Philippe Petit and Doves that don’t fly

Philippe Petit is a French high wire walker.  In his lifetime his has walked across high wires strung between the Twin Towers in NYC, Notre Dame Cathedral, Sydney Harbour Bridge, Cathedral of Saint John the Divine and many other breath taking locations. And what does this have to do with justice and human rights? Well, just as stories are important, so too is symbolism. Symbolic acts can help to transform our hearts and minds in ways that create a space for more open hearted, compassionate actions. And THAT is what Philippe Petit has done to advance justice and human rights.  Here is an excerpt from his TED talk that speaks to his high wire walk in Jerusalem. His talk is called “The journey across the high wire.”  I hope you enjoy it and that you find yourself thinking a bit more expansively …

Philippe Petit says:  Faith is what replaces doubt in my dictionary.

So after a walk when people ask me, “How can you top that?” Well I didn’t have that problem. I was not interested in collecting the gigantic, in breaking records.

Each time I street juggle I use improvisation. Now improvisation is empowering because it welcomes the unknown. And since what’s impossible is always unknown, it allows me to believe I can cheat the impossible.

Now I have done the impossible not once, but many times. So what should I share? Oh, I know. Israel.

Some years ago I was invited to open the Israel Festival by a high-wire walk. And I chose to put my wire between the Arab quarters and the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem over the Ben Hinnom Valley. And I thought it would be incredible if in the middle of the wire I stopped and, like a magician, I produce a dove and send her in the sky as a living symbol of peace.

Well now I must say, it was a little bit hard to find a dove in Israel, but I got one. And in my hotel room, each time I practiced making it appear and throwing her in the air, she would graze the wall and end up on the bed. So I said, now it’s okay. The room is too small. I mean, a bird needs space to fly. It will go perfectly on the day of the walk.

Now comes the day of the walk. Eighty thousand people spread over the entire valley. The mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, comes to wish me the best. But he seemed nervous. There was tension in my wire, but I also could feel tension on the ground. Because all those people were made up of people who, for the most part, considered each other enemies.

So I start the walk. Everything is fine. I stop in the middle. I make the dove appear. People applaud in delight. And then in the most magnificent gesture, I send the bird of peace into the azure. But the bird, instead of flying away, goes flop, flop, flop and lands on my head.(Laughter) And people scream. So I grab the dove, and for the second time I send her in the air. But the dove, who obviously didn’t go to flying school, goes flop, flop, flop and ends up at the end of my balancing pole.

You laugh, you laugh. But hey. I sit down immediately. It’s a reflex of wire walkers. Now in the meantime, the audience, they go crazy. They must think this guy with this dove, he must have spent years working with him. What a genius, what a professional.

So I take a bow. I salute with my hand. And at the end I bang my hand against the pole to dislodge the bird. Now the dove, who, now you know, obviously cannot fly, does for the third time a little flop, flop, flop and ends up on the wire behind me. And the entire valley goes crazy.

Now but hold on, I’m not finished. So now I’m like 50 yards from my arrival and I’m exhausted, so my steps are slow. And something happened. Somebody somewhere, a group of people, starts clapping in rhythm with my steps. And within seconds the entire valley is applauding in unison with each of my steps. But not an applause of delight like before, an applause encouragement. For a moment, the entire crowd had forgotten their differences. They had become one, pushing me to triumph.

I want you just for a second to experience this amazing human symphony. So let’s say I am here and the chair is my arrival. So I walk, you clap, everybody in unison.

So after the walk, Teddy and I become friends. And he tells me, he has on his desk a picture of me in the middle of the wire with a dove on my head. He didn’t know the true story. And whenever he’s daunted by an impossible situation to solve in this hard-to-manage city, instead of giving up, he looks at the picture and he says, “If Philippe can do that, I can do this,” and he goes back to work.

Inspiration. By inspiring ourselves we inspire others.  By believing in ourselves, by seeing the possibility of the impossible, we believe in others and together we grow the discipline to build the impossible.  The road to the impossible is not an easy one.  It is never straight forward. It is never smooth. It is surely not a level playing field. But there is a road, there is a path that we can create.  Sometimes we must build that path together. Sometimes we walk that path together. Sometimes the path must be forged by the solitary pioneer. But there is a path to freedom, to dignity, to justice.  On August 28, 1963, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Junior delivered his “I have a dream” speech. His dream became a defining moment of the Civil Rights movement. Let us continue to dream wildly and wantonly. Let us continue to walk the path to freedom, dignity and justice – together and as pioneers ever forging new visions of dignity as we sing the old songs of freedom and hope.