After years of performing, one night the tightrope walker looked down.
He’d learned from beginning to keep his attention focused forward. But that evening, as he stood poised on his high perch, ready to step upon the rope…
…for some unknown reason, his concentration shifted for an instant. With a single downward glance, he took in the circus ring and the stands packed with people—a sea of eyes gazing up at him in expectation. And in a flash—just like that!—he lost his nerve. For the first time in his career, he got the jitters.
Perhaps a deep anxiety, long denied, had finally surfaced. Perhaps. In any case, the usual butterflies in his stomach had been replaced by agitated bats.
For a long moment, the tightrope walker just stood there, shocked and confused.
Then he took a deep breath and waited for the confidence to flow back into his body and mind.
But oh!—those small tremors kept running through his limbs.
His feet and legs desired solid ground again. “No, no way,” he said to himself. “I’d rather fall to my death than climb back down that ladder.”
He could sense the crowd shifting in awkward uncertainty. Their silence became even more silent. A big drop of icy-cold sweat slid down his spine.
“Maybe once I feel the rope under my feet, I’ll relax. Yes, of course I will.”
And so, he finally managed to lift his right foot and step upon the tightrope.
But alas, performing the old routine did not calm him.
Nonetheless, he made it through:
He began by walking to the opposite end and back. Then again—but this time, juggling bowling pins.
He topped that by going back and forth on a bicycle—pedaling in reverse on the return. On his second trip, he again juggled the pins.
He continued juggling on the bike, but now, at the end of each go-round, he added a dinner plate to a stack balanced atop his head.
When the stack had reached a dozen, he parked the bike midway across the wire and dismounted…
Throwing the pins high into the air, he did a quick pirouette, then caught the pins as they came down—without shifting a single plate.
He did that pirouette stunt two more times to conclude his performance.
Competent as usual. However, on this night, the instant he stepped from the ladder and back onto solid ground, a sigh of relief went through his whole body and being.
Later, alone in his hotel room, he looked at his darkly vacant eyes in the mirror and said, “A one-time aberration, what happened tonight. Nothing to worry about. Just don’t ever look down again.”
However, the next evening, though he kept his eyes pointed forward, he experienced the same pervasive weakness…
By the time he stepped down from the ladder, he felt totally drained. The earth-shaking applause did not lift him, as it had in the past.
The crowd never noticed his shakiness—not on that night nor on the many that followed. Yes, for the reminder of his long career, though he tried various mental techniques and psychological therapies, the tightrope walker never regained his nerve.
Every night, cold sweat slid down his spine as he stood on his perch. Every night, his legs trembled as he parked the bike midway across. Every night, he had to force himself to breathe breathe breathe, until his feet again touched ground.
Extreme concentration was required to maintain a balance that had once seemed so natural.
For awhile, he bolstered himself by saying: “I know my confidence will return. Perhaps during the next performance. And if not the next, then the one after that.”
However, after a couple of years, he finally admitted: his sense of mental and physical strength—which had once seemed indomitable—was likely gone forever.
Nonetheless, he continued on the wire until he reached an acceptable age for retirement…
He continued because, even with the strain, life as tightrope walker seemed better than life as a regular guy who walked the ground.
And so, when he finally shelved the soft-sole shoes, he felt a twinge of regret. But also: totally exhausted in spirit.
Those who knew him could see he needed a break from the grind…
…but none realized the ordeal he’d endured for years.
They believed walking the rope had become second-nature to him long ago. In fact, some thought his fatigue was due to boredom.
Even after he retired, the high-wire artist hid the reality. He told himself: “People still idolize me—I don’t want to disappoint them.” Tightrope walkers are known to have sizeable egos.
Nonetheless, the man did confide in a stranger once, during a ride atop a double-decker bus. He ended his story by saying, “The odd thing is—I now feel this sense of accomplishment…
“After I lost my nerve, I felt like such a phony. Every night when I raised my arms to their applause, I felt so small.
“Then suddenly, near the end, I realized my truth: it had taken so much strength to continue when I felt so weak. My failure of nerve gave me the opportunity for greater achievement.”
This story means a lot to me, because I’m well-acquainted with feelings of weakness and uncertainty. When struggling with self-doubt, if I can remember what that man said…
…I’ll stop being so critical of myself. His story tells me: it takes much strength to be a nervous fool. So give yourself some credit!
But this question lingers:
All things considered, is it actually good that tightrope walker never regained his nerve?
© 2018, Michael R. Patton
sky rope poetry blog