When Nik Wallenda successfully walked across Niagara Falls Friday night, I was among the 13 million viewers holding their breath. In the end, what blew me away was not the feat itself–though worthy of all the praise it received–but his breathtaking focus.
I accept that daredevils march to a different drummer when it comes to risk. Wallenda is a seventh generation tightrope walker. He’s walked the high wire since the age of two. He was driven by a desire to restore the storied legacy of the Flying Wallendas–a legacy interrupted by the death of his great-grandfather on the high wire in 1978. In other words, Nik Wallenda was doing what Wallendas do.
In the same way, ABC was doing what networks do. They turned the 25-min. walk into three hours of commercial-laden overkill. Minute-by-minute meteorological updates on wind direction, precipitation, and weather-related details you never knew existed. Sports analysis, complete with charts and graphs, to demonstrate the athleticism required for the feat. Reports on the history of the Wallendas and the two-year effort to gain the permits required to do what no one else had ever done–walk directly over Horseshoe Falls.
Once the extravaganza began to unfold, am I the only person who was thinking, “Would everyone please shut up and just let the guy do his thing?” I really went ballistic when the walk was finally underway and, at what appeared to be the most dangerous part of the walk, ABC co-anchor Josh Elliot decided to have a little chat with Wallenda about how he was feeling. I kept hoping Wallenda would say something like, “Uh, I’m a little busy right now! I’ve got this life-or-death thing going on. Could you go get a latte or something…and check back later?
I know, I know. Ever the savvy showman, Wallenda (and ABC) knew that chatting mid-risk would heighten the excitement. And he was never at risk of dying. ABC insisted he wear a harness, in the event of a fall. But that doesn’t take away from the mental focus needed to walk 1,800 feet above the fastest-moving falls in the world…on a 2-inch wide wire…in slippers…through swirling winds and rain-soaked mist…at night!
Spiritual analogies flooded my mind as I watched the whole thing play out. Our journey through life with God can feel like a high-wire act, with hype and noise and distractions pulling us in all directions at every point along the way. It’s easy to lose sight of our ultimate goal. During the toughest parts of our journey, when circumstances whip us so relentlessly we think we won’t make it out alive, it can also feel like there are as many people trying to throw off our focus, for their own ends, as there are people who want us to finish well.
I realize there’s nothing about Wallenda’s walk that represents “normal” life. But how he handled his extraordinary circumstances and maintained his focus can be useful in normal life, especially the life of faith.
He prepared. He anticipated where he was most vulnerable and planned in advance how he would deal with those situations. Where are you most vulnerable to “falling?” How have you prepared yourself mentally and spiritually for those possible challenges?
He maintained a steady consistent walk. He said it minimized the risks posed by weather and other circumstances. Are you reading the Bible, spending time in relationship with other believers, and talking to God on a regular basis about your life? It steadies you in the storm.
He prayed continually. Wallenda credits his constant prayers while on the rope with keeping him calm. It reminded him who and what was bigger than his challenge.
He listened to his father’s voice. Wallenda’s own father provided constant reassurance, guidance and encouragement during the walk, through an earpiece. Your heavenly Father will do the same for you, if your ear is listening for his voice.
He kept his eye on the destination, not the circumstances. The only time Wallenda broke focus was when he couldn’t resist looking down briefly at the majestic Horseshoe Falls. The circumstances were frightening and he said to himself, “What am I doing!” and quickly forced himself to refocus on the goal. Some distractions are not just informational or entertaining, they’re dangerous.
I’m not holding up Nik Wallenda as some kind of perfect role model. But every day in a thousand ways God uses the people and events in our path to teach us truth. The whole world is his learning lab. This time, for me, he used a tightrope and a daredevil with a dream.