The other night, I was sitting on my porcelain throne, flipping through Stephen Mitchell’s The Second Book of the Tao, as I do, when I came across this passage:
When a drunk falls from a wagon,
he won’t be killed, no matter
how fast the wagon is moving.
His body is like other men’s,
but the way he falls is different.
Life and death mean nothing to him;
thus fear can’t enter his heart.
He meets all circumstances
like an infant, without a thought.
Unconscious that he is falling,
he falls softly, and his bones
bend like the branches of a tree.
If there is such safety in wine,
how much more in wisdom!
Stephen’s commentary on this verse sheds additional light. The final two lines stood out the most:
“Life is an ongoing course in learning how to fall. The falling is inevitable, the harm is optional.”
My first thought as I sat and turned this wisdom over, was, of course, inevitably – the late, great Douglas Adams and his invaluable lessons on flying from Life, the Universe and Everything:
“The Guide says there is an art to flying”, said Ford, “or rather a knack. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.”
These two pieces of truth reminded me of another. It’s been said many times, by many people, in many forms – but the first time I came across it was in Iain M. Banks’ novel The Player of Games:
Falling never killed anybody… It was when you stopped.
Which of course reminded me of that great 1980’s movie, Better off Dead and Curtis Armstrong’s advice to the young John Cusack:
“Go that way, real fast. If something gets in your way, turn.”
My family loved that movie. We still quote that line. Perhaps a little too often.
And thinking of my family reminds me of another lessons in falling, one my dad taught me way back when. I had screwed something up, I don’t even remember what, but as a nerdy 4.0 perfectionist, I was devastated.
“I’m a failure!” My over-dramatic teenaged self wailed.
“Did you learn something?” he asked.
“Then you didn’t fail.”
And that was when I learned that the choice isn’t between success and failure, it’s between failure – or learning.
As Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that did not work.”
The falling, the failing – it’s inevitable. The harm is optional. It’s all in our perspective. It’s all in what we do with it.
“I think maybe everybody falls,” I say. “I think maybe we all do. And I don’t think that’s the asking.”
I pull on her arms gently to make sure she’s listening.
“I think the asking is whether we get back up again.”
I don’t feel like I’m falling, not right at the moment. But – these references keep coming up. And… for once, instead of making me tense up and try to control the fall, I’m following the wisdom of the drunk and relaxing my hold.
I’m going to fall. I’m going to fail. And that’s okay. Because, I’m going to get back up, dust myself off – and keep going.
And all the while, I’m going to ponder – what exactly is the difference between jumping, and falling? Is it just a matter of intent and directionality? Isn’t every jump just a wish to fall in the right direction? And if so, couldn’t every fall be a jump, if we just let it?