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Facing Fear: Step Out in Faith and Rise Above What's Holding You Back

Facing Fear: Step Out in Faith and Rise Above What's Holding You Back

by Nik Wallenda


Learn More | Meet Nik Wallenda

Chapter 1

The Fall

ONE BAD EXPERIENCE. THAT’S ALL IT TAKES.

A bad week. A bad day. A bad moment. One wrong step, and suddenly the world is upside down, spinning out of control, and before you know it, nothing is the same.

That’s what happened to me. I was in a circus tent in Sarasota, Florida, the place I call home between my different adventures. I’m an aerialist—a wire walker—and I make my living by placing one foot in front of the other and trusting my training and my skill to keep me alive. But one day, things changed when I put my foot on a wire as a part of a world-record-attempt eight-person pyramid . . . and we fell.

Suddenly, nothing was the same.

Maybe you’ve had a terrible experience that caused you to fall, to question all that seemed stable in your life. Maybe you grew up with an abusive parent or are in a relationship with a manipulative partner. Maybe you had a fight with a loved one. Or accepted a new job only to find out your boss is harsh and overly demanding. Maybe you were in a car accident or experienced a sudden illness or financial downfall you never saw coming. Maybe it was a virus that rocked an entire world.

Whatever your circumstance, this book is for you. It’s a book about fear—something we all face. Fear that tells us we’re not good enough to do whatever we were made to do. I’m writing it for you because I want to share what I’ve learned from a long and hard-fought journey.

THE WALLENDA LEGACY

In 1978, my great-grandfather Karl Wallenda fell to his death from a high wire strung between two buildings in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He was in his seventies, old for a wire walker, and the rigging of his wire just wasn’t right.

In the video footage, you can see him sit down and then start to grab the wire—something that we have been trained to do for generations. The wire is our safe spot. But once he got down to the wire, he didn’t have the strength to hold on. Doctors told our family that there was such a surge of adrenaline to his heart, it overwhelmed him and quite possibly caused him to go into cardiac arrest—in turn, he fell from the wire. We are sure his age and several previous injuries were major contributors to his not being able to handle the adrenaline rush.

Doing the one thing he was trained to do to keep safe led to my great-grandfather’s death.

I grew up watching that video because my parents were wire walkers too. In fact, they met because my great-grandfather recruited them both to be part of his troupe. Back then, there were still plenty of circuses that traveled the world, and the Great Wallendas were a big draw for many. My family’s patented style of aerial courage—working without the safety of a net—was always a highlight of any show.

We were superb at it. So much so that when I was barely two years old, I climbed onto a wire for the first time. My mother remembers watching me atop the practice wire in our old backyard, how I patiently climbed up to the wire (which was only two feet off the ground) and then quickly stepped out onto it.

It didn’t take me long to fall. But I picked myself up, got back on the wire, and tried it again. That’s also what we do. Mom said it took me no time to get the hang of it. It was as if I were born to walk the wire.

In the years since, I’ve come to that exact conclusion—I was born to walk the wire. As a believer in God, there’s no such thing as chance to me, so my family’s background, history, and culture were all necessary ingredients that I would need in order to become who God designed me to be.

I grew up hearing the stories of our family’s calling, the dangers of risking our lives to show people what is possible. I heard about the small accidents that caused injury and about the big accidents that killed members of my family. We told those stories as a way of remembering the past, but even more so as a way of staying focused in the present, because when you perform on a wire, there is no room for fear. That’s what my family believed, and it’s what I grew up believing too.

One of the stories that we frequently told happened in Detroit in 1962. My great-grandfather was a pioneer in the aerial arts. He was constantly inventing new and amazing feats that could be done on a wire, and one of his most outrageous stunts involved seven people in three tiers—four walking the wire, with two people balancing atop them, and another person balancing atop those two—as they moved across the wire. He called it the seven-person pyramid.

Two of the troupe members, Richard Faughnan and Dieter Schepp, were killed. Richard was my great-grandfather’s son-in-law, and Dieter was my great-grandfather’s nephew. Jana Schepp, Dieter’s sister, fell onto a circus ring mat, and so her injuries were not overwhelming. My great-grandfather’s adopted son, Mario, was paralyzed from the waist down, and my great-grandfather injured his pelvis and sustained other injuries (though he snuck out of the hospital the next day to perform his contracted show at the same circus).

I grew up hearing that story, looking at the photos captured that night, listening to how my great-grandfather learned to cope with the emotional and physical trauma by bravely moving on, keeping his word, and fulfilling his contract. I learned from my family that falling—and the danger of falling—is a part of life that I couldn’t focus on because it would create fear in my mind, and if that fear took hold, I wouldn’t be able to walk on the wire.

My family wanted me to understand that danger is part of our history, but because we’re carrying on a legacy, shutting out fear is what we do.

Usually when I share this with people, I get some strange looks. People don’t understand how you can just shut out fear, but I promise you, it becomes very normal.

You see, after years of training, I don’t see what others see: that every time I get on the wire, I risk my life. It is to me what elements of everyday life likely are for you. Chances are you don’t think that every time you get into a car to drive somewhere, you’re risking your life. You don’t see that every time you cross the street, you are putting your life in the balance. But the reality is that there are risks in everything we do.

The truth is, I could die from choking on something just as surely as I could die from falling off a wire. That’s the risk that comes with life, and no matter what we do or don’t do for a living, we all make our peace with it in some way. I don’t think a small business owner or accountant gives his family a hug and a kiss and says, “See you tomorrow,” or “See you tonight,” while simultaneously thinking, I may never see you again. I don’t think firefighters or Uber drivers head out on a call thinking, This could be my last run.

For me, everyday life was walking on a wire. It was setting aside the fear of falling. It was going out and putting on the best show possible. From the time I was little, I knew I wanted to be an aerialist like the generations before me, and I threw myself (literally) into their training. I was taught how to find my center of gravity, to feel the wire with my feet, to breathe, and to master other essential skills that make it possible to walk on a tightly suspended wire dozens of feet above the ground. And being in the family business has been my life for forty years now.

The older I got, the better I became. I eventually started performing on my own, with a troupe of friends and family that I recruited, and we cut our own path. While my parents struggled to keep the business alive due to the decline in circus attendance, I opted to take the family business to the masses in a new way: television. Although people were not attending the circus in person as much as in the past, they were more than willing to let the circus come to them through the magic of television. That simple shift is how I successfully built my career while holding fast to my family’s traditions—all with the intention of creating enough excitement to attract a new demographic to the circus and under the big top.

It’s also what led to Sarasota and the fall.

REBUILDING A PYRAMID

One of the themes of my career has been replicating some of the more famous acts from my family’s history. I mentioned earlier how my great-grandfather Karl Wallenda died from a fall in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1978; well, my mother and I successfully completed that exact same walk together in 2011 as a way of honoring him. In July 1970, he walked across Tallulah Gorge in Tallulah Falls, Georgia, and I performed a similar (albeit larger) stunt when I successfully walked across Niagara Falls in June 2012.

There have been echoes of my great-grandfather’s career all throughout mine, including the infamous fall that changed the lives of our family: the Detroit pyramid. We re-created that walk in Detroit in 1998 with a team that included my uncle Tino; my mother, Delilah; my father, Terry; and some other relatives.

In 2017, my troupe and I were preparing for one of our next big events, a world-record attempt for my hometown crowd: an eight-person pyramid walk performed at a greater height than ever before. After successfully duplicating the seven-person pyramid, we’d expanded the act by one, which sounds trivial but dramatically changes the dynamic of how the formation balances and moves. The stunt was going to be challenging even with the best wire talent I could recruit. We set up in my backyard (as we have always practiced in our backyards for generations) and began rehearsing months ahead of the performance.

We were located in Sarasota, which is home to a lot of circus performers and has readily accessible rehearsal space. We advanced to practicing in the Circus Sarasota tent because we had trained down low and it was time to rehearse up high in the actual setting prior to having an audience. The tent was large, with a blue interior, the stands encircling the outer perimeter.

We’d been in the space for a while because the process of the eight-person pyramid requires some specific training progressions: you slowly raise the height as your group gets accustomed to each level. We’d pushed ourselves all the way to twenty-eight feet above the ground and were feeling good about our work thus far. In fact, I was feeling as good as I’d ever felt.

My faith in God and my team seemed unshakable to me, and I was enjoying the blessing of God like I’d never felt it before. My relationship with Christ means everything to me—is everything to me. I lean on him for guidance in all things, at all times, and I live my life to bring him glory. He made me to walk on a wire, so I am obsessed with being the best aerialist in the world. I take seriously 1 Corinthians 10:31: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” With my stunts at Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon, and with numerous other world records bringing so much media attention to my work, I felt like the eight-person pyramid was going to be my next great accomplishment.

I felt all of that deep in my soul as I looked each of my teammates in the eye and asked them if they were ready for another walk. Each person—from Aunt Rietta to Andrew to Alec to Zeb to Nicholas Slimick to my cousin Blake to my sister, Lijana—looked back at me with confidence and declared they were ready. We were developing a deeper level of trust than I’d ever known in a troupe, and even though three of them were literal family, I saw each member as more than a loved one, but as someone I trusted my life with, someone I cherished and praised God for. I was excited for what we were doing, how we were pushing boundaries with excellence and skill while continuing to honor my family legacy of going bigger, higher, and further.

---

I wish I could tell you exactly what happened next. I wish I could rattle off, with absolute clarity, the fateful moment when things changed for my team and me. Even as I write this, I’m still processing it, still trying to pull the images, sounds, and emotions together to form a sensible story. Although I can relive and replay it at any time from memory, I wasn’t in a spot to clearly see what the cause of the accident was.

Instead, what I have is the sound of multiple balancing poles colliding. I hear them smack together with too much force, and I feel—without necessarily seeing it—the entire team stop moving at a moment when movement is essential. I feel a slight tremor in the wire, and then I see nothing else but chaos.

Everyone falling.

Arms and legs flaying the air.

The blue of the tent top.

The sound of bodies crashing against the cold, hard floor.

As I’m brought back to the moment, I feel the cold wire biting into my arm. I’m grabbing the wire for life but looking down at a reality I still find hard to process.

Andrew, who had been standing on my shoulders, lies motionless on the ground twenty-eight feet below me. My sister, Lijana—one of the best aerialists I know—lies on the ground as well. Likewise for Aunt Rietta. The same for my friends Alec and Zeb.

I am hanging, helpless, above them as they are scattered on the ground below. Thinking about it now, this is where my fear took root—in that suspended moment of helplessness, as I was hanging between what I thought I could control and the madness of what was below me. I wasn’t in control of anything, wasn’t sure of my place, wasn’t sure what to do or how to respond. That, to me, was the seed of fear, and it was planted right then into my heart without my knowing, without my realizing. There’s a verse from the book of Job that captures that exact moment in a way I couldn’t at the time:

What I feared has come upon me;
what I dreaded has happened to me.
I have no peace, no quietness;
I have no rest, but only turmoil. (3:25–26)

My great gift is in ruins beneath me. The sight pulls me into the moment, and somehow—though I don’t remember how—I pull myself up onto the wire, make my way back to the platform, and then climb down, forcing my body to bend to my will so I can check on everyone. When I finally get to the ground, Andrew is closest and I go to him. “I’ve broken a lot of bones,” he says, “but I’m okay. Go to the others.”

My eyes then lock onto Lijana’s face. When I get to her side, my heart sinks; Lijana’s face is mutilated, her arm mangled. I cradle her in my arms, my insides bursting with a mixture of pain and uncertainty. I lean my head down to hers, and she whispers to me to go check on others.

Gently, I let go of Lijana and run to Zeb. He is in and out of consciousness. “Stay with us, Zeb,” I plead. I kneel by his side until his eyes open, and then I race over to my aunt. Rietta is in excruciating pain but doesn’t appear to be in danger of losing her life.

But Lijana does appear so—and in fact is.

Looking at her, I fear losing her, so I make my way back to her and keep asking her questions: “What year is it? What is your son’s name? What state are we in?” I manage to keep her talking, but as she speaks, teeth and blood spout from her mouth. Her face contorts as it swells, and her voice wavers as her lips quiver uncontrollably. In the distance, sirens scream as ambulances and emergency personnel arrive. Within minutes, the paramedics are working the scene, moving from person to person, tending to the chaos.

Family and friends begin to arrive. Soon, news helicopters are overhead, but I don’t worry about them. Instead, I walk outside to an ambulance and climb in beside Lijana. The doors close with a thud, and we drive off, the circus tent getting smaller in the distance.

The ride to the hospital is just a blip in my memory now, but the chaos when we arrived is clear in my mind. Doctors and nurses surround my sister and pull her from the ambulance, and I see that Andrew and Zeb are being ushered inside as well. I look for a place to land, uncertain of where I need to be, uncertain of what I will learn from the doctors in the hours to come.

I learn that Alec and Rietta were loaded into other ambulances and were taken to different hospitals so as not to overwhelm the trauma center.

As people race around, I withdraw from it all, tucking myself off to the side with little to offer in the way of help. I lean my head against a post and close my eyes, only to have flashes of the fall jump into my mind. I think about my great-grandfather, about the night when he watched as his seven-person pyramid fell, and I wonder if he felt just as helpless.

I sink into a chair and do the only thing I can: wait. My phone has been ringing off the hook, but suddenly I see a call from Alec’s cell phone, and I immediately answer. He tells me that other than some bruising on his feet, he’s fine. That’s one, but what about the other four who hit the ground? The moments drag by until finally the head of the Sarasota Memorial Hospital Trauma Center, Dr. Alan Brockhurst, approaches; he looks around, makes eye contact with me, and immediately updates me, explaining that Andrew required surgery but is out of danger of losing his life. Zeb was bruised up, and they’re sending him for a CT scan to be sure he doesn’t have any internal bleeding, but he appears to be okay. Dr. Brockhurst has also called the neighboring trauma center for an update on Aunt Rietta; she has broken a hip, leg, and arm, among other injuries, but is in stable condition.

But when I ask about Lijana, he says he will have to get back to me with her status.

After a miserable fifteen minutes, Dr. Brockhurst finally comes back with the news: Every bone in her face is broken. Her kidneys and liver are bleeding. He explains in a serious voice that her injuries are significant—they’re going to put her into a medically induced coma—and he will keep me updated but has to get back to attend to the injured. I still have so many questions for the doctor swirling through my mind: Will she survive? Will she have brain damage? Will she ever be the same again? How many surgeries will it take? The list goes on . . .

Soon enough, others arrive—friends and pastors and family. Everyone has questions. My friends are there to support me in any way. The pastors are there to lift my family up in prayer. The family members just want to be there for our injured loved ones. I take each group in turn. I hug friends, I pray with the pastors, and finally I take my place with the family, sitting and staring at one another, none of us knowing what will happen next. Overwhelmed with emotions, at some point I fall asleep in the waiting-room chair.

A BIG DECISION

When I woke up in the waiting room the following morning, my father came over and sat down beside me, his eyes focused somewhere in the distance. I wondered if he was mad at me; I’d asked Lijana to join me in the pyramid, and now she was in the hospital, seriously injured, and we were not even sure if she would survive. I wondered if my father might take that anger out on me—not because it’s his nature, but because he’s a father, and fathers protect their children, even from their other children. Instead, my father took a deep breath and said, “You have a decision to make."

I looked at him. He still looked straight ahead.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Tomorrow night. At the Amalie in Tampa. You have a performance.”

Amalie Arena is where the Tampa Bay Lightning play professional hockey. I was scheduled to do a speech while walking a high wire for It Works!, a multilevel marketing company owned by a friend of mine. As I stared at the emergency room filled with pastors, family, and friends, getting back up on a wire was the furthest thing from my mind.

“I don’t know,” I whispered.

My dad nodded and patted me on the leg. He stood and walked to another set of chairs, sitting down beside some other people. I turned to my wife, Erendira. Like me, she’s a performer, and a brilliant one at that. We’ve been privileged and blessed to do some amazing things in our lifetimes, so if anyone could understand what I felt in that moment, she could. She looked at me, her eyes open, her heart ready. I looked down the hallway toward Lijana’s room, and I took my wife’s hand.

“I don’t know” is all I said. I kept everything else I wanted to say or that I was thinking bottled up.

The hours ticked by slowly, and a lot of people came to me to talk. I said a lot of things to many people, most of which I can’t remember, but what stuck with me was the feelings I had inside me. Feelings with which I was entirely unfamiliar. Because of how I grew up, I didn’t really know how to define them—they weren’t fear as much as disgust and despair. Disgust that I’d somehow lost control of the moment; despair that I’d somehow devastated the people closest to me while escaping injury myself. I was a wreck, and in the back of my mind was my dad’s voice, reminding me that there was a show tomorrow night—and in our family, in our culture, the show must go on.

Up until that moment, I’d never canceled a show. As a Christian, I am a man of my word, which means if I sign a contract, it’s a promise I will keep. I’m passionate about it because it’s a matter of integrity to me; I want to be a man who honors his commitments. But that night, I seriously considered canceling. My mind was so messed up that I wasn’t sure I’d be capable of walking on a wire ever again, more out of respect for those who were injured than out of fear. One of the keys to successfully walking is to keep your thoughts under control; you have to block out the negativity and the what-ifs and focus on the things you know are true. You have to keep your mind disciplined at all times.

But there in the ER, I was failing that test. I kept asking myself—asking God, really—why God would allow me to survive with little more than a scratch but would let Lijana and the others get broken so badly. The guilt of my survival washed over me like a wave, and I couldn’t find the surface, couldn’t breathe under the weight of the emotion. No matter where I turned, there was no escaping the horror of that fall. The world I knew, the world where I felt in control, was gone. In its place was a world where so many people were in pain. I didn’t know how to orient myself accordingly.

Later that evening, I pushed to see Andrew. Once I was in his room, I looked at my friend and said, “If you don’t want me to perform tomorrow night, I won’t. Just say the word, and I’ll cancel it without hesitating.”

Andrew looked at me for a moment, his face unreadable. I wasn’t sure what I expected him to say, but I wanted to give him the chance to say something, anything, even if he tore into me over the accident. I’m not sure if I was looking to just get the conversation of my blame over with, but I was prepared to accept whatever came out of his mouth—except for what he actually said.

“That makes zero sense. I think you’re crazy, but of course you should walk the wire. Go do what you always do and make us proud.”

I’d love to tell you that Andrew’s answer set me free, but it didn’t. If anything, it plunged me even further into the unknown. His words felt right, but I was still willing to cancel; I was lost, adrift in this new world and desperately looking for an anchor I couldn’t find. And that sense of being adrift only amplified the disgust and despair. Suddenly, a way of life I’d managed to avoid crashed into my world and wrecked so much of what I believed.

I had always believed that many people were gripped by fear because they focused on fear; they focused on their issues or on their negative thinking, and it blotted out everything else. As a Christian, I knew that God went before me in all things, so I was always able to go confidently out of the house. In fact, that’s one of the challenges I always had when I spoke, especially to the nonreligious world: How could I convey that message without being too overbearing as far as my faith? It’s just who I was: “Let all your thoughts be known to God” (Phil. 4:6, my paraphrase). So that’s what I practiced.

But now, that practice, at least in the moment, seemed worthless.

I thanked Andrew and left his room. I got home late into the night and fell asleep, exhausted. When I woke up, my pastors and managers and I decided to do a press conference rather than have reporters dog everyone connected to our family or the victims. And it was obvious I was the one who needed to step up and face the questions.

I talked with my dad, then went to the circus tent for a midmorning press conference. I still didn’t know why we fell, and I didn’t want to answer the questions of a bunch of strangers when I had too many questions of my own. As a Wallenda, however, I stood there and took each question and answered as best I could.

No, we don’t know who or what caused the fall, and I won’t assign blame anyway. Yes, I’m aware of my family’s history and the fall in Detroit in 1962, but no, I don’t see any connection, and I certainly don’t feel as though my family is cursed. “If anything,” I said to the reporters, “my family is blessed.” Blessed that we have the fortitude to regroup and move forward, blessed to be part of a family and a tradition where tenacity prevails.

The final question was the one I answered most confidently: Yes, the Wallendas would be represented at the Circus Sarasota later that night. Because the show must go on.

YOUR PATH THROUGH FEAR

Not long after the last question was asked and answered, I made the drive to Tampa. I got up on the wire at Amalie Arena with a microphone strapped to my shirt, and I walked above thousands of people. I can’t even tell you everything I said; I just know that it poured out of me, a cascading testimony about God’s goodness even as I felt my insides churn with anxiety. As I walked, I cried, and when I sat down on the wire at one point, I could see hundreds of people in the crowd crying with me. It was a spiritual experience to talk about my faith in God while walking on a wire and dealing with the aftermath of what had happened just two days before. In my heart and soul, I knew I wasn’t all right, but being back on the wire gave me a sense of normalcy—a sense that everything would be okay. I know that denial is one of the five stages of grief, but I’m not sure that’s what I was doing right there; I think it was more about me finding that anchor I would need to survive the chaos.

It makes sense that the place where I felt the most stable was on a wire. After all, it’s what I’d known my entire life.

I had told reporters at the press conference that the show must go on, but I would soon find out that stability and healing aren’t the same. When we suffer a tragedy, after the initial shock our next instinct is to find any path forward. But what if there is no path in sight? I’ve come to learn that the show doesn’t go on for some people. For them, the show stops the day fear invades. There’s no pressing forward in faith. There’s no summoning of courage. There’s just the persistent, powerful fear that locks out the world.

Whatever your situation, you’re the reason I wrote this book. I’ve experienced both ends of the spectrum: I’ve walked the pathway of faith and have been stopped in my tracks by paralyzing fear. But there is a way forward through fear, a pathway that God lays out before us. It’s a pathway we see time and time again in the Bible, in the stories of Abram, Moses, Joshua, Joseph, David, and Jesus. It’s a narrow pathway to be sure—maybe even as slim as the width of a nickel, just like my wire—but it’s one you can walk too.

And who better to help you learn to walk it than a seventh-generation Great Wallenda?


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