“Learning to Fall" by Philip Simmons

How to rescue joy from heartbreak and other lessons in life

If you’re like me, you’ll want to have a pen with you when you read “Learning to Fall: The Lessons of an Imperfect Life” [Bantam Books, $16.95]. You’ll need the pen to underline words you don’t want to forget, the insightful, soul-nourishing observations of the author, a very wise man named Philip Simmons.

It is a wisdom that was hard-won — Simmons, at age 35, with a family and promising literary career, was diagnosed with ALS, a degenerative neuromuscular disease. That was in 1993. He was given five years to live — he would live for nine.

During that time, he lived in Center Sandwich, near the mountains he had loved to climb, each day understanding more deeply how the disease was changing his life.

But it was in dying that he truly learned the art of living. “Broken dreams can bring us more fully awake,” he says.

He began the work of what he calls “learning to fall” — to let go, to live richly with loss, to rescue joy from heartbreak, to see the imperfect as our paradise, to surrender to the mystery that passes understanding. And, in the face of it all, to “lift our noses to the moon and sing.”

In the end, he would understand his death as both the “most terrible and beautiful thing I had ever seen,” part of the sacred dance of creation and destruction.

Finally, he reminds us it is not just his work to learn how to live and die with grace, that “we are — all of us — falling.”

The book presents what Simmons calls “a darker, more complex vision of what we may have been taught in Sunday school,” a vision where the story of Job and his suffering is at center stage. It draws on a variety of religious and spiritual traditions and provides, as Simmons puts it, no “neat, comfortable formulas.”

“Learning to Fall,” published in 2002, the year Simmons died, is still available. Buy it if you want to be unsettled, challenged and wiser. 

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