When You Lose your Costume and Have only a Ridiculous Undershirt

Philippe Petite (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in TriStar Pictures' THE WALK.

Philippe Petite (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in TriStar Pictures’ THE WALK.

I wrote this discussion of The Walk, comparing Philippe Petit’s life to a life of faith. I wanted to add something.

Philippe lost his costume as he was getting ready to step out on the wire and he was furious. “I lost my costume! The biggest stage of my life and I lost my costume!” For years Philippe had dressed the part of a French artiste, wearing only black, a top-hat, etc.   This was important to him, and it was gone, in the moment when he most cared about looking the part.

On the one hand I understand and can appreciate the attention to detail, the desire to not only do this magnificent feat, but to do it to perfection. Who is it that said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well”?   On the other hand, however, it was ridiculous. First off, he was walking at the top of the Twin Towers, while his audience was on the ground. They likely wouldn’t be able to see what he was wearing. (Granted, he had someone up there with him taking pictures, and this was an historic event.) But, surely the immensity of what he was about to do, the act of walking a wire across the Twin Towers, eclipsed the tiny detail of whatever he happened to be wearing—especially since what he lost was only costume and not functionally necessary (e.g. his shoes).   The other thing which made his panic over the costume even more ridiculous was the fact that he was wearing all black already! He may have lost his costume, but what he had on was almost identical to what he’d lost. He lost a black turtleneck, but was wearing a black under shirt. It wasn’t really a visible change for the audience.

Rather than pointing out the absurdity of his panic, his friend simply asked, “What should we do?” There is such grace in that! (I’m quite sure I would have responded more to the effect of pointing out that he was being ridiculous and it didn’t matter. Jeff, however, with his simple response, validated Philippe’s feelings, identified and sympathized with him in the struggle, and gave him the freedom to respond in whatever way HE felt best. Such grace.) Philippe took a moment (apparently considering if he could even go on with the stunt in such difficult circumstances) and replied, “Ok. We do it. I will work in this ridiculous under shirt.” He took stock of what really mattered and, somewhat begrudgingly, moved on.

It was a comical scene—to see how much importance Philippe had put on a “costume” which looked (almost) no different than what he was already wearing—something which made no real difference of any sort to anyone but himself. So there I was, laughing at him for giving such an insignificant detail such power, especially at SUCH a momentous occasion. There he was facing the greatest coups, the greatest challenge of his life, a moment where he’s literally putting his life on the line…and he’s about to cancel it all because he has to wear the wrong black shirt?! And suddenly, I wondered how often I do the same thing. How often do I, do we, let some insignificant little item derail us from the big picture, our larger purpose? Rob us of our joy? Make us want to quit? Like Philippe, we get to a momentous occasion in our life and panic because suddenly for some reason or other we lose something of our costume. The image we think we need to portray/hang on to/maintain is threatened and we want to quit…or at least pause, until we get our image back.

I understand that this idea of image isn’t always something bad or false. Sometimes we have very legitimate and honorable reasons for maintaining that image. But, when it comes down to it, do we let our costume, our image, become more important that what we do?! Image isn’t meaningless, but at the end of the day, for Philippe, his actions were such that his costume was unimportant. No one thought less of him because he was in a black t-shirt instead of a black turtleneck.

Maybe you don’t really see it as an “image” issue, but just some detail that you’ve gotten hung up on. They say, “The devil is in the details,” which I’ve always taken to mean that you need to pay attention to the details because sometimes you miss something that really matters. And sure, in this case, he had to be someone who paid attention to details. It mattered that the wires were all hung correctly, that he didn’t get caught in a storm, etc. But there’s another way to think about that phrase which I hadn’t really considered before. Sometimes it’s not our neglect of the details where the devil gets us, but our attention to them. Sometimes we get hung up on details and miss what really matters. This was Philippe’s battle.

So, whether it’s about insignificant details, or our image, in either case, we need to remember that those things shouldn’t take away from what we do, but ultimately, what we do should outshine our image and put the details into perspective. So, when you feel your image is being threatened, when you’ve lost something which defined you, some detail which you feel is critical, don’t panic. Take a minute to look at the task before you and consider if maybe you shouldn’t go on, even in you are only in a ridiculous undershirt.

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