomes more and more relevant as the collective admits that this structure isn’t going anywhere soon. 

The number of people still on their platforms is steadily shrinking, and as ridiculous as we seem to the people who stepped off immediately, it’s somehow worse for the people who waited a long time and gave up.

Suddenly, those of us left on the platforms are more than just unreasonable and stubborn. We’re annoying, inconvenient, inconsiderate, insulting, offensive. How dare we refuse to cross our balance beams when someone so kindly invites us to? How dare we fish for pity by pointing out the height differences? And how dare we take one brief and tentative step out, but choose not to do it again every single time someone asks?

Our caution becomes noncompliance, heartlessness, malicious and unwarranted rejection. Relationships – social, professional, familial, romantic – strain and snap as more and more people find ways to frame themselves as the victims when we choose not to risk our lives for their comfort. Pointing out the height of my beam too often makes it manipulative, a card I play in order to win arguments and guilt-trip people on the lower beams. Or so I’m told.

What will it take for you?

At this point, I’m crouching on my platform waiting for a miracle – for the structure to stabilize, for the beams to lower, for a balancing stick or safety net instead of just a mat. Possible? Yes. Likely to happen soon? No.

What will it take for you?

There’s a different question being asked here, by people who feel that I owe them something. If the situation isn’t going to get safer, what will it take? How many relationships am I willing to sacrifice before I finally give up and walk across my balance beam, 100 feet above the mats, the structure quivering and swaying with the weight of all the people walking around 95.9 feet below?

Dramatic? Maybe. But this situation is dramatic. It’s just not new anymore. Yeah, we’re all tired of waiting. I’m just not desperate enough to risk my life yet.

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