Maybe it was forefronted 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 inability to construct a cogent argument when met recently with a slamdunk about the negative nexus between asylum seekers and Australia’s GDP. That day, mumbling 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.
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, 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 we mourn them. They are children, many of them so fallible, and I can’t help wonder 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.
Photo credit: skeeze
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, 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.
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 knee bone 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 grownups might do well to remember that, and to remember that the fallen—the refugees, the homeless, people with mental illnesses, the depressed, the penniless, the carers, the infirm—can be helped to their feet and to walk again, if only we recognised 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 is a walker, talker, teacher, writer, passionate patron of the Twilight School and the author of Sinning Across Spain – a walker’s journey from Granada to Galicia published by Melbourne University Press.