Last night I finally got around to watching the stunning documentary Man on Wire, chronicling Frenchman Philippe Petit’s astonishing 1974 tight-wire walk between the recently erected twin towers of New York City’s World Trade Center.
The feat took years to plan (not to mention I lifetime of practice on Petit’s part). Petit and his crew of supporters plotted every detail of the seemingly impossible 1,350 foot-high walk, including dozens of trips scouting the location, devising a plan to gain entry into both high-security buildings, and erecting the elaborate rigging in the dark of night between the two towers.
Just after sunrise, on August 7, Petit’s tiny black figure could be seen inching out within the void between the two massive towers. Police were quickly dispatched to the roofs of the towers and, after 45 minutes of “play” between the towers, including backwards and forwards walking, kneeling, and a salute to the people of New York City, Petit returned to the South Tower and was promptly arrested. As he was wisked out of the building, police, reporters, spectators and later psychiatrists ordered by the police to evaluate Petit’s sanity all asked the same question: “Why did you do it?”
I was as puzzled by the question as Petit. As he saw it, he had just accomplished an amazing, death-defying stunt that, for all intents was impossible. And yet those who witnessed seemed to want to reduce it to one odious question.
Of all the possible things to say, why ask why?
Petit regards the persistence of this question as reflective of a particularly American disposition, but I fear he’s being generous to his fellow Europeans. The bias that gets reflected here is one having to do with our need to understand in very particular ways, specifically our need to understand scientifically.
In science, why has profound currency. It is the quite sensible point of entry for inquiries ranging from the origin of life to the structure of the cell. And in this regard, why has served a profound usefulness.
Where we’ve gone wrong, in my opinion, is in applying the tools of scientific understanding to phenomena best understood in other ways. In other words, we can be curious, and we can understand in ways other than scientifically.
When a friend is in pain, or when a loved one reaches out, just as when faced with something beautiful and surprising, we ruin the moment by asking why. We loose an opportunity for a different sort of understanding, an understanding that comes from getting closer to one another, to letting ourselves be exposed.
What else is there to say?
Lots, actually. You might say, “Wow.” Or, “Holy shit!” Or, “Tell me more.” Or even, “How come?” You could say, “I’m sorry to hear that.” In a pinch you could go with,”I have no idea what to say, but I’m glad you told me that.” And there’s always the option of saying, simply, “Thank you.”
Robert Frost was once famously asked what a particular poem meant, to which he responded, more than a little annoyed, “What, you want me to say it less well?”
Sometimes you can simply let a poem be a poem. Or a gift be a gift.