On A Wire: A Psychotherapist’s Secret to Overcoming Fear

Fear is a notoriously thorny challenge to overcome. After all, it is the human brains’ most ancient response; a deeply wired, fundamental reaction that has evolved over eons with the very admirable goal of protecting us. The fight-or-flight operating system is so embedded in our neurobiology that it is a wonder it doesn’t control us more. 

What’s more, fear is a type of self-fulfilling prophecy. It is true that, most often, we have nothing to fear but fear itself. And yet, we humans are duly afraid of our fears. It makes sense that one in four experience some form of anxiety disorder in their lifetime. To put it simply, fear is scary. 

Overcoming fear, then, is one of life’s most momentous challenges. But it is a challenge that holds that elusive key to a life of genuine happiness. If we could only control our fear response then we could erase untold self-imposed limits on who we can be and what we can achieve. When we free ourselves of unproductive fear, then the sky’s the limit.

In 1974, three accomplices disguised as delivery people illegally entered the Twin Towers in New York City. They ascended to the 110th floor with a 450-pound steel cable and a 26-foot pole. They stepped out onto the roof of Tower 1, unraveled the cable and shot it with a bow and arrow across the vast divide to Tower #2. Then they rigged the line until it was taut, and stepped back to watch the show. 

Philippe Petit, a French man dressed all in black, took his first steps onto the narrow wire. The streets of New York stretched away underneath him, 1,350 feet below the soles of his shoes. But Petit walked with all the confidence of a man on solid ground. More than that, he danced. He crossed back and forth between the towers eight times, with thousands of people cheering below. In a death-defying yet whimsical routine, he went down on one knee, laid down on the tightrope and rolled around, laughing. He scurried back to the middle, bouncing up and down.

When he finally descended, Petit was immediately arrested, but the charges were eventually dropped. The story quickly became a real life urban legend that inspired documentaries and a dramaticized film. Petit recalls, “I had a sense of dancing on top of the world and of communion with New York… I had a sense of having stepped in otherworldly matters.”  

A Very, Very Narrow Bridge

Petit’s extraordinary feat is an enchanting story. His highly unlikely, highly dangerous, and arguably highly irresponsible stunt transcends the laws of nature and any instinct of self-preservation. Do not try this one at home, folks. But I share the story because it holds proof of a valuable message: We do not have to fear fear.

Perhaps you’re familiar with the song ‘Kol Ha’Olam Kulo,’ so often sung on Momentum Trips to Israel. The song is adapted from the writings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslav, and the lyrics go like this: “The whole world is a bridge, a very narrow bridge, but the main thing to recall is to have no fear at all.”

There are two things not quite right about the translation we use in this song. The original text actually goes like this: “The whole world is a very, very narrow bridge. Me’od Me’od!” It continues, “The main thing is not to be afraid.” The verb is actually reflexive: Lo yit-pached k’lal. Do not scare yourself.

The official Breslov translation is this: “When a person must cross an exceedingly narrow bridge, the essential thing is not to frighten yourself at all.”

Philipe Petit’s tightrope is the perfect illustration of one very, very – me’od, me’od – narrow bridge. Exactly one inch thick, to be precise. If there is anything in the world to be scared of, it would be this. Any sane person would look at the tightrope stretching across the yawning void below and feel a jolt of sickening anxiety in their stomach, a tremor in their muscles, and the urge to flee in the other direction. 

That reaction would be very, very normal. That physical reaction is a biological alarm that tells us, Run! Hide! Save yourself!

And yet, Petit wasn’t scared. What was his tightrope technique to transcending fear? 

Walking the Tightrope

If you ask any professional tightrope walker the key to their art, they will tell you: You must learn to focus on the destination. Keep your eyes on the prize. And most important of all, they will tell you, never look down!

Most of us will never face the kind of unthinkable danger that Petit faced that morning. But we all face incalculable small and large challenges over the course of our lifetimes that have scared and scarred us. All of us have walked narrow tightropes, stepping out into the unknown and hoping to reach safety: We have lost jobs, moved to new cities, raised children, fought with our spouses, faced pandemics, and the list goes on. 

To cross our own tightropes, we need to acknowledge the fear that has saved us thousands of times before. We can thank that well-intentioned fear for its service in alerting us to danger. But then our next step on the wire is to set it aside and push onward anyway.

Once you’re on the tightrope, you keep moving while looking ahead. You don’t look down at the chasm below, or focus on each minute step. Rather, you set your eyes on your broadest destination. Focus not on the fear that is there in such abundance, but on the goal that propels you forward.

Later, Petit recalled, “After a few steps, I knew I was in my element and I knew the wire was not well rigged… but it was safe enough for me to carry on… And then, very slowly as I walked, I was overwhelmed by a sense of easiness, a sense of simplicity.”

Rebbe Nachman did not compare the world to a field on which we might rest, but to a bridge – the symbol of passage, of journeying. We travel over countless bridges as we move from one challenge to the next. Each new encounter with the unknown inevitably creates fear. The secret then, is not to find a safe landing free from fright, but to navigate the narrow crossings and remain unafraid.

Exercise:

  1. Write about an area in your life where you feel fear.
  2. Can you identify ways in which you are simply scaring yourself when you approach this area? List them.
  3. Now list at least three reasons why you do not actually need to be fearful in this situation.
  4. Look past the fear and bring your destination into focus. What goal are you trying to reach?
  5. With that goal in mind, list three things that you can do to achieve it. 

Focus on the destination and though it may be very, very daunting, have no fear.

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