Falling Into Life

A father tosses his daughter into the air, letting her fall - in the background, the sun is setting on the water

Trusting the Catcher

Priest and author, Henri Nouwen, loved the circus. Once, while watching some trapeze artists perform, he became so entranced that he pushed his way backstage to introduce himself to the them. After their conversation, Rodleigh, the troupe’s leader, invited Nouwen to travel with them for a week.

During that time, he learned all he could about their art. One day, he asked Rodleigh about flying. Rodleigh explained that the one who releases the bar and sails toward his partner is the flier. The other is the catcher. Once launched, the flier does nothing but trust.

“When I fly to Joe,” Rodleigh told Nouwen, “I have simply to stretch out my arms and my hands and wait for him to catch me and pull me safely over the apron to the catchbar.” [1]

If, instead of waiting, the flier tries to grab the catcher, he might break his partner’s wrists. The two might fall. So the flier must leap from his perch, with arms outstretched, trusting that the catcher will be there for him.

The other day, I read Nouwen’s story aloud to a group I was leading. Afterwards, the members of the group shared their responses to the vignette and their own challenges with letting go. They talked about the idea of higher power, wondering how they could learn to trust in something so amorphous. In answer to this question, one of the participants said, “I just need to stretch my arms out to God.”

A father tosses his daughter into the air, letting her fall - in the background, the sun is setting on the water

Trust as an Active Verb

Stretching out one’s arms is not a simple thing, nor is it passive. Although the flier appears to do nothing but wait, she is actively reaching. She holds her arms steady, preparing herself to be caught, wrapping her faith around her heart to keep her from seeking some escape. Even in the moment when the catcher’s hands wrap around her own, she must not relax her diligence. There is still the waiting.

Sometimes, she will be flung back to the bar she left. At other times, she will be pulled onto the catch bar, to safety. The catcher controls the moment. The flier allows.

What nerve this takes. It is a great risk to hurl oneself into the air with no hope of survival except the hands of another person. Yet it is not only faith in the catcher that allows the flier to release his own bar. He must also trust himself. The acrobat must know that he has the capacity to remain steady and calm while hovering in midair. Besides, when we don’t trust ourselves, when we are not trustworthy to others, we tend not to trust anyone else.

Trust and Vulnerability

In a previous column, I wrote that “vulnerability requires reciprocity.” By that I mean we’re not likely to allow ourselves to be vulnerable if those around us refuse to be vulnerable themselves.

That’s not all, though. We learn to let go, to be vulnerable, to trust in life and in the holy, by how the important people in our lives treat us. As infants, we have no choice but to be vulnerable. We have some tools at our disposal. We can cry or smile or look cute. Depending on how our caretakers respond to us, we either learn to trust life or we build walls of protection around our hearts, bodies, and minds. In this way, we learn if the world is safe or not.

As we grow, we continue to learn about vulnerability. We learn to give and take, to let go and to catch. This is the reciprocity, the caring for others as we are cared for. If we learn that vulnerability is not welcome, or that in our vulnerability, we will be taken advantage of, we won’t respect the needs or weaknesses of others. We will belittle them, make jokes about them, taunt them. We will not be very good at catching, nor will we be able to fly.

On the other hand, if, even in our weakness, we are respected and nurtured, we will reciprocate in kind. We will find a way to catch others so they might not fall. By doing so, we learn that letting go can be safe. Flying becomes less frightening and more inviting.

“Learning to Fall”

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. We all fear loss to some extent, whether it’s the loss of a loved one, a home, our health, our life. That’s what makes flying so hard. We’re afraid we won’t be caught, that we’ll fall, and by falling, that we’ll lose everything we hold dear.

In his book, Learning to Fall, Philip Simmons wrote about his experience with ALS. As he lived with his illness, he learned “to live richly in the face of loss.” He called this “learning to fall.” He didn’t find it helpful to take consolation in what he did have, nor in counting his blessings. Instead, he discovered that if he could face the loss of everything that mattered to him, hold it all lightly, he experienced “the most profound freedom. In the act of letting go of our lives,” he continued, “we return more fully to them.” [2]

How do we learn to fall?

Perhaps that’s not the right question. One way or another, we’re going to fall. None of us get through life without facing losses we don’t think we can bear. We will all lose everything when we die. But it’s not as if we have to practice. If, for instance, we slip while climbing a tree and do not catch ourselves, falling will simply happen.

To fall with grace, to reach our arms out with steadiness, to trust that someone will catch us, that is what takes learning.

Falling Makes Us Who We Are

Robin Williamson wrote a “good-bye song” to a first love. “First Girl I Loved” [3] tells of a teenage couple who drifted apart. As the song’s story goes, the last time the young man sees his old love, she has become involved with the “Church of Jesus.” Now, she is a “stranger” to him. He imagines her married, working at some job, keeping a house and car. He suspects that, if they were lying together now, he would “just have to fall.”

What does that mean?

There are so many ways to fall. We fall and skin our knees; we fall and break our necks. At other times, we fall into love or faith or wildness. Eventually, we fall into death.

I don’t know what the composer meant. Maybe he was talking about lust or that merging of souls that can scare us, but can also leave us gasping with ecstasy. We dive into the pleasure, drop our barriers, fall and fall and fall.

But I wonder if he could have been talking about falling out of himself and into someone else. If those two youngsters had stayed together, they’d be different adults than the ones they are now. It’s what we do to one another in relationships. We influence each other, become more like, or sometimes unlike, the person we’re bonded to.

Regardless of whether we stay or leave, though, we make choices. We become who we are or who fate leads us to be because, at one juncture after another, we either fall or we don’t. Whether falling in love, or falling into a career, or falling into time, our lives, the unknown, all these dips and drops and dives make us who we are.

Refusing to Fall

Of course, we can choose not to fall. We can cling to the trapeze bar or the past or the safety of a strangled heart. The consequence, however, is that we don’t really live. Simmons reminds us that it is by embracing loss that we become most alive. If we refuse to do so, we might be moving around, and we might be breathing, but we’ll also be numb.

Some people feel so wounded, so filled with suffering, that they prefer numbness to life. I learned this early in my work with people in recovery from substances. At that time, I was surprised when one young man told me, “It’s the numbness I crave.” Since then, I’ve come to expect such sentiments from people who have made it their life’s work to seek out some way to anesthetize themselves. After all, that’s why many of them started using drugs in the first place. They don’t want me to teach them to endure their feelings. They want to avoid them. If they must give up joy to keep anxiety at bay, they will do so, partly because some of them can’t remember what it’s like to feel alive and joyful.

That, I believe, is the crux. When you’ve been dropped more often than you’ve been caught, joy becomes a fleeting thing, and pain overwhelms you. Counselors might promise you a light at the end of the tunnel, insist you can find true happiness, if you work hard and face your anguish, that being its own kind of falling. But if you don’t remember happiness, if you can’t imagine peace, if you’ve never been snatched from disaster by strong hands, falling seems foolhardy.

Believing Impossible Things

True, our partner might not catch us when we fly toward her. Our lover could betray us. Our parents might abandon us. To avoid the pain of such tragedies, we run from risk. We build boxes around our hearts, around our bodies, around the people in our lives. We cling to illusion, to logistics and rationality, to medicine and prayers, to anything that will numb us so we can stay afloat.

Taken to an extreme, we end up living in a world of fantasy, projecting our longings and fears onto everything we come into contact with. We look at the world through a veil in hopes that it will make life tolerable. Yet tragedies tear apart the fabric of that veil, and reality crashes in on us. We sink into the water. To think we can suspend ourselves forever, whether on water or on air, is as ridiculous as Lewis Carroll’s White Queen who “believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” [4]

Like the Queen, we humans are good at believing impossible things. It’s another way we fall into death while still breathing. Instead of seeing what truly exists, the reality of form and change and impermanence, we cling to our “impossible things.” If we are always kind and good, we think, or if we eradicate the racism in our hearts, or if we can find the key that unwinds the clock so time will not cause the props on which we stand to decay, maybe then we will be all right.

Letting Go of Our Lives

When Carroll wrote this about the Queen, though, I suspect he meant something a little different. Yes, the Queen was absurd. Alice was reasonable. Yet when we insist on holding onto logic and predictability, we lose sight of the the mystery, of holiness. We forget that evil can be vanquished and love can heal. Insisting that everything around us be possible is another refusal to fall.

To float, we must relax, must allow our bodies to settle onto the water. We must remember that it will hold us up. But what if we fall through space, tumble head over heels through the air? Water, at least, has substance. It’s terrifying to leap when there are no guarantees. No one can promise us that there’s a net. Even if there even is, it might not hold. This falling stuff is hard.

Though I understand the impulse to avoid hurts by avoiding life, I still prefer pain to a living death. I have no love of the extreme emotions, such as the terror and rage that have overwhelmed me in my darker days, and though my loins tremble if I look down from a great height, and while I sometimes dig my heels in with the best of them, trying to avoid going over the cliff, I would never choose to banish even intense sensation, for only by falling into the depths, was I able to become free. It is as Simmons says: “In the act of letting go of our lives, we return more fully to them.”

We Just Have to Fall

That doesn’t mean we’ll always be happy, or successful, or wealthy. We won’t become perfect. But sometimes, we “just have to fall.”

By staying away from circuses, ordering our lives, driving under the speed limit, or not allowing ourselves to love, at least not deeply and irrevocably and with abandon, we can, for a while, avoid that gut-wrenching drop into we know not what. But eventually, at least when we die, we must let go. Wouldn’t it be nice to practice falling gracefully while we can still enjoy the rewards that come from sinking into trust and faith? It may seem counter-intuitive, like one of those “six impossible things,” but there is peace, freedom, and happiness in letting go. Falling is not always as bad as we think it will be. Sometimes the catcher is there.

In faith and fondness,



  1. Henri Nouwen, Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring, San Francisco: HarperSanFransisco, 1994.
  2. Simmons, Philip, Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life, New York: Bantam, 2002, xi.
  3. See also Judy Collins’ rendition https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KfLF_ysOQMU.
  4. Carroll, Lewis, Through the Looking Glass, And What Alice Found There, New York: Random House, 1946, 76.

Photo by Lauren Lulu Taylor on Unsplash

Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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