Monday, September 19, 2011

Learning to Fall into Fall

Fall (verb) 1. to drop or descend under the force of gravity; (noun) the season of the year that comes after summer and before winter        --Random House Dictionary

First there’s the realization that you are no longer fully upright and standing, that gravity has somehow conspired to hurtle you bodily towards the ground.  Then there’s the surprise and split second preparation. Now that I am tumbling downward, what can I do?  Then the response: a hand thrust out, a shoulder prepared for impact on the earth. Then the thud as our body makes impact.  All when we fall.  Go from upright to down low.  From vertical to horizontal.  One moment looking up at the sky the next looking down at the floor.

I’ve fallen a lot lately.  I spent this past spring and summer on a bicycle, training for a charity ride and for the first time I used pedal “clips”.  Clipped bike shoes are great because they tightly secure your feet to the pedals and make for a better stroke.  Clipped bike shoes are awful because when you stop, if you forget to quickly disconnect feet from pedals, you fall right over, bike and biker in a big heap on the ground.  In the past four months I’ve raised falling to an art form.  I’ve fallen over on a city sidewalk in the midst of traffic, spilled and splayed on a gravelly road shoulder and rolled over on a rural grassy knoll.  Falling is never fun of course.  It hurts both the dignity and the body.  

But to fall is the most human of actions and not just for bikers.  Toddlers do it as they learn to walk.  Teens do it when they rush too fast.  Adults do it when they forget they aren’t quite as lithe as they used to be. Seniors dread a fall: it can mean an injury and the end of independence.  In the end we humans all fall.  The verb “fall” first appears in language around the 1650s and means to fail, decay or die.  At about the same time the noun “fall”, connoting the season between summer and winter appears, shortened from “fall as a leaf”.

We all fall, right?  The question isn’t “if” but “when” and maybe even more important, “how do we fall?” Fall the right way and we avoid injury. Fall the wrong way and “ouch!”  In our bodies but in this life too, in our daily journey: how to fall?  A relationship ends and we fall.  A heart is broken and we fall.  Our bodies get older and we realize that if we are not careful we will fall. 

That’s the physical and spiritual struggle a man named Philip Simmons faced, when as a 34 year old, he was diagnosed with ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, an affliction marked by deteriorating muscle function. Simmons learned early on that ALS inevitably leads to many falls but he also discovered if he fell the “right” way he didn’t get hurt.  For Simmons this act of falling was about so much more than a little tumble: to fall was actually a powerful metaphor for all the struggles we humans go through as we bang up against our mortality, our frailty as human beings, the finitude of life. 

As he wrote in his beautiful memoir, “Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life”, “We have all suffered, and will suffer, our own falls. The fall from youthful ideals, the waning of physical strength, the failure of a cherished hope, the loss of our near and dear, the fall into injury or sickness, and late or soon, the fall to our certain ends. We have no choice but to fall, and little say as to the time or the means. We are all—all of us—falling. We are all, now, this moment, in the midst of that descent, fallen from heights that may now seem only a dimly remembered dream, falling toward a depth we can only imagine, glimpsed beneath the water’s surface shimmer. And so let us pray that if we are falling from grace, dear God let us also fall with grace, to grace. If we are falling toward pain and weakness, let us also fall toward sweetness and strength. If we are falling toward death, let us also fall toward life.”

Fall as a season is a great time to reflect upon this question of whether or not to fall with courage and acceptance or to fall with fear and struggle. All around us nature is now falling: from abundance to scarcity, from green to brown, and from full to fallow fields.  Animals hunker down and prep for chilly times.  The Sun wanes and temperatures fall. Earth falls.  The gift of faith reminds us that although we are all made by God as “good” we are also made imperfect and so falls are just a given. That’s the rhythm of life.

Yes fall is coming, today in fact, the day when we experience exactly 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night.  But fall is always here too, fall as the bittersweet and profound truth that we all fall.  So what in your life are you falling into or towards right now?  Another birthday?  A shift in a relationship?  A body which is breaking down? Or just change? 

We all fall.  It is fall. May we always remember that God is here in the fall too, not so much to catch us, as to give us the grace to fall and fall very well.  See you on the way down and happy autumn.




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