We Fall Down, We Get Up

This essay originally appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times.

    Many years ago I read an interview with a monk, whose name I do not recall.  The interviewer asked, “What do you monks do all day?”  The monk answered:  “We fall down, and then we get up.  Then we fall down again.  Then we get up again.  Then we fall down.  Then we get up.”

    I closed the journal I was reading, descended the stairs from my office, and found the left rear tire of my car flat.  “We fall down, then we get up,” I thought.  And many times since, in a moment of frustration or failure, I have remembered those words and been composed by them.

    A few years later I remembered them on a weekend backpacking trip with Bill, my friend of nearly thirty years.  At noon on a cloudy Friday, Bill and I began descending the Forney Creek Trail from Clingmans Dome in the Great Smokies.  We had planned to be on the trail by ten.  But a broken camp-stove delayed us.  “OK, God,” I said aloud as we started, “if anything bad’s gonna happen -- any hard rain, any equipment failure, any broken bones -- let it be within the next five minutes, while we’re still close to the parking lot.”  Bill heard my prayer and laughed.   God might have laughed, too, because five minutes later the sole of my boot fell off.

    My prayer thus answered, we hiked back to the parking lot and drove forty minutes to a backpacking sore in Cherokee.  The virtuous woman there, choosing kindness over commission, advised me against breaking in new boots over the weekend and referred me to the nearest shoe repair shop, twenty minutes further in Sylva.  The friendly man there glued both my boots back together -- I discovered the sole was coming off the other boot, also -- and suggested I pick up a roll of duct tape, just in case.

    It was now three o’clock, too late for us to make the campsite we had reserved.  As we drove back towards the Smokies, lamenting our luck and discussing how to revise our plans, I remembered the monk’s words and repeated them to Bill, hoping hey might provide us both some perspective.  We would need it.

    We got back on the trail about 4:30 and hiked to the Mt. Collins shelter.  My boots held.  We cooked supper on the new stove and ate.  As we washed dishes, Bill slipped on a wet rock, went airborne, and landed on his left hand.  (This is the first dishwashing accident I have ever witnessed.)  Before it occurred to either of us that he ought to take off his wedding band, his ring finger was purple and swelling.

    By morning Bill’s finger was swollen to the point that his ring was cutting off circulation to his finger.  (During the night, I should add, I had employed the duct tape to patch three separate leaks in my air mattress.)  We began the two-hour walk to the car, Bill hiking the entire way with his left hand raised in the air.  I told him he was either the friendliest hiker on the trail or the most Pentecostal.

    Neither of us wanted to leave the trail and get Bill to a doctor, so at Clingmans we began soliciting advice from strangers, hoping someone would have some experience in matters like these.  A Mr. McDonald, from Georgia, offered ice for swelling.  Another man stopped to look.  “That same thing happened to me once,” he said.  “The doctor cut my ring off and everything was fine.”  Next a maintenance worker for the Park Service offered his file, and I began sawing Bill’s wedding ring from his finger.  I had stood with him fifteen years earlier and promised to do all within my power to support his marriage, and here I was hacking away at the symbol of his love and faithfulness.  “Well, some women become golf widows,”  I said.  “I guess Debbie’s about to be a hiking widow.”

    It takes longer to file through a wedding ring than you’d think, especially when you’re trying to preserve the skin beneath, but eventually the ring was off.  Mrs. McDonald found a popsicle stick in her car and made Bill a splint.  My friendly, Pentecostal friend and I were back on our way, beneficiaries of what hikers call “trail magic,” which is another way, maybe, of saying grace.

    “To everything there is a season,” the writer of Ecclesiastes says -- birth and death, daylight and darkness, seedtime and harvest.  It is not difficult for us to accept this as true for the natural world, but it is difficult to accept it as true for us humans.  Not only would we prefer that our lives have more ups than downs.  We often take the downs as an affront.  We are often angry when, on the road to our next wherever, the light turns red, or someone in front of us drives too slowly, and we may spend longer fuming than we spent waiting.

    Bruce Springsteen sings of “things that’ll knock you down that you don’t even see coming,” and sometimes what knocks us down comes from within.  No matter how far along he journey we get, or how high we rise, we remain creatures who contend with gravity, both within ourselves and without.  Perhaps walking humbly with God, as Micah enjoins us, means not that we plan on falling, but that we not be surprised when we fall, either.

    The monk’s words remind us that life is not lived only on our feet.  We spend a fair amount of time in other postures, as well:  on the seat of our pants, flat on our face, and on our knees.  The challenge for us all, monks and non-monks, is not to give in to our trouble, what the Christian tradition calls despair, nor to consider ourselves above trouble, what the Christian tradition calls pride.  Our task when we’re down is to get up and when we’re up is not to get uppity.  In the end, perhaps, we are measured not by our successes or failures, certainly not by our fortune or misfortune, but by whether we kept going.

* * * *

    On Sunday, on my drive home from the Smokies, my car broke down, in the rain, and I had to be towed back to Asheville.

    We fall down.  We get up.

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