Philippe Petit does the impossible… just because it SEEMS impossible. You may recognize the name of the man who walked on a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers in 1974, a story you should see in its entirety in the Academy Award-wining documentary “Man on Wire.” My son Evan and I just had the privilege of hearing Philippe speak in person in a UC Santa Barbara lecture hall.
He engaged the audience with photos and stories of his many highwire exploits, some of them sanctioned by governments, some of them completely illegal. As I listened to him, I was impressed with his enthusiasm for challenges, and his attitude toward treating the Eiffel Tower as his personal playground. When he told his friends he felt compelled to walk a wire between the twin towers in New York City, they said it was impossible. He said, “Yes, it is impossible, let’s get to work on it!”
At the end of his talk he asked for questions from the audience, and I walked up to the microphone in front of the stage. (I’m always interested in how high achievers get themselves back up when they’re down.) “Philippe, you talked a lot about having faith to get through the challenges you took on. Can you tell us about a time when you lost faith, and what you did to restore it?”
He thought for just a moment, and then in his animated French accent he said, “You know… when I take my first step onto the wire I am ready to take my last step off the end of the wire as well. I have prepared for thousands of hours and scrutinized every detail of my plan to build my faith for that first step. Still, little seeds of doubt fall down on me like raindrops, but I am able to shake them off like a dog because of all that hard work. I have constructed a safety net in my mind that is far stronger than any net I could stretch out below me.”
As I absorbed this answer, I pictured in my mind the raindrops of doubt that pelt me from time to time, and the seemingly impossible challenges that I sometimes face in my life.
He looked away to the audience for the next question, but stopped and turned back toward me. As if knowing I needed a little more advice he said, “I am not sure I answered your question, but I’d like to tell you this. When you look at the great pyramids, you think ‘oh wow, how could those giant things be built by human hands.’ But when you look closer you see that they are made of smaller stones that can be moved around, and smaller still are the grains of sand and clay that make up the stones. When you take on something big, break it down into parts that you can get started on today and then do it. That is what will give you faith.”
I’ve been thinking about this since we left the auditorium, and it reminds me of something I learned as a kid in Sunday school. “God helps those who help themselves.”
Faith does not necessarily mean waiting around for someone else to take your hand or tell you what to do. Doing the hard work of preparation and having the courage to get started is what sets faith in motion and carries you across the wire.
What first step can you take today?