A Frenchman, Philippe Petit, strung a high wire between the World Trade Center Towers, then walked across it, astonishing all who saw him from windows and on streets below. His film, Man On Wire, chronicles a feat of skill and daring that is also a metaphor for life.
Birds and bees are born knowing how to build nests and hives. Humans are born with knowledge, but more is hard-earned through generations, the results of evidence filtered through our senses, conclusions drawn. Yet senses can be fooled, and human reason so imprecise that just about anything can be declared true. For most, truth is whatever your own community says it is. Isaac Newton’s equations are true to a scientific community, Michele Bachmann’s assertions to her community, Albert Schweitzer’s Reverence for Life, fervently accepted by some, Adolf Hitler’s contempt for it by others.
Yet without communities we go nuts. In Papillon, Henri Charrière's best-selling autobiography, he describes the mind-warping agony of solitary confinement. The need for community is behind the successes of Facebook, Twitter, and the Internet itself. I knew a photographic assistant who worked nights, alone in a dark lab, producing expertly finished prints, then going home to his cat, immersing himself in a hobby collecting antique groceries: Rinso, Oxydol, Lifeboy Soap, Lucky Strike Cigarettes. When he learned he could rent his huge collection to film makers, he quit night work, but refused a museum offer of $250,000 for his collection. When they upped it to $500,000, he sold, bought a loft, moved in with his cat, and disappeared from the world. Only his cat, upon whom he lavishes all his love, saves him from self-destroying madness.
But group immersion too has hazards. Communities form around ideas that are irrational to outsiders. Heaven’s Gate believed that Jesus Christ was captain of a space ship hiding behind the Hale Bopp comet, and its 39 members committed suicide, certain they’d wake up there. Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple retreated to Guyana where 918 died after drinking cyanide-laced soft drink.
Immortality on earth is a dream that scientists hint will one day be attained, but try to imagine outliving your age-mates, kids and great grand kids for a world where no one knows you. That is the world of those poor crazed loners who buy a gun and kill before they blow their brains out. High wire artist, Philippe Petit, stunningly symbolizes all who manage to keep their balance on the high wire of life. See his film, Man On Wire, if you can.