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Philosophy of falling

  • 18 September 2013

Maybe 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