I saw an extraordinary film tonight, a British documentary called Man on Wire. It’s a sharply made film about Frenchman Philippe Petit’s notorious, unauthorized high-wire walk atop the World Trade Center towers on August 7, 1974. The film is a funny, tender, fascinating, thrilling examination of one strange man’s obsession with flirting with death and living on the edge (literally).
It’s an extreme example, no doubt, but the film’s beauty is that Petit’s story serves so well as an archetype for humanity in general: we are wired to seek risk, to challenge ourselves, to dare death.
As I watched the film and marveled at Petit’s precarious, balanced walking across wires suspended thousands of feet about Manhattan, I thought of last night’s women’s gymnastics final and the amazing performances on the balance beam. Am I the only one who finds the beam the most impressive of all gymnastics feats? Watching Nastia Liukin tumbling and flipping and twirling on this narrow beam was utterly breathtaking. How do these people do it? And more curiously: why?
Indeed, my thoughts after seeing Man On Wire and a week’s worth of Olympic sports centers upon the question of why humans are subjecting themselves to such extreme, risky, unnatural challenges. Why are people like Michael Phelps consuming (and burning) 12,000 calories a day so as to be able to swim fast back and forth in a 50 meter pool? Why are weight lifters risking gruesome joint dislocations to raise unholy loads of metal above their heads? (as in Hungarian Janos Baranyai’s unfortunate accident earlier this week). Is it because in our post-industrial, ultra-pampered, developed world we have so little else to channel our primitive needs to conquer and destroy? Or maybe we’re just bored and looking for something—even bodily harm or death—that will jolt us awake?
With the Olympics we could say: well, there is the end goal of a gold medal and Wheaties box… And I guess that is as good a thing as any to spend one’s life painstakingly seeking. But something tells me that most of these athletes do what they do not just to get some shiny medal or trophy. There is something deeper and more elemental to it—a uniquely human willingness to sacrifice oneself physically (and mentally) for something that doesn’t have anything to do with survival. It’s not like Phelps is swimming for his life; it’s not like Petit is risking death on the high wire in order to escape a burning building (an image all too easily called forth given the twin towers’ ultimate iconic legacy).
No, these men are doing insane things because it is a thrill to do so… to push the limits of their being and transcend regular existence. I think we all have this desire, actually. But is it a good desire? Or is it a desire (like pride, lust, etc) that we must carefully keep in check? I don't know, but it sure does make for thrilling entertainment.