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Philosophy of falling


Woman falling from skyMaybe it was fore-fronted by the recent election, and the evangelising certainty it produced: politicians claiming they could stop boats and save economies; television programs pitting people against each other in nuance-free arenas; pundits pronouncing outcomes and moguls preaching slogans.

Maybe it started with a beaming Pope telling a planeload of journalists that the door was closed on women's ordination — end of story.

Maybe it was my own utter inability to construct a cogent argument when met recently with a slam-dunk about the negative nexus between asylum seekers and Australia's GDP. That day, mumbling lame phrases about compassion and empathy, I was confronted with my fallibility. Big time.

I'd always thought I knew the etymology of the word 'fallible', but how wrong I was. How fallible. Apparently it comes from Medieval Latin — liable to err, or to deceive. Mistakenly, I'd thought it meant you were able, even likely, to fall.

Fall-ible. Fall-able.

A laughable notion, to any decent Latin scholar. Fallible, certainly. But consider for a moment ...

We take a fall for someone when they are in trouble, shouldering the blame in order to lighten the load of someone who is vulnerable or broken, or simply weaker than ourselves.

The other day I sat opposite a woman on a train. Her clothes were skimpy and she was quivering, trying to hide her blackened eye under a hoodie. The rest of the passengers in the carriage averted their eyes. Were they making a judgement about her? Was I? Had we decided she was a fallen woman?

And when, I wondered, was a man last called fallen?

Bombs fall. Empires fall.

Soldiers fall, over and over and over, and we mourn them. They are boys, many of them, so fall-able, and I can't help wondering if that is not due to the fact that leaders are fallible. Cities fall to conquerors and to the earth, too, as it quakes and ruptures under cathedrals and citadels.

Waters fall. So does night, in a slow embrace or with terrifying speed. We fall asleep, sometimes because staying awake is too painful. Easter falls on a different date each year, as does Passover and Ramadan. We fall ill and we hope to recover. There are no guarantees. Sales fall and we can't stop them, no matter how often interest rates are lowered. They rise again. Or not. Things fall apart, as the poet said.

And the centre may not keep holding.

We fall into love, and out of it again, like it is some dark hole. We forget that love should be about rising, because we have fallen back onto cliché. We fall for, and so we fall short. We fall behind, hoping we may yet find someone on whom we can fall back. We fall out — with family, friends, neighbours and cultures. We fall out and out and out, until we are so far fallen that we are invisible to each other. Tiny dots that can be rendered less than human, just targets on a flickering screen.

We fall.

They talk about the fall of man, but I know something of the fall of woman. I've fallen several times in recent years, and always onto concrete. I've bashed my kneebone and gashed my elbow. I've had stitches. I've sobbed like a child each time I've fallen, and I am not a crier. There is something about falling ...

We go through life as though we will always be upright, and maybe we need to believe that in order to keep going. But when we fall, we must confront the brutal reality that gravity is real. That even the mighty fall, though it may be forced on them. And it hurts. Children are able to fall and come up laughing. They don't yet know about the importance of saving face, or the solemnity of falling to the knees. They just know that falling is part of life.

Part of being human.

We grown-ups might do well to remember that, and to remember that the fallen — the refugees, the homeless, the mentally ill, the depressed, the penniless, the carers, the infirm — can be helped to their feet and to walk again, if only we will recognise that in the space of a heartbeat, we can become them.

Beware the cracks. They can trip you up or you can fall between them.

The sensation of head, hands and knees falling toward concrete is not something I would wish on anyone — not politicians or popes or pundits — but it's a reminder of fallibility. That is a memory that can slowly, humbly bring me to my knees.

Ailsa Piper headshotAilsa Piper has worked as a writer, theatre director, teacher, actor, broadcaster and speaker and was co-winner of the inaugural Patrick White Playwright's Award for her theatre script Small Mercies. In 2012 ABC Radio aired Ailsa's episode of Poetica, Bell Shakespeare produced an adaptation of Duchess of Malfi, co-written by her, and her first book, Sinning Across Spain, was published.

Falling image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Alisa Piper, election 2013, asylum seekers, Pope Francis, women's ordination



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Existing comments

It's a standard joke in our family about my over-protectiveness regarding my children in the area of "falling". Anywhere there are heights, edges, potential for falling I become a little panic-stricken, clutching arms, hands, pieces of clothing! My fall-ibility. Love that picture, by the way.

Pam | 17 September 2013  

Thank you Ailsa for your article reflecting on a term that has becomes such a cliché but when unpacked often carries profound meaning. It made me think of the Stations of the Cross - with Jesus falling the first time...Jesus falls the second time...Jesus falls the third time! I am wondering now what each of those scenes is conveying to us at a deeper level. What is the significance of mentioning "falling" three times? I'll keep pondering in the light of your insightful reflection

Patty Andrew | 17 September 2013  

Thank you, Ailsa. What a beautiful way to start a day - first a marvellous play on words, bringing out depths never before considered, and then the message about our obligation to remember the fallen - and not just the soldiers on Anzac Day.

Dennis Sleigh | 17 September 2013  

There is a phrase I hate because of the connotations of 'falling' you point out. I hate it because it is an instance of a 'fall' generally being a positive, of life and laughter and joy and happiness: the phrase? Falling pregnant.

ErikH | 17 September 2013  

Thanks for this honest and insightful essay. Lest we forget - we are all human.

Sue Murray | 17 September 2013  

Thank you, Ailsa, for writing an excellent article that made me stop and think in the middle of a busy day about the word 'falling' ; about 'boat' people; the woman on the train; those who have fallen during wars; bombings etc. 'Falling' is quite a profound word.

Liz | 17 September 2013  

I appreciated the reflection Ailsa - thank you. I've often wondered why the saying is "to fall pregnant" as though it was an accident or a failing. Why do we not say "becoming pregnant", the coming into being for the embryo and for the mother.

Name | 17 September 2013  

A beautiful reflection, very poignant. I too have never liked the term "fallen pregnant". Bringing back memories of a few falls towards concrete for myself. Thank you Ailsa.

Frances Pegrem | 18 September 2013  

Great piece Ailsa.

Paul Mitchell | 21 September 2013  

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