Free to wire-walk, but for what?

wallendaI thought I was the only one who felt this way. Rex Huppke wrote an editorial in the Chicago Tribune yesterday about his thoughts on Nik Wallenda’s attempt to walk a tightrope stretched between two Chicago high-rises this Sunday evening. His article was titled, Wire Walk Dumb, not Heroic. “Let’s be clear, I hope nothing bad happens, and I wish Wallenda nothing but good fortune. But if walking a tightrope some 600 feet in the air above the Chicago River is heroic, then so is sticking your face in a fan…We have a tendency to conflate actual acts of heroism, like soldiers parachuting into a war zone or firefighters running into a burning building, with things that are bold but in the end purposeless.”

That is it; what is the purpose and value in such death-defying acts? We live in a free society where we can do what we want, but that is a problem. Os Guinness in his book A Free People’s Suicide says that the only way freedom is sustainable is if it leads a people to act in a way that has value greater than just for oneself. In other words, freedom is not merely the warrant to do whatever I want, but the ability to do what I ought. The goal of the American Revolution was not just independence from Britain; it was a freedom to build the American Republic.

Guinness writes, “People confuse freedom with choice, as they are dazzled daily by an ever-expanding array of external choices in consumer goods and lifestyle options. But the pursuit of choices has led to a surfeit (surplus) of choices and a scarcity of meaning and value—a point at which choice itself, rather than the content of any choice, has become the heart of freedom. The result is that modern people value choice rather than good choice.” The story is told of Socrates walking through the market place of Athens, a version of our mall, and saying in the face of all the options, “Who would have thought there were so many things that I could do without.”

Using Huppke’s analogy: If I exercised my freedom by announcing a trip to Hawaii to break the world’s record for distance-walking on the hardened crust of a lava flow, and I ended up a half-torso and a head. What would be the tragedy? Would you mourn my death or how senseless it was? Would you call me a hero or would you say, “That half a torso guy was a nincompoop?”

Paul says to the Galatians concerning their use of spiritual freedom in Christ, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13). Peter says a similar thing, “Live as free people, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as bondservants of God (1 Peter 2:16).

Thus my freedom is not absolute, to do whatever I please, but it is a directed freedom; to choose to act in such a way that has meaning and purpose beyond me. Perhaps Wallenda’s free act could be justified as entertainment; perhaps his act could be used it to raise money for Chicago’s homeless; or maybe, if he was a Christian, he could invite people afterwards to an evangelistic crusade. One or more of these might make his act more purposeful, but I would still have this nagging suspicion that maybe his choice was not the best one; that maybe this act was still more about him than his cause.

I saw his great-grandfather Karl (age 73, the Great Wallenda) fall to his death in 1978 doing a similar thing in Puerto Rico. It was not heroic. I read somewhere that Karl told his wife that he always felt like a dead man when he was on the ground and that life was being on the wire. Hmmm…

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