Last week I wrote about Philippe Petit and his walk on a wire between the Twin Towers of New York City so many years ago. I wanted to use his story as a metaphor for how happiness might best be thought of as balancing a clear-eyed expectation and preparedness for the bad things in life in order to fully embrace and celebrate the good. I talked about how the intense fear Philippe felt about his feat was one of the surprising facets about the documentary of the moment (Man on Wire).
A comment from a reader reminded me of one of the other surprising facets of that same movie. As I mentioned in that previous column, the documentary featured interviews with a cast of characters who made the Twin Towers walk possible. Archival footage of brainstorming and practice sessions were used to illustrate the extent to which this event was meticulously planned, and that risks were accepted by all concerned. When Philippe completed his walk on the wire, he was arrested, and swept into sudden fame.
The reader's comment began, more or less, by confronting the question "Who took the photographs of Philippe on the wire?" It should be clear that there were people helping him all along the way. And yet, as perpetrated by my column, they have been forgotten and excluded from the moment they helped create; left behind as Philippe embraced accolades for his feat. This is the second surprising thing about the documentary - watching these former friends, confidants, and allies attempt to explain the inexplicable rupture in their relationships with Philippe. In the most painful (for me) moment of the movie, Philippe tells how, immediately upon release from police custody, he had sex with the first female groupie who offered herself up to him while his longtime girlfriend waits for him back at the hotel. The closest of his friends still shed tears describing those moments when the idealistic dream of walking the wire became disappointing reality.
There was Annie Allix, Philippe's girlfriend, who was left behind after Philippe descended the towers. Jean Louis Blondeau helped plan the feat and was Philippe's friend for years. He helped lug the heavy cable, and launched the arrow that fed the guidewire to the second tower. He rigged the cable to be stable in the high winds at the top. There was Jim Moore, who was based in New York and did photographic reconnaisance. There were others, too, who were instrumental on that day, and through the years, to getting Philippe to the spot where he could dance on the wire above Manhattan.
This part of the tale is old news. We can't do it on our own, feats of greatness always seem to have a supporting cast. Could Michael Jordan have led the Chicago Bulls to a three-peat of NBA championships without Will Perdue? We may say yes, we may say no, but Will Perdue was on the team and on the court, so he has to be part of the conversation, right? Plus, being a taller-than-average guy who has an awkward tendency to dribble off his foot and has to cross his fingers to dunk, I needed a role model! (no offense to Mr. Perdue intended!)
Maybe the Michael Jordan-Will Perdue analogy has more to say, however, than just the fact that it takes a lot of support and direct involvement to pull off awe-inspiring accomplishments. Again, with no slight intended to Will Perdue, I think it's a lot more likely that Michael Jordan was going to win a title without Will Perdue than the reverse (this was actually proven in the extended careers of these pros). It is probably also a lot more likely that Philippe Petit could have walked on wire between two towers with a different set of friends and colleagues than the reverse. So, in trying to use this amazing feat to think about embracing the risk of living fully, I think it's defensible for me to have focused on Philippe.
However, there's a big difference from focusing on one person and completely neglecting everyone else. In this way I am just as guilty as Philippe. Being a researcher of meaningful living, it occurred to me that the forgotten backstory of Philippe Petit's walk on wire holds a lot of wisdom for the meaningful life.
There are a lot of ways to go with this: the importance of friends, 'no man is an island,' living life within a network of close and rewarding relationships, even 'you don't know what you got til it's gone.'
I like to think of this story, though, as talking about the betrayal of so many of the promises modern culture holds out to us regarding happiness. Philippe's story, at least the part of it captured in Man on Wire, seems to fit the prototype of someone who labors with like-minded intimates toward a grand dream, only to be seduced by the shimmering mirage of fame, wealth, and adulation. From my vantage point, it seems incredible that someone would sacrifice a group of friends who were so clearly compatible, and with whom a rich little world had been built. Every credible theory of happiness and meaning in life says that such a tight network of friends is about the best we can wish for in life. In contrast, our cultural blueprint for fulfillment in life - the quest for riches, fame, adulation, beauty, and status - has a 'dark side' (Kasser & Ryan, 1993). People who strive for these things almost always show up in research as experiencing lower well-being and happiness. Lest you think that psychologists keep studying hippies, it's important to note that even materialistic business school students are less happy than their less materialistic colleagues (Kasser & Ahuvia, 2001).
What makes the sad epilogue of Man on Wire so shocking is that Philippe Petit seems like someone who is in such close contact with the moment-to-moment experience of life, facing and embracing the risk at the heart of living. Research leads us to believe that it is those people who avoid such contact with experience who are the most prone to falling into the dead-end trap of materialism; foregoing a life of meaning (Kashdan & Breen, 2007). One hopes that Philippe, Annie, Jean Louis, Jim, and the others who made the walk on wire possible have once again filled their lives with the world's most precious resource - friends for the journey - and are happy.
Otherwise, it looks lonely out there...
Kashdan, T.B., & Breen, W.E. (2007). Materialism and diminished well-being: Experiential avoidance as a mediating mechanism. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26, 521-539.
Kasser, T., & Ahuvia, A. (2001). Materialistic values and well-being in business students. European Journal of Social Psychology, 31, 137-146.
Kasser, T., & Ryan, R. M. (1993). A dark side of the American dream: Correlates of financial success as a central life aspiration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 410-422.