Sunday, June 30, 2013

Nik Wallenda and the psychology of danger

On June 23, Nik Wallenda, the aerialist, walked a distance of 1400 feet across a gorge in the Grand Canyon on a cable suspended 1500 feet above the ground, without a tether or safety net. He stopped and crouched twice in his twenty-minute journey to cope with the wind and the unsettling rhythm of the cable. “The Hollywood Reporter said that the response to Wallenda’s death-defying stunt was simply overwhelming, with almost 13 million viewers tuning into the Discovery Channel at the peak of the walk.”

One question is why does a death-defying act compel attention? A simple answer is that it arouses us emotionally, opening us up to range of intense feelings, as long of course as we remain spectators. These feelings -- fear, suspense, thrill, the cycle of tension and release, even pain-- help us feel more alive. These feelings also throw into relief what we too often experience as the tedium of our daily lives, what Thoreau once famously called our “lives of quiet desperation.” Action and horror films, with their counterpoint of the heroes we identify with and the dangers they face, milk this contrast, allowing us in fantasy to escape the obligations and enmeshments that make real risk-taking seem foolhardy. Wallenda’s wire walking does us one better, he is walking on a real cable in real time.

One hypothesis is that extreme sports -- base-jumping, sky-dividing, hang-gliding, soloing,  mountaineering-- have become increasingly popular because they bring us close to danger under controlled conditions, that is, as long as we are disciplined, undergo training, and use good equipment. Moreover, we are attracted to the cultures of deviance they sustain. Skate boarding, extreme biking, and windsurfing have offered participants alternative worlds in which social obligations -- to hold a job, go to school, marry, listen to one’s teachers, and raise children -- seem unimportant. The famous aerialist, Philippe Petit, who walked between the two Twin Towers in New York City’s financial district, saw himself as a rebel and artist. He did not seek permission to walk, but instead trained for the event on the sly by avoiding guards, reaching the top disguised in a work-shirt and helmet, and hiding his equipment in a trolley. In his autobiographical account of his escapade he writes, “By the time I turn eighteen I’ve been expelled from five schools for practicing the art of the pickpocket on my teachers and the art of card manipulation under my desk. I refuse to take the basic exam to prove I can read, write and count, and thereby jeopardize my chances of landing a job picking up garbage or operating a cash register.” This link between risk and deviance, is a common one. Abraham Zaleznik, a theorist of leadership, once proposed that the entrepreneur and the juvenile delinquent share the same psychology. Similarly, when hedge fund traders cut corners by trading on inside information we presume that they are simply motivated by greed or fear. But as risk takers they are already deviants and feel further aroused by breaking the law. Much of popular culture, represented in films, television and novels, is based on the premise that the life of an outlaw is exciting.

Wallenda, however is not readily categorized. In interviews he presents as a very responsible person, motivated partly by his family heritage-- he comes from a long line of tightrope walkers—and grateful to God for his talent. He is anything but reckless. Asked before his walk if he was taking too big a risk, he noted that, “I’ve got three children and a wife. And if I thought there was even a small chance of me losing my life Sunday, I wouldn't be doing it." Should the wind buffet him, or the cable oscillate, he would simply, “lower myself to the wire and cling to it, waiting to be rescued.”
While walking across the gorge he said, “Thank you Jesus,” many times, but he does not believe that “God keeps me on the wire.” “I believe God gives me a unique ability to walk the wire, but it's up to me whether I train properly. There are a lot of people that have amazing relationships with Christ that lose their lives in a car accident. Does that mean they didn't have a good enough relationship with Jesus? No. Life happens and God created us all in his image, but we're all our own people. We're not robots. We make decisions. So I don't think that I'm testing God.” This statement points to a thoughtful and generous humility. Even as he can speak to God, God does not watch over him. Moreover, he is no deviant. The Federal government did not give him permission to walk across the land inside the boundary of the Grand Canyon national park, so he sought and got permission to walk over land that was part of a Navajo reservation. 

But Wallenda thanking Jesus does point to an important dimension of courting danger and taking risks. Sports psychologists note that extreme sports participants often experience a moment of “sublime awareness” in which they experience the world’s majesty and their small place in it. A hang glider writes in a blog that, “for me hang gliding is the ultimate in achieving union with the forces of nature, immersion within them. Gravity, wind, lift, sink, these are all invisible and exploiting them to savor for a few minutes requires understanding of physics, sensory acuity, and various types of reasoning….Unfettered movement in three dimension with only the sound of wind in the ears is fantastic. Flying close to hawks and eagles, flying with them, is beyond description. (

One hypothesis is that such sublime experiences result from the sports person’s calm or low arousal state while in the moment of performance. A skilled participant is highly aroused, feeling a mix up of both anxiety and excitement, both before and after his performance, but remains supremely calm and focused during it. We can understand this by drawing on Freud's concept of "sublimation,"  the way in which sexual feelings are “sublimated” through the process of creating a beautiful poem or painting. He meant that when the artist creates something beautiful, he invests it with her love, and hopes that her audience will love it in turn. That is why artists often refer to their creations, at the moment they let them go, as their “babies.” In this same way of thinking we can say that the extreme-sports participant sublimates his excitement and anxiety, transforming these feelings into a sense of awe. This experience of awe, while at first arousing, is then calming; arousing because he experiences the majesty of his surrounding or setting, calming because he realizes what a small and limited part he can possibly play in shaping it. One has  no choice” but to “go with the flow.” The resulting focus on the present moment enables the participant to attend to the tasks of navigating obstacles without distraction.

A recently published study of 370 adults aged 19 to 103 found what wise people have known for a long time, that our biggest regrets are for risks not taken. One researcher on the study notes that, “as people rise higher in our culture, there is a perception of greater opportunities. Paradoxically, the more opportunities you have, the more ways you can see how you could have gotten more . . . Opportunity fuels the regret experience." ( Yet much of the academic and popular discourse about risk today, is about threats; from nature, technologies, and our own irresponsible behavior, for example in global warming discourse. One school of academic thought even elevates the experience of “dread” as central to our experience of risk. Yet Steven Pinker, the MIT psychologist and linguist, argues strikingly in, The Better Angels of our Nature, that the level of interpersonal violence throughout the world had declined across the centuries, decades and years. In the United States the homicide rate today is as low as it was in the peaceful 1950’s. The question is why this discrepancy between discourse and experience? Why the focus on risks imposed rather than risks not taken?

Freud's famous essay, Civilization and its Discontents provides a clue.  Freud suggested that we accept our obligations, and the guilt we feel when we are tempted to violate them, because in the end civilization offers us security in return. His pessimism was based on the idea that as civilization advances, it enmeshes us even more, intensifying the guilt we feel for simply dreaming of escape. Perhaps the conviction that each person’s carbon footprint is destructive is one curious expression of Freud’s prediction. To consume, in others words, to pleasure oneself, is to destroy.

One hypothesis is that we face a new and compelling tension today between the empathy we feel for the lives of others- Pinker believes this is one reason violence has declined – and the individual opportunities we believe are almost within our grasp. How does a culture express this tension, and support our ability to face it rather than evade it? Perhaps Wallenda does provide one model. He is man who takes significant risks, but does so within a matrix of attachment to his lineage, love for this family and subordination to God. What are some other models? 

P.S.  I recommend looking at the YouTube video of free soloing- rock climbing without ropes, as an emotional doorway into these issues.