Philippe Petit Reflects on a Lifetime of Fear

Philippe Petit at the World Trade Center in 1986. (Photo by Dan Brinzac / NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images)

Fear is as much of a medium for Philippe Petit as is balance, poise, and control in his high wire act. In his death-defying walks across the Grand Canyon and between the World Trade Center towers, Petit bent fear to his will. At Lapham’s Quarterly, Petit reflects on what a lifetime of fear has meant to his art, and how he has faced fear on the wire and off.

Before my high-wire walk across the Seine to the second story of the Eiffel Tower, the seven-hundred-yard-long inclined cable looked so steep, the shadow of fear so real, I worried. Had there been an error in rigging calculations? No. I had just forgotten how high were my expectations, how mad I was to have conceived such a project. On the spot I vanquished my anxiety by imagining the best outcome: my victorious last step above a cheering crowd of 250,000.

If imagination does not work, turn to the physical side of things. Give yourself a time-limit ultimatum: start counting! Yes, choose a number—not too high—and when you hear footsteps on your porch at three am, unfreeze your trepidation by whispering to yourself, “At ten, I open the door! One, two, three, four…”

A clever tool in the arsenal to destroy fear: if a nightmare taps you on the shoulder, do not turn around immediately expecting to be scared. Pause and expect more, exaggerate. Be ready to be very afraid, to scream in terror. The more delirious your expectation, the safer you will be when you see that reality is much less horrifying than what you had envisioned. Now turn around. See? It was not that bad—and you’re already smiling.

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