The show must go on.
For 200 years, the Great Wallendas have lived by that creed. Eight generations of Wallendas have traveled the world, performing the greatest feats in circus history. I’m one of them. I learned this commitment from my mentor and grandfather, Karl Wallenda, who through his courageous example, taught me and my generation of our troupe that, if we’ve given our word to a circus manager or promised an audience a performance, then we will be there, and we will perform. We leave no room for excuses. This continues to be a matter of integrity and commitment, though it is often easier said than done.
My family has faced tremendous tragedy over the years for the sake of the show, and our commitment to the troupe and to the audience has been greatly tested many times. For example, in 1944, the Great Wallendas were on the wire ready to perform, when a fire broke out in a Ringling Brothers’ tent holding 7,000 people. No one knows where or how the fire started, but the blaze spread quickly, killing 168 people and seriously injuring 400 more. Had it not been for my family and other circus performers guiding the frantic audience out of the blazing tent, the loss would have been even greater. It was a horrifying scene that could have easily sidelined my family as performers, had they not chosen to persevere.
Then there was the time in 1962, when The Seven (our seven-person, three-tiered pyramid) collapsed. The lead man on the pyramid was only five steps from the
platform when he cried out, “I can’t hold it any longer.” He fell, and a cascading collapse followed as one performer after the other lost control. My mother had to watch as her husband, my stepfather, fell to his death. Two members of our troupe family died that night, my uncle Mario was paralyzed, and every other member of the group was injured.
I was young, but I remember the phone calls and the weeping reports that came during the night. But even so, the show had to go on. So while the rest of The Seven were hospitalized, dead, or being treated, three members of the troupe returned to the scene of the accident and courageously walked the wire the very next day. One of those men was my grandfather Karl, who, despite a cracked pelvis and double hernia, had released himself from the hospital to perform for the audience.
I remember my grandfather used to say, “You do what you think is right, and then you trust God.” And that’s what he did, right up until the day he died. On March 22, 1978, Karl was doing a skywalk between two buildings in Puerto Rico to promote a six-week circus performance. Some of the ropes used to stabilize the wire were not properly set, and by the time Karl got to the middle of the wire, it had begun to waver.
There was a camera trained on him, so what happened next has been captured on film forever, a nightmare to live over and over. Grandfather tried to right himself, but the oscillation of the wire was violent, and in one terrible second, he lost his balance. He released the pole in an attempt to catch himself on the wire, but the momentum was too great, and he slipped quietly, almost calmly, past the wire, and fell 120 feet to his death.
It would be hard to lose any grandfather, but to lose Karl Wallenda, the Great Wallenda, the patriarch of our family and my mentor, in an accident that never should have happened—it was unimaginable. I, with all the Wallendas, went into shock. Yet once again, we had to get back on that wire and continue the show. We were scheduled for a performance that night, and we would honor that commitment. Grandfather Karl would have had it no other way.
This commitment to a show sounds crazy, I know. But it’s been said that “nothing great was ever accomplished by a reasonable man.” Combine that thought with “the show must go on,” and you have the Great Wallendas. Sometimes we had to do “unreasonable” things to make it to the circus ring and get up on that wire—including the day we had to put our grandfather’s death out of our minds (nearly impossible and certainly unreasonable) to show up to our job and keep our word.
Maybe it was unreasonable, but this determination is what fueled the Great Wallendas through two centuries of success in shows around the world. More importantly, it’s what enables us to keep moving forward in the real show—the show of life.
Yes, my grandfather and those before him continually pushed the Wallenda troupe to get back on the wire regardless of the challenges. Why? Because it was the right thing to do? Because they wanted us to accomplish great feats? Yes, but more importantly, they knew that if the show didn’t go on—if our troupe didn’t try again after setbacks—our lives would be forever defined by those moments of pain and failure. We’d be paralyzed by fear, and life as we knew it would be over. And we couldn’t let that happen. So we pressed on.
It was never easy to get back on that wire. We weren’t calloused people with no feelings. Our grief was as real as anyone else’s. But we knew we couldn’t stay in our grief if we wanted to live, to reach our potential. So we rallied around and pushed one another to get back up and try again, even when it seemed unreasonable. It’s what kept us all going.
That’s part of the reason I’m telling you my story today. Maybe you need someone to rally around you, to give you a little push that will get you back up and trying again. Maybe like the Wallendas, you’ve experienced great tragedy, and it seems impossible and unreasonable to continue on. Maybe someone has knocked you down. Maybe someone else’s error has cost you what was most precious to you. Or maybe you yourself have made a misstep. Whatever your situation, I tell you, the show must go on!
I am so thankful that my family persevered through tragedy. What would my life be if the Great Wallendas had given up after the great fire of 1944 or the collapse of The Seven in 1962? What if we’d stopped performing after the awful death of my grandfather in 1978? Or what if we’d simply given in to the exhaustion the daily rigor of circus life brings?
Generations of people would have been impacted. My own children’s lives would have been vastly different, not to mention the thousands of people worldwide who would have missed out on the joy of seeing our family perform.
Have you ever considered how your choice to sit out on the show of life would impact the world? Your family, your children, your friends? Strangers who would miss out on the joy of seeing you use your gifts and talents? And what would be the impact on your own life if you retreated from the plans and purposes God has for you? There are so many good reasons to get back up on life’s wire and press on.
But how do you get up and continue the show when you’ve been knocked down so hard, so many times? How do you continue to move forward through intense seasons of loneliness, pain, and loss?
You reach for the hand of the One who will supernaturally lift you up and move you forward, the hand that will steady you when the trials of life try to knock you off balance. You reach for the hand of God.
For years, I refused that hand by refusing to accept His Son, Jesus, into my life. Many people had shared Jesus with me, but I would not accept Him as truth. I even went out of my way to avoid the people I knew were Christians. I took great pride in my self-sufficiency; I was one of “The Great Wallendas.” I was part of a 200-year legacy of success, integrity, determination, and commitment. Surely that was enough. Why would I need God? Truthfully, I wasn’t even sure I believed He was real, and I was too busy performing and being a husband and father to four children to give it too much thought.
I had worked hard my entire life to be a person of excellence—a good, hardworking man who honored the Wallenda name, and I was proud of my accomplishments. But then one day, confronted with the holiness of God, I finally understood the utter scoundrel I really was. In a blinding moment of truth, I realized that my heart was evil, and all that I had accomplished was rubbish in the sight of God. My heart was full of pride, and I was self-reliant.
Humbled, I prayed a simple prayer. “Forgive me, Lord. I am a sinner.” My pride would no longer cause my eternal separation from God. On that day, I called on the name of Jesus and was welcomed into the family of God (Acts 2:21).
Life didn’t change much after that. I believed in God now, but there wasn’t much more to it. My trials were still there, so I persevered as I’d always done, fueled by my strong conviction that the show must go on. But that would change about three years after I married to my beautiful wife, Olinka, also a circus performer.
When Olinka and I got married, we decided to come out from under the Wallenda troupe to perform on our own. That proved to be more difficult than we’d expected. In our first year as freelancers, we traveled 50,000 miles. Our first child was born. We continued working in a variety of circuses, including many in Canada. Then we found out we were expecting child number two. I worked hard to be a good husband, father, and provider for our family.
Our act was doing well, but we weren’t getting the audience reaction I had grown accustomed to while performing with the troupe. I was no longer one of the Great Wallendas, and I desperately wanted to regain that former fame and glory. Several years passed, and I didn’t see my career going anywhere. Worse, I didn’t sense the presence of God in my life at all.
I know now that it wasn’t that God was absent or His power was failing. It was that I hadn’t made the same radical commitment to the family of God that I’d made to the Wallenda family. I hadn’t given up my life to follow after Christ. I’d done that for the show, but I wasn’t passionate for Him like I was for my trade. As a result, I hadn’t experienced Him as I could have. Yes, I had salvation, but I wasn’t living the abundant life that John 10:10 promises.
In despair, I found myself one day, on my knees in the small bathroom of our house trailer. I could finally see that my frustration was the result of my refusal to give God control over my life. I was still holding tightly to the controls, still determined to be the one making things happen for my family and me.
I cried out and told God that I wanted to surrender all of me to Him—even my life as a performer. I was tired of trying to do things my way and in my own strength. If He could use me, I said, I was ready. And in that moment, God became alive in me. His hand steadied me and gave me the balance and strength I needed to walk the wire of life.
My relationship with Him grew stronger as I prayed, studied His Word daily, and surrounded myself with other believers. The more I came to know Him, the more I trusted Him with my life. I was finally able to let go and let Him carry my burdens. I was no longer doing life on my own. He was helping me, giving me His strength.
And that’s when my life changed.
Opportunities started coming in, chances to use the talent God had given me for His glory, not mine. Many requests were from churches and prisons, and they pushed me way out of my comfort zone. These performances required me to speak to the audience about my faith, and I wasn’t too excited about that. My training was on the wire, not behind the microphone. But as I surrendered my fears to God and did what He asked me to do, He took my passion and began impacting lives. No longer was my performance just a source of entertainment; it was a source of hope. Decades later, God is still using my life in ways I hadn’t imagined.
It’s been over 60 years since my first performance with my grandfather Karl. It’s been an adventure, for sure—one that I pray will continue until the day I meet my Savior face to face. I will admit, it’s becoming more physically challenging with time. My body isn’t what it used to be, and I can’t do every trick on the wire that I used to do. And that’s frustrating. My mind sometimes tells me that it’s over, that I won’t be able to do this much longer. But I choose to stay focused on Jesus. I know that He has given me these talents and abilities, and He has a plan, direction, and purpose for their use.
Staying focused on Jesus is the key, no matter who you are. It’s just like what my grandfather Karl taught me about walking the wire. The most important thing he ever taught me was to put my focus on an unmoving point at the far end of the wire and never let my attention waver. Over and over again, he drilled into my thick skull the importance of maintaining my balance by focusing on this fixed point. That lesson has saved me from disaster on the tightrope so many times in my career—but it has also helped me in my day-to-day life.
Hebrews 12:2 tells us to fix our eyes on Jesus. When we make Him our primary focal point, He brings us into balance. With our eyes on Him, we can move steadily forward, all the way to the finish. Nothing can knock us off course if our eyes are unwaveringly trained on Him.
Does that mean life will be easy or that we will never fall or make mistakes? No, not at all. I’ve fallen many times, and I’m sure I’ll continue to do so. Only Jesus is perfect. But I’ve learned that, as long as I’m willing to get up and concentrate again with Jesus as my focal point, He’ll help me press on. Leaving the past and my fears behind and looking ahead, I am always able to move forward (Philippians 3:12–14).
The same thing can be true for you. Grab hold of Jesus’s hand. Accept His invitation to get back on the wire of life. He encourages you that “the show must go on.” Let Him lead you—He’ll give you the strength to take one courageous step after another. †