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 out at life and the next looking down at the ground.
How did that happen? How did we fall?
Well...we miss a step while racing up the stairs with a basket full of laundry and then tumble forward, landing on hands and knees. We run out on to a slick leaf covered driveway much too fast and go horizontal. We get so caught up in a conversation and the beautiful scenery of an autumnal walk in the woods that we fail to see a branch on the ground just waiting to trip us up. Most of the time when this happens, beyond a skinned knee or bruised dignity, we end up o.k., a bit shaken up perhaps, but once again able to stand back up and yet...aware, that to fall is the most human of realities.
We all fall at some point. Fall, stumble, brought back down to earth, laid low, humbled: by our bodies, by our circumstances, by our pride, by our lives, by life, by events beyond our control.
To live is just to fall.
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. That verb “fall” first appears in language around the 1200s 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”.
To fall is universal. No one escapes it. Not the most well balanced of ballerinas nor the least steady of elders. The question isn’t “if” but “when”. Then the more important question might be: “So how do we fall?” Fall the right way and we avoid injury. Fall the wrong way and “ouch!”, and not just in our bodies but in our souls too, in our daily journey.
How to 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 2000 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 perfect time to think about 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 prepare 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 right here and right now. This Halloween week is about the halfway point between summer and winter. Those trees in the yard are well into shedding their leaves, as bits of organic matter let go and then drift back down to earth, fall and fall, and come back down to the ground. Fall is always here: the bittersweet and profound truth that we all fall. So what and where 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. So try and remember and trust that God is here in the fall too, not so much to catch us, as to give us the grace to fall and to fall well. See you on the way down. Happy autumn.