If you’ve ever watched legendary daredevil Nik Wallenda perform his high-wire walk over places like Niagara Falls or an active volcano, your heart probably pounded out of fear that he would fall. But Nik never felt afraid himself, until a stunt – an eight person pyramid that he and his team were practicing on a 30 feet in the air – collapsed, and five of them fell to the ground. Nik’s sister Lijana sustained the most serious injuries and almost died.
Nik had to work to re-establish his confidence after that traumatic event, and he has now written a book called “Facing Fear” that documents what he learned through this experience, and how those lessons can apply to all our lives. We discussed it recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below).
The Wallenda family has been performing daring stunts for more than 200 years. In 1940, Nik’s great-grandfather Karl upped their game by creating the seven person pyramid on the high wire. Everything went well until a performance in 1962, when the pyramid collapsed. Two of Nik’s uncles fell to the ground and died, while another was paralyzed from the waist down. In 1978, Karl Wallenda himself died when he fell off a high wire in Puerto Rico.
None of this history, however, deterred Nik from following in his family’s footsteps. Despite his parents trying to deter him from pursuing high-wire walking as a career, nothing would stand in his way because he believed that God had placed this desire on his heart. And like his great-grandfather Karl, Nik injected new life into his chosen profession, performing televised stunts that had never been seen before, such as walking across the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, and most recently, an active volcano in Nicaragua. And throughout his walks, Nik prays and praises God, sharing his faith with millions of TV viewers.
All that work nearly came to an end in 2017, however. Nik had assembled a team to perform a four-layer, eight-person pyramid on the high wire. They trained for six weeks, beginning with the wire two feet off the ground, then 10, then 15, and finally the full 30 feet. Nik recalled, “We brought it to full height and rehearsed one evening. Everything went without a hitch. And the next day we went back to rehearse one more time before we were going to premiere in front of a live audience, and as we made our way out on that wire, that pyramid collapsed.”
“So my worst nightmare became a reality,” continued Nick, “when my sister, as well as my aunt, and several other close friends fell to the ground. It is by the grace of God – and only by the grace of God – that I caught the wire and held on, as did my cousin, and one other friend. But my sister landed on her face. She broke every bone in her face. She was in a coma. She had bleeding of the brain. She had bleeding on her kidneys. She had broken legs, a broken arm…and was in a coma. They didn’t expect her to live. That was obviously the physical side of things, but it wasn’t the mental side. And what I didn’t realize was – I was physically safe, or unharmed. Mentally, I was very severely damaged.”
Nik was always a man who met his obligations, so he chose to perform the day after the accident, and in the weeks thereafter, because he had already committed to the performances. During this time, he was suppressing his reaction to his trauma, while also focusing on Lijana’s slow recovery from her injuries.
“When I got back on the wire,” said Nik, “that’s when I started experiencing this fear that I didn’t realize was in my DNA. In fact, I didn’t really know what fear was. And I talk a lot about that in my book. I had to learn what fear was in order to face it, in order to overcome it.”
Initially, Nik tried overcoming his fear by himself, without talking to anybody. But that approach just left him worse off. He even found himself shaking while on the high wire. Finally, he opened up about his feelings to his wife Erindira and told her that he didn’t think he could perform anymore.
She responded, “I support you in whatever decision you make, but that’s not the way your family’s lived for 200 years…You signed autographs, ‘Never give up.’ You say you do what you do to inspire people, that nothing is impossible. And unfortunately, I don’t think that by you giving up, you’re going to do that.”
That feedback had a profound effect on Nik. He said, “That conversation with my wife led me off into a journey deep into my faith. I’ve always been a man of faith, but I had to figure out who I was again, and then figure out what this fear was because I didn’t understand it. And then [I had to] deal with the shame, because I’m supposed to be fearless, and I’m dealing with fear. The moment I found out that other people realized that I was scared up on that wire, I started being extremely ashamed of it. The book is that journey; of going through shame, and then eventually being able to deal with my fears in that process.”
One of the lessons Nik learned is there are two types of fear: healthy and unhealthy. Unhealthy fear, for instance, is what Nik was experiencing at the moment, even though he had the experience and expertise to continue wire walking. On his best days, Nik practices healthy fear.
He explained, “When I walk to the edge of the skyscraper or that volcano, it’s not as though I am fear free. But I take that fear, and I turn it into what I call respect. I realized that there are dangers, that the volcano is hot, that there’s heavy gases, and heavy winds, that the wire can be unstable and oxygen levels are low. But because of healthy fear, I train and prepare for worst-case scenarios. I trained in 90 mile an hour winds, knowing they’re not going to exceed 45 to 50. I trained with oxygen deprivation. I trained with my eyes closed.”
That principle can also be applied to the lives of people who are feeling restless in their lives and yearning for more: “This book was written for people that are not happy going to work every day because they might have a different occupation that they yearn for, or a different desire that God’s placed in their heart. So many people settle for the status quo, and they just accept it. They go, ‘I am where I am, and my bills are paid at the end of the month…so I’m just going to keep doing it.’ I think that God places these great desires in us, and I think we have so much more potential than most of us realize. [But] fear sets in…When you keep your job while you’re pursuing that dream, but continue to pursue that dream, that’s a healthy fear. That’s saying, “Hey, be smart, use wisdom, keep your job, pay your bills, but pursue this dream.’ And then there’s the unhealthy fear that says, ‘Don’t pursue that dream. Just stay right here because you’re getting a paycheck every Friday.'”
Nik also relies on God to deal with fear, taking special comfort in the quote from 1 Peter 5:7: “Cast your fears upon Him, for He cares for you.” Nik added, “God certainly puts people in our lives to help us through tough situations, and help us through any situation…As I pursued my career, I realized I needed to surround myself with people that were very positive, that were smarter than me, and that with their help, I would be able to accomplish the dreams and goals that God has put before me…There’s one prayer that I pray more than anything: that God will give me wisdom. I think we have to be wise in the people that we surround ourselves with prior to a traumatic experience, just as much as we do afterwards. If you surround yourself with positive people, you’re generally going to start to be that type of person…One thing I talk a lot about is – we are in control of our minds, our minds are not in control of us. We make the decisions of what we feed in, and we make the decisions on how far we’ll allow our minds to go.”
Nik’s sister Lijana is the type of positive person to whom he’s referring. And as her recovery proceeded incredibly well, he began thinking of ways to “redeem the accident” for her. That happened when he received permission to perform a high-wire walk between two skyscrapers in New York City’s Times Square. Nik asked Lijana if she would like to join him, and she agreed almost immediately.
Nik began his walk on one side, with Lijana starting on the other. When they met in the middle, they had to cross over each other, making an already tense situation even moreso. But it all worked out because of their training and willingness to face their fears.
“The wire that she walked on was three times longer, and two times higher than anything she’d ever walked on in her career,” explained Nik. “[Her] first public appearance after the accident was all on that wire…Networks have chosen for all of my specials to have a microphone on me, active and live. My sister was singing worship songs the entire time, and talking to God. It was an amazing example of overcoming a situation that should have killed her, destroyed her. She not only was able to overcome that, but get back on the horse, per se, in a huge way – and through that, inspire so many men and women and children around the world…Even though we are in that dark moment, even though we feel like no one’s with us, even though at that time we say ‘Why God?’ and want to blame God – the reality is: great things can come from every dark experience.”
Though Nik is a lifelong believer, he notes there are “positives and negatives to that. As a believer, you can become complacent…We can so easily forget who God is. You can become so complacent that you settle, and it’s like, ‘I know God’s there. I’ll call Him when I need Him.’ But the reality is, we’re supposed to have a personal relationship with Him, and an everyday relationship.”
In conclusion, Nik hopes that reading “Facing Fear” will remind people of Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understandings. In all your ways, acknowledge Him, and He will fulfill the desires of your heart. He will direct your paths.”
“So many people want to lean on their own understandings,” said Nik, “and those understandings often bring fear up. My hopes are that as people read this, they will realize that there is a difference between healthy fear and unhealthy fear, and that they will fulfill the calling that God has for their lives.”
(To listen to my full interview with Nik Wallenda, click on the podcast link):