The Golden Gate Bridge is a popular spot for suicide jumpers. It’s roughly 746 ft (227 m) above water. That doesn’t leave much time between jumping and hitting the water. Neglecting (crucial) information like the jumper’s weight or the drag force from the wind, that comes out to roughly 6.81 seconds. Roughly 6.81 seconds to process what’s going on. Roughly 6.81 seconds to think about what would happen after dying, what family would think, what friends would say, what the world would be like down the road, if there’s a heaven…
I say roughly because every millisecond is important, but it’s only important relative to our perspective, looking from the outside in. It’s a measurable component that helps us to understand the magnitude of the situation. But those 6.81 seconds don’t matter to the jumper because as experience has told, many jumpers regret it the moment they let go. Not after being rescued or after breaking their bones. Not weeks after or a few years down the road, but immediately after jumping. One jumper described it like a mechanical switch that went off in his brain. Those years of what must have been unbearable pain and indecision — all of it suddenly superceded by the forces of nature and probability within a fraction of the time frame. It is a different moment than those who would commit suicide a different way, such as overdosing on pills, waiting for death to come to them while still leaving a small window of choice. It isn’t to say that the pain is any less or any different, but jumping from that bridge and letting unbridled physics take over is complete suspension.
With the talk of suicide comes religion, but again, that’s something we bring up, something that comes from our perspective. And by we, I mean those of us who haven’t gone over that railing and into the abyss. No matter how many times you’ve gone to church or how dedicated of an atheist you think you are; this is raw — much larger in magnitude than any social construct we believe to be innate to ourselves. With every fragile layer of social conditioning suddenly peeled away. experiencing a moment like this is probably the closest anyone can get to understanding their own mortality and where they truly stand in life.
And of course, it is important to know what they think when they jumped. Ken Baldwin thought to himself, “I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable—except for having just jumped.”
Life is difficult. Sometimes it’s hard to know what we want until our choice gets taken away from us. But really, we never lose the ability to choose, our circumstances just change.
It’s interesting to note in the New Yorker article that it is always done from the Golden Gate and never from the not as attractive Bay Bridge on the other side of San Francisco. In fact, people have crossed the Bay Bridge to jump over the Golden Gate. Even in a moment where they give full reins to nature, they still want control over this one aspect of it.
Addendum: That Radiolab link on the 11 vignettes of life after death is a real treat to listen to in its entirety.