On Sunday night, tightrope walker, world-record holder and self-described "King of the High Wire” Nik Wallenda strolled 1,500 feet above the ground on a two-inch wide wire across the Little Colorado River Gorge on the Navajo Nation near the Grand Canyon.
No net, no harness, no Plan B.
For this and his history of death-defying stunts, including a scenic journey last year over Niagara Falls, Wallenda might be called gutsy, dedicated, talented, driven and much more. But let’s not call him a hero.
Since his successful stunt — broadcast to millions online and around the world on Discovery Channel — Twitter has been ablaze with praise for the daredevil. User @theIII59 tweeted, “Congrats to our hometown (Sarasota, Fla.) Hero, Nik Wallenda.”
Search social media and you’ll find a digital mountain of similar sentiment.
@brockgill wrote, “Nik wallenda is my hero. Hoping he walks across the Grand Canyon on a tightrope now w(ith) no problems. Beautiful stunt!”
@cwhitten7 tweeted, “That was the greatest thing ive witnessed in my life. Nik Wallenda is my hero.”
@Grog77: “Arizona has a new hero, Nik Wallenda. The flying Wallenda tradition continues ... ”
@kurtTheInfidel invoked blessings of heaven. “Nik wallenda is my hero. Hoping God sees him across this wire.”
Indeed, much has been made of Wallenda’s deep faith. He prayed with Lakewood Church Pastor Joel Osteen before beginning his trek and called out to heaven often during his 22-minute, 1,400-foot journey. He should be admired for his faith, but do his beliefs make him a hero?
Wallenda, a married father of three, is a seventh-generation member of the Flying Wallendas. Through the years, the family has suffered the loss of five members during stunts, including Wallenda’s great-grandfather Karl Wallenda, who fell from a tightrope in 1978 as family and fans looked on. Another Wallenda, Mario, survived a fall but was paralyzed from the waist down. Does Wallenda’s bloodline make him a hero?
Among those cheering on the stunt were Wallenda’s wife and children. They prayed with him, watched nervously as he slowly walked and no doubt prayed again when he safely stepped onto the opposite cliff.
One assumes he explained to his family that, according to news reports, he hoped to save himself with his legs if he slipped and that rescuers could arrive in as few as 60 seconds. But one larger-than-expected gust, one aggressive bird and who knows?
Does being willing to die on global television with his children among the 13 million viewers make him a hero?
Some might argue that the Wallenda’s chosen profession is no different than other risky careers like racecar driving, firefighting or serving in the military. Naturally, accidents happen in every field. But each of those provides — and, in fact requires — significant safety precautions and redundancies so that all accidents are not necessarily fatal. In Wallenda’s case, and unlike last year’s walk across Niagara Falls with a safety harness, he specifically chose to skip the safety measures to add to the drama.
I’m not a doctor or first responder, but I suspect that falls from 1,500 feet are always fatal.
Months ago, I wrote about a remarkable FBI agent, Danny Knapp, and his inspiring family. On a rare day off in December of 2011, Knapp dove into dangerous waters on a beach in Puerto Rico to save a drowning teenager. He gave his life that day to a complete stranger. That’s a hero.
Last year, I wrote about a teenage girl from Virginia, Ashley Evans, who as a toddler was crushed by a dresser. She lost most of her eyesight and hearing on her left side and drags her left leg and arm from one act of selfless service to another. What she retained was a remarkable smile and relentlessly upbeat attitude. She is among the most positive people I know. That’s a hero.
As you read this, thousands of men and woman risk their lives not for legacy, fame or ratings, but to defend and protect America. Police, firefighters, EMTs kiss their children goodbye at the start of each shift and hope that if they don’t return, at least they will have saved another. Members of the military kiss their children goodbye for months at a time to serve Americans they’ll never even meet. Those are heroes.
Parents often sacrifice their own dreams for their children. Men and women give up lucrative careers to serve missions, build orphanages or care for elderly parents. Those are heroes, too.
Nik and the rest of the Flying Wallendas are remarkable athletes with courage and intestinal fortitude most of us will never know. They are performers and daredevils living in a country that affords them the freedom to pursue their passions, no matter how reckless they might be.
Call Wallenda and his family almost anything you want — just don’t call them heroes. Because the real heroes in this world deserve much, much better.
Jason Wright is a New York Times bestselling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters," and "The 96th Annual Apple Valley Barn Dance." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or jasonfwright.com.