Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Heroism and Failure

Great quote from Kurt Andersen's interview of Philippe Petit (the fellow who tightroped between the Twin Towers back in the day) on his Studio 360 public radio program (download MP3), when Andersen asked whether he ever thought about falling.
"I am incapable of having such thoughts. I concentrate and I live and I walk forward [as] I want to do, which is walk on a cable. The opposite of walking on a cable - flying away from a piece of steel on which you walk - I'm incapable of entertaining that thought because it's in a different world than the one I have created and decided to live in."
The thing is, while Petit has developed this interesting reply to tell interviewers, it can't possibly be something he's "thinking" while he's actually doing his thing. Because to mentally register the non-consideration of failure ("I cannot let myself imagine falling!") is to consider failure! So, articulate though he's learned to be in later reflection, you can bet there's no self consciousness at all at the moment of execution. And I think his real trick isn't to block the notion of failure, but to block self consciousness.

My first reaction when I heard the interview was to suppose that I have the converse of his mindset. At heart, I generally can't imagine things going as I hope. It ruined my childhood basketball career; I'd aim carefully and shoot with finesse, but failure was expected in my very bones, and the ball's trajectory, naturally, followed expectation (invariably spinning multiple times around the rim, dipping enticingly toward the net, and then wafting just far enough to the side to plop towards the floor in hoopless failure).

At another level, I've always been aware of my failure expectation at those moments, and that self consciousness may have been my true undoing. By contrast, my fearless, utterly confident moments have all been so utterly unselfconscious - neither witnessed nor recorded by me - that I hadn't realized until now that there'd even been any. I still can't quite glimpse them. They're the hazy, blurry spots just prior to success. As with trying to make out writing in dreams, they refuse to come into focus.

It's heartening to know that we all are heroic from time to time, but that beautiful, poetic paradox bars us from noticing!

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