The death-daring walk of Nik Wallenda

June 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

Just heard about this: Nik Wallenda, a man of daredevil stock, will attempt to walk across part of the Grand Canyon tonight. Actually, it’s not exactly the Grand Canyon. According to NBC:

The stunt will not technically take place inside Grand Canyon National Park because authorities declined to grant him permission to perform it there. Instead, it will be held on the eastern part of the Grand Canyon within the Navajo Nation territory. While the wind is always an X-factor, another element that creates uncertainty is the powerful updrafts of hot air that can emanate from the bottom of the canyon.

Wallenda will take his evening stroll across a two-inch thick piece of cable. The distance from side to side is 1400 feet; the distance to the ground is 1500 feet. The most noteworthy part of the event? He will not use a harness or a safety mechanism.

If he falls, he dies.

NBC, NPR, Forbes and other news outlets have reported on the story. The Discovery Channel will broadcast the walk live, both on television and online, with (for reasons you’d expect) a 10-second delay. Mitsubishi Motors is the official sponsor.

For the obvious reasons, an event like this cannot fail to compel interest. I am among the many who are tempted to watch. Death-daring feats excite something primal in us, and tonight’s gamble probably comes from the same part of human nature that led to gladiators, bull fights, and Django Unchained. But with the exception of Quentin Tarantino movies, I doubt prior episodes of voyeurism were as monetized as they are now (whatever “monetization” would have been like in ancient Rome).

Discovery’s web site has a countdown, Mitsubishi is offering a sweepstakes to give away a car, and you can even take a virtual tour of that part of the canyon that Wallenda will traverse. In its marketing and presentation, it’s part shuttle launch, part boxing match, part reality television show, and part video game. All it needs to complete the spectacle is a berating Simon Cowell.

I’m not sure we have to delve into ancient ethical theory to think that this whole affair is unseemly, unbecoming of a proper regard for human dignity. Wallenda’s consent to the hype makes no difference. Consent alone does not ease ethical concerns. After all, the fellow might die. His life is literally on the line. It disturbs me in the extreme that so many people and corporations will enrich themselves on the strength of the question, “Will he, or will he not, slip and fall?” I don’t know what the odds of fatality are, but they cannot be small. (According to NBC, Wallenda’s grandfather died in 1978, at 73 years old, in a high-wire accident.)

“Human nature is human nature.” So said a wise priest to me once when, cigar in hand, he was ruminating on the missteps of mankind. I understand what he means, and I think he’s right, but events like tonight make me especially hopeful for the grace that builds on that nature, for the grace that calls us to safeguard a gift that should never be commercialized or commodified.

Posed by Matt Emerson. 

[Update: Well, he did it. And one news story reported that Wallenda prayed to Jesus the entire way across. He even had megachurch pastor Joel Osteen join him for a pre-walk prayer.]

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