By Kevin Wilson
Have you ever felt like you were walking out on a high wire in life and weren’t sure you could go on?
On June 15 I was caught up in Nik Wallenda’s walk across Niagara Falls on a high wire.
I have been to Niagara falls near Buffalo, New York, and it is not just something to see but to experience. The power in the Niagara River alone is, well, awesome and terrible. I remember looking down at the River while walking on a bridge over it and gasping to my wife, Esther, “Look right there. That is what it looks like to come face to face with death.”
So many aspects of this “mega stunt” fascinated me: The physics of it, including the engineering of the high wire, the physical and emotional challenge of the walk with the view down, the elk-skinned shoes that Nik’s mother made for him, the view from Nik’s camera as he crossed over the edge of the falls, the heart-wrenching empathy I felt when I heard his little child cry after saying “goodbye” to him before he left on his journey, and finally the delight of watching them re-unite at the end of his journey.
But there was one thing that enthralled me most in Wallenda’s 30-ish minute trek over the falls: the beautiful conversation between Nik and his father that ABC let viewers hear (some of it anyway).
At one point Nik said to his father, “I think I look like a jackass right now.” This wasn’t about the life-risking event itself, but rather about the safety harness he had to wear to get permission from the U.S. and Canada to do the stunt in the first place.
And in response his father said, “No, you look awesome.” By saying that he looked awesome, I think his dad was telling him that he knew what he was thinking about and that his concerns were going to be just fine. As a father who knows his son, he must have know that Nik might become distracted while on the wire, and that distraction would not help him accomplish his goal. So, he, in effect said, “I hear your concern, but I want you to know that you are loved and you are just fine.”
How many kids (and adults) need to hear that today from fathers or father figures?
Finally, his father’s role was not just to encourage but also to actually speak the truth to his son when it was for his own good. His father knew that if he didn’t change the rhythm of his steps the wire would begin to shake and his son would fall. Despite all the practice and all the previous conversations they had about it, his father spoke the truth in love to him in order to protect him from danger, which is sometimes hard but necessary with our kids.
I can’t name a source, but sometimes I get the feeling our society thinks that dads are an extra, “cherry on the top” part of parenting. It’s not usually verbalized like this but sometimes I think our American culture communicates that “If dad is present, great. But if he’s not present, that’s OK too. We will be fine without him.” That may be, in part, because there are so many “dead beat” dads who check out-either physically or emotionally. But I don’t think dads are extra, but vital.
Parenting is not about having all of the answers in life, but about being present as an encourager and a gracious truth-teller in all of the “high-wire” moments of our children’s lives. It’s, like Nik Wallenda and his father, about being present in those scary, risk-filled moments in life when our children ask, “Am I okay? Am I crazy? Do I look stupid right now?” And the answer, however we choose to say it is, “I am with you right now, and I love you.”
Kevin Wilson is the Pastor of Confluence Church in Champaign. He is an active volunteer with C-U One-to-One Mentoring and Motherlands Multicultural Resource Center in Champaign. Kevin is married to Esther, who works in curriculum development in Champaign schools. They live in Champaign with their three children, Kael, Emma, Seth and their yummy Chocolate Lab puppy, Mollie.