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Senior Correspondent

The Importance of “Learning to Fall”

Book Review

The Importance of “Learning to Fall”

“Learning to Fall

"Learning to Fall," by Philip Simmons (Bantam Dell Publishing Group, 2002)

Author Philip Simmons was in his mid-30s, a professor in a Midwestern college, when doctors diagnosed him with A.L.S., or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a degenerative neurological condition with no cure. He could expect to live only a few years, they said.

Amazingly, he  lived another 10 years, long enough to complete this inspiring and provocative slim book, and to reconcile his fate and emphasize the many remaining joys of his life. Quotations from religious leaders, poets, naturalists, philosophers, psychotherapists and others who seek to enlighten us when we’re troubled, weary, or overwhelmed underline his conclusions.

The book could have been a downer, but is anything but, written in a small cabin near Simmons’ home in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, where he and his family relocated after his illness made it impossible to continue his teaching position. Of course there is pathos, but along the way the writing is witty, sometimes irreverent, and very, very funny.

Each of a dozen essays making up the volume could stand on its own. One of my favorites, "Out of the Cave," addresses the individual’s need for solitude but warns that community with others is a must. One enriches the other. “Nothing serves relationships, families, or communities better than a well-cultivated solitude.” He cites the negative reaction of a woman he had just started dating (later to become his wife) when he told her he was going to spend some days in a secluded Benedictine monastery. She has not only tolerated his need for solitude, he writes, but has the same need herself. “Having given generously to ourselves, we can give generously and fully to each other and our children and…to our communities.”

As stated in the foreword, the book’s approach is born out of the paradox that we deal most fruitfully with loss by accepting the fact that one day we will lose everything. Another favorite chapter for me is "The Mud Room," in which the author describes how in March and April the 70 miles of dirt roads in his community turn into mud as winter snow thaws. Families must deal with mud until spring comes, and many houses have “mud rooms,” where dirty boots can be shed.

Our personal mud rooms can come on without warning — something major like loss of a loved one, or minor, like the check book that refuses to balance. Simmons quest for enlightenment included examining all the major religions. He concludes that religion boils down to two beliefs: one, that there something of ultimate significance in the universe, and two, there is a way of being connected to it. The end of this chapter concludes with the statement that “all of  us, young and old…find our way to the mud, the season of our terrible and certain joy. Let us bring to it all the spirit we can muster.”

It’s not surprising to me that this book won the 2002 Books for a Better Life award for the best spiritual book. Rebecca Pepper Sinkler, former editor of the New York Times Book Review, describes it as “a literary gem enlightening us about the deepest mysteries of life.”

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