On June 15, 2012, Nik Wallenda walked on a two inch thick wire across Niagara Falls. This was an unprecedented feat. To be sure, the falls had been crossed before, but, not at this specific spot, which spans the broadest width of the falls, and not since 1896. I remember watching it live and going back and forth between awe of his ability and shaking my head at someone who was willing to risk their life for fame and prestige. I also remember, at some point, realizing that Mr. Wallenda was attached to the wire with a harness, assuring, that were he to slip and fall, he would not plummet to his death, but would only suffer the pain of failure and embarrassment. At that point, I felt a sense of relief, imagining myself in Nik Wallenda’s place. Later, I learned that he was forced to wear that harness by his sponsor, because of the liability involved. That’s neither here nor there. When I saw that harness I had a strong moment of assurance that I wouldn’t be witnessing a macabre scene of literal dashing against the rocks, as well as a vicarious feeling of what it must bring to Mr. Wallenda to know that, come what may, he would not fail hard enough to die.
I think of this scene often when talking with young patients in my office. Often these adolescent have all of the achievements that one would expect to foster solid self esteem and worth Near perfect academics, clear insight, socially accepted with a dedicated group of friends. Yet these are often the cases of the most anxiety and depression of all the teenagers I see. These kids, at the cusp of their sure to be successful life, are often in full on existential crisis about whether they are, or would ever be, good enough to be worthy of their existence.
Although my experience, as I am often wont to point out, is anecdotal, and therefore by no means indicative of true statistical reality, I do see this phenomenon in my office. People, both young and old, doubting their right to exist. I have been struggling to try to understand this perplexing distortion of thought.
I have begun to think of this idea within the following construct. We have two levels of confidence. We all have talents, abilities. We revel in those and the attention and adulation they bring. That is the first level: that we can rely on our abilities to regularly guide us to success in life. We know, however, that our abilities wane. They fade with age, of course, but also with circumstance. Some times those talents bring us through and some times they fail. What keeps us moving? The second level.
This level of confidence would seem to many of us to be innate. That is that we feel that, despite our failings, we are still valuable because we are human beings. The very fact of our existence makes us an indispensable part of the universe, an irreplaceable, load bearing, element of the structure upon which the wholeness of existence is dependent. This second level is what allows us to fail. Regardless of our failures, this face does not change. What we do is an outgrowth of who we are, not an accurate reflection of our worth.
When Nik Wallenda walked across that great expanse he had both levels of confidence. He had done many similar stunts before. In fact this was in the tradition of his family. He was confident in his ability. However, he also had a harness. A failure would not be fatal.
No matter how much we believe in ourselves, failure is inevitable. At the same time, no matter how little we believe in ourselves, we still maintain our value.
I cannot comment on education, as it is not my expertise. I will leave that to those that understand how and why to educate our children. I will, however, say that people need to be taught that they are worthy. They need to know that they are indispensable. They need to know that they deserve to be treated as such. And it is not, as we would like to believe, innate. Very little is. From the moment our eyes can focus, we look to others around us to tell us about the world and our place in it. We look to the expressions on the faces of those who greet us to tell us how we are to feel about ourselves. We can only love ourselves if we are first unconditionally loved by others. Of course, education is hard. Teaching at all levels is nearly impossible. But love is the most essential tool in human growth. If we cannot show someone how to love themselves, then we are sending them across a great expanse, to walk on a wire, with nary a safety device to tell them that it is ok to fall