Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life
New York: Bantam Books ©2000
About midway through the introduction to this perceptive, moving, and useful book, there's a nice little jolt when the author says, "As I see it, we know we're truly grown up when we stop trying to fix people. About all we can really do for people is love them and treat them with kindness. That goes for ourselves, too. That goes for ourselves especially."
In our self-improvement-obsessed culture, this statement comes as a welcome relief. Not only is it a caution about how little we can truly control, it's a reminder to stop beating up on ourselves for never being/having/doing enough. Often, sadly, such awareness comes clear only when we get the news of a life-threatening illness or other disaster. (Author Simmons was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease; this book was recommended to me by a friend recently diagnosed with breast cancer.) Such a major calamity brings home the fact that we are not always the powerful, purposeful people we'd like to think we are. Even so, we're not at the end of the world. Learning how to go on — and how to find meaning in what's happening — is the key.
Simmons' book "is for those ready to embrace...the way through loss to a wholeness, richness, and depth we had never before envisioned." It's a perspective that doesn't come easily. From his years as a college professor and writer who shared his work widely, Simmons learned that "...people will take away from my performances whatever they most need or are most ready to receive. Often the effect has little to do with what I consciously intended." With luck, that's a very humbling experience to anyone who thinks their words will have a definitive impact.
"We often deal with loss," says Simmons, "...by reminding ourselves of what we still have." But he also knows that each of us is unique in our approach: "People bring their own contexts, their particular needs and gifts and sensibilities, to the work of learning to live richly in the face of loss — work that I call 'learning to fall.'" Simmons refuses to provide lists, or tips, or formulas because they only go part of the way. Instead, he says, "the approach I've found more helpful is also more difficult. It is born out of paradox: that we deal most fruitfully with loss by accepting the fact that we will one day lose everything. When we learn to fall, we learn that only by letting go our grip on all that we ordinarily find most precious — our achievements, our plans, our loved ones, our very selves—can we find, ultimately, the most profound freedom. In the act of letting go of our lives, we return more fully to them."
Maybe we can be open to such counterintuitive messages only when we're up against the wall of life-or-death circumstances. Maybe we don't — or won't — "get it" even then. But Simmons calls on us to appreciate our imperfection, to laugh at ourselves, to seek the shadows as well as the light. And in the essays contained in this book that examine his search for help, he calls on philosophers, poets, and sages as diverse as Rumi, Plato, Dante, Emerson, Jesus, the Dalai Lama, and Elmer Fudd.
"Plato insisted that enlightenment could be attained only by training the mind on the good. But then there is the other way, the dark way, the path of imperfection and suffering. This is the way of Dante, who, following Jesus' example, knew that to reach Paradise he had to travel through the Inferno."
At times, life can certainly feel much like Dante's Inferno. Especially during periods when we get all we think we can handle and more — serious illness, family upheaval, financial setbacks, war, or natural disaster — we can easily convince ourselves that the world has ganged up on us and nothing good remains. But Simmons encourages us to look again, to consider that the "present moment" is all we have, all we have ever had or will have, that it has the meaning we choose to give it, and that it is enough.
"...in glimpsing our own transitory nature, are we not seeing a deeper truth? As the scientists tell us, we're nothing more than temporary arrangements of atoms forged in the depths of distant stars and consisting mostly of empty space. Knowing this, we discover we're both more and less important than we thought. More important because our bodies are literally made of cosmic stuff, and our being joins the dynamic, living dance of all existence. Less important because we know the cosmic dance both creates and destroys. The very particles we're made of wink in and out of being as light becomes matter and matter, light. Here science gives us new language for old truths, confirming what we've already been told by the Buddha, Heraclitus, and the writers of the Psalms: the very fabric of our being glimmers and is gone; our lives are as fleeting as shadows. Knowing this, we can either despair or choose to lighten up. Jesus clearly urges the latter when with characteristic wry humor he asks, 'Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?'"