Man on Wire: Living without a Safety Net

Man on Wire: Living without a Safety Net

I had the opportunity recently of watching the documentary Man on Wire[1]. This was actually the second time I got to watch this, the first time I saw it was a couple of years ago, when it first came out. To the best of my knowledge, this is the same team that gave us Searching for Sugarman.

In Man on Wire, as with Sugarman, what emerges is the story of an extraordinary life; a life which inspires us, a life which transcends the mundane, the prosaic, a heroic life in other words.  A life which I take it is worth writing about and worth reflecting on, not least because it speaks to our ongoing investigation of individuation. That is to say our attempt to understand what it means to be whole, to be self actualised and to understand our vocation.

Story synopsis

Briefly, the documentary follows the events in the life of the tightrope walker, the aptly named Philippe Petit, and his collaborators leading up to the dénouement: this is Philippe and crew illegally rigging a cable spanning the Twin Towers, in 1974, and traversing the Twin Towers on this “wire” eight times, some 110 stories above the ground. “What some consider the artistic crime of the century[2]. Death defying is a phrase which finds a home here. Of course less kind phrases, such as insane, also come to mind 🙂 . Philippe does this sans any safety apparatus except a well rigged cable and his consummate skill as a tightrope walker.

There was no safety net.

One misstep, one gust of wind, or any equipment failure and he would have been a dead as that unfortunate soul we all witnessed doing his superman leap from the second Tower during the tragic events of 9/11. Somehow saying he would have died does not seem to fully capture the enormity of the annihilating effect of falling 110 stories to a solid concrete surface, called the Twin Towers curb. Let’s just say that embalming or entering a cryogenic facility would not have been an option. No rather as Phillipe put it, he would simply have stepped into “another life”.

As it happened he made it. He achieved instant worldwide fame and lived to reflect on it as a much older man in the documentary.

Our Hero Speaks

What does doing something like this mean? Why attempt the impossible, the irredeemably reckless and in this case, the illegal?

Well this what Petit has to say about why he did it.

Initially he resists the ‘why’ and is incredulous when asked by the American press “why he did it”. There is no why he says, how can there be, it is the very absence of a why that is definitive of the act, it is one could almost say an anti-why statement, an act which defies the implicit act of control by the superego which uses the why a technique of moderation of constraint.[3]

To defer to another Frenchman Camus, who I gather is our hero’s spiritual mentor[4], the act is savage, an act of spiritual rebellion against the claustrophobia of the symbolic. Nevertheless finally he breaks down and provides us with a why at the end of the documentary.

We [necessarily] need to live in rebellion. On the edge of life. Where our every act is as if we’re walking on a tightrope.

But WHY goddamnit, why do we need to live like that?

Because it is only then that we are truly alive. Playing it safe, or calculating as Henry Miller puts it, is not living. Living is something else entirely. The bloody problem is somehow so many of us have convinced ourselves that life is a preparation for the real thing. Like waiting to open a Coca Cola,  we are constantly at the point just prior to taking the first long thirst quenching sip on a hot day, standing there perspiring and hoping like hell the bottle stays sealed.

Sealed for what, for whom, for what eventuality exactly we may ask? Listen I’ll let you in on a little secret, none of us are getting out of here alive! No matter how goddamn careful we are, no matter how carefully we lay our plans. The end I’m afraid, is certain. Life is not a mystery novel in that sense, or if it is we know only too well how it ends.

What we have is a series of moment’s in-between now and then, that’s all nothing more. That I think, is what our intrepid Frenchman got so well and that is what gave him the courage to shut out at the stony universe:

I’m am here you bloody bastard and in this act I liberate myself, I transcend myself, I actualise myself and what I do I do not only on my behalf but on the behalf of all men past, present and future. I act so as to free myself. I commit myself to this act as an act of spiritual revolt!

And let us say that Philippe had fallen to his death, been obliterated, wiped out and never heard from again. What, I ask you, would he have lost?

Well his life naturally enough. Now if like me you share the intuition that this life may very well be all we ever given, then admittedly to die prematurely, to be cruelly cut down in one’s prime, is a significant loss. Nevertheless it is also precisely the reason that act is raised above the prosaic. I suggest we have something very valuable to learn from our intrepid tightrope walker, or dancer as the New York cop who witnessed the act, prior to arresting him described him:

He tells us life must be lived on the edge, on a tightrope so to speak, we need to live in rebellion. This I think is an important clue. It is only in the act of (spiritual) rebellion that truly unlocks the value of what life offers us. To live as those beneath him that fateful day did, those on the streets beneath the Twin Towers, toing and froing like so many unconscious sheep, living in fear, never daring to ascend to such dizzying heights – is that really living or is it just existing?

Petit does offer us lesser mortals’ redemption though, and that was clear from the narratives of his collaborators. In his act we can all participate, the mere act of looking up of craning ones neck to see so high, in itself, constitutes an act of redemption and as such of liberation. Like all genuinely heroic acts the hero acts for all, not only himself.

However, consider, correspondingly, your life is lived for all as well, not only for little old you. In as much as you rise above the mundane, the prosaic and the pettiness of life, we all do, and in as much as you do not none of us do.

The disease of contemporary society, in the West particularly I believe, is the idea that our lives belong to us. In South Africa we speak of Ubuntu which roughly translates as the brotherhood of man. Properly understood it is precisely this invocation, that my life is lived not only for myself but for you, that impels me to rise above myself and not to fall unconscious.

What does it mean to live without a safety net?

A few years ago I was given the opportunity to act in an Anthroposophicaly inspired play, The Flood[5]; it was a contemporary version of Noah’s Ark. I acted the role of the archangel Michael and at an appropriate point in the story gave Noah the following advice.

Scene: Archangel Michael talking to Noah


NOAH: Just say that again.

MICHAEL: All right. Here are two tall buildings. Between them is a tightrope. You are in the crowd below, watching. You know that soon it will be your turn to walk that tightrope, but you aren’t frightened because there, waiting to catch anyone who falls, is a safety net. Up you go when it’s your turn, up you go to where the rope starts. But when you get there, the safety net has disappeared. So now you have to find the courage to walk the rope without being able to see the safety net.

NOAH: OK, I get it. But will everything be all right?

MICHAEL: No guarantees – remember?

NOAH:    Wait! Haven’t you got any advice?

MICHAEL: Trust your instincts, Noah, not outward appearances. You are a human being – and that is something very great and very strong – only a human being can save the world[6]

Now admittedly this has a very grand sound to it. Most of us do not envision ourselves as being in the world saving business[7]. Nevertheless, I suggest, the same principle applies to saving our selves. We need to find that well of faith, if you will, which we can draw on to traverse the abyss, to cross to the other side and in so doing to articulate our destiny.

Lessons from a little man with big spirit

  1. Dare not only to dream, but to dream big. Very few things cannot be accomplished if your desire is sincere. Remember though there is a world of difference between a genuine desire and a whim. Only a genuine desire will provide you with the energy to reach beyond yourself.
  2. Real, meaningful achievement is not accomplished overnight nor is it impulsive. Petit trained his entire life for that moment. He committed himself to a way of life a dream, a passion an image and he gave everything even to the point of being willing to give his life. What you want, what you are about, is not so much in what you say it is but rather in what your life shows it to be – the question to consider is where has and where does your energy go, this is the avenue that is open to you. It is vain to believe we can choose our desires, they choose us.
  3. The realisation of Petit’s goal was meticulously and methodically planned and executed. Greatness is not spontaneous, impulsive or compulsive, it is the conscious application of our minds, souls and bodies to the chosen task. Certainly risk everything, but do it with your eyes wide open and give yourself every chance of success.

Until we speak again,


[1] Man on Wire is a 2008 Oscar winning British documentary film directed by James Marsh. The film chronicles Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center

[3] These are not in truth our hero’s exact words, some of them are and some are merely implied. How you ask do I claim to speak on behalf of the implicit? Well it’s a little technique I learnt from watching with not only my eyes, but my soul, try it some time :-).

[4] As we see Philippe later speaks of living a life in rebellion, this is classic Camus.

[5] Written and directed by Jane Fox.

[6] From the play The Flood, by Jane Fox

[7] Most of us that is, the amount of money and energy Anja spends on this going green business, possibly she does not agree 🙂

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Comments (5)

  • Jacques Reply

    Thanks Stephen for relating the individuation to the life of Philippe Petit. Apart from an gripping story it was also a film that was very well made – hence the Oscar! I think a strong motive in Philippe’s life was the extraordinary sense of living absolutely in the present moment, in which there is really nothing but one’s own being. Tight rope walking is an extreme measure to get one in the present moment, because you cannot afford to not be in the moment even for just a second. Most of us settle for some incense and a mantra of sorts. Philippe’s life, having been devoted to tight rope walking, can therefore be seen as a string of present moments, or individuations.

    October 16, 2012 at 8:22 am
    • Stephen Reply

      Thanks for the feedback Jacques. Maybe the widespread critical acclaim speaks to the universal nature of the theme; this idea connects with us at a very deep level. Thanks for the perspective of a “series of individuating moments”, hmm nice, very thought provoking.

      October 16, 2012 at 9:24 am
  • Esther Reply

    Great one Stephen. Reminds me of a Lama who told us one day ” If you become truly yourself – you will be both elegant and outrageous. Elegant because you will put the pieces together in a way that makes an authentic statement; and outrageous because you are unique”.
    So I get it. That frisson of fear is the signal – ‘no charts available, here be dragons’. I will start with my baby dragons and give them names.

    October 17, 2012 at 3:06 pm
    • Stephen Reply

      Thanks Esher. I love that elegance and outrageousness, wonderful; I will remember that – great theme for a blog!

      October 18, 2012 at 8:34 am

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