Is a Tightrope-walker a Balanced Person?

petit.jpgA friend recommended that I see the film “Man on Wire,” which explores Philip Petit’s tightrope walk from one tower of the World Trade Center to the other, and back and forth a number of times. For a person, like myself, who is not that fond of heights, I was certainly amazed by his courage.

Towards the end of this documentary film, we see Petit betraying his girlfriend and soul mate, by sleeping with another woman. My friend observed that Petit had the courage to do feats of physical daring, but that he lacked the courage to be in a committed relationship.

Paul Tillich, in his book “The Courage to Be,” states that courage takes many forms. There is, for example, physical, moral, intellectual, and spiritual courage.

Tillich distinguishes the courage to stand alone — which every artist must have, including performance artists — from the courage to join with other people. The film showed that Petit certainly has the courage to be alone. When he was with other people, it was really all about him. But he lacked the courage to be with other people.

As his betrayal of his girlfriend illustrated, he also lacked moral courage. It would seem, then, that one form of courage does not translate into other types of courage.

Petit obviously possesses an incredible sense of physical balance. But, I got the sense from the film that his actual life was not particularly balanced, and toppled over when he suddenly became world famous. Alas, physical balance does not translate into being a balanced and centered person.

Similarly, Homer’s Achilles was a great warrior, but an imbalanced person. Then there’s professional athletes. The excellent qualities that they possess on the playing field — courage, endurance, determination — do not necessary translate to other activities. If one needs a contemporary example, just consider O.J. Simpson. Thus, as Philip Petit’s life illustrates, neither courage nor balance extends beyond the physical plane to the other domains of human existence.

I think that the cultivation of the body is an excellent idea and should be encouraged, if only for its own sake. And Petit’s tightrope from one of the Twin Towers to the other was certainly awe inspiring. It is a testimony to the courage that a human being can have to do amazing things. But an educator will be disappointed, if he hopes for a carryover from one domain to another. He may as well hope that a beautiful woman will necessarily be a beautiful person.

And so here is a question for those grade school and college coaches…


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