The other day, I went out running to clear my head, something I often do in a continuing quest to manage my grief over the loss of my brother a year ago. I had my iPod on a random shuffle. Janelle Monáe’s song, “Tightrope,” came on after I had gone about a mile and a half, and some of the lyrics found a newly-cleared corner of my brain and lodged there.
Whether you’re high or low
Baby whether you’re high or low
You got to tip on the tightrope
As I wondered why these words stuck with me, I realized that walking on a tightrope is exactly what life feels like to me now. A tightrope that I could fall off, anytime, without warning. A tightrope that I must walk no matter how risky and unsafe it seems.
A few years ago, I never would have used a tightrope metaphor to explain my concept of life. I might have talked about a road or path, perhaps – something that expresses the journey to an unknown future but that has inherent stability. A person might stray from a path or road, but they wouldn’t suddenly fall off of it.
Then I was diagnosed with breast cancer – without any family history or other risk factors present – and went through a year’s worth of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. That shifted the image of the road for me, put it near a cliff, rather like Route 1 in northern California. Then last year, my brother was killed on a Saturday morning in June by a drunk driver going the wrong way on a highway. The cliff-side road image has faded now, and the tightrope has come into focus below my feet.
Seeing life as a tightrope brings its equal parts of exhilaration and fragility into view. Each day, it’s a wonder we’re alive. Each day, it’s also a wonder that we are not suddenly gone. I know stories of loss from fallen tree limbs, heart attacks during routine exercise, household accidents, vehicle crashes within a few miles of home. There are stories of loss from large-scale events like airplane crashes and natural disasters, from sudden illness, from unforeseen suicides. The closer these stories come to us, the more we feel our toes curling around the tightrope, the more we hold our arms out in an attempt to stay steady as we make our way.
Do we really have to “tip on the tightrope” whether we are high or low? I used to think that being “high,” socioeconomically speaking, could keep a person on a more stable surface. Certainly, money and social status provide safer environments, better health care, and greater comfort on the journey – the harnesses, balance poles, and safety nets typical of a highly-protected life. But there’s always a hole in the safety net.
My brother was a careful person who provided every possible protection to himself and his family, including driving a safe car in the right-hand lane. Survey Monkey CEO Dave Goldberg died tragically following a head injury he sustained after falling off a treadmill at a high-end resort. If Dave Goldberg can’t be protected from a fall from the tightrope, I don’t know who can. Whether we are high or low, we are on the tightrope.
Strangely, this has given me some comfort. As I increasingly understand that all of our lives are both precious and precarious, and that anyone can fall from the tightrope at any time, I ask “Why me?” less often. Mortality has connected me to others’ humanity, no matter how safe I perceive their lives to be.
I see myself walking slowly on my own rope, and looking up and around I notice countless other walkers as far as the eye can see, their ropes strung above, below, and alongside mine, stretching ahead infinitely. I wish everyone well, grab hands to steady people nearby when I can, and welcome each step I am able to take, knowing that the next step is never guaranteed.