In 1993 Phil Simmons was teaching at a small Midwestern college. He was 35 years old, married, on the fast track to tenure and deferring his lifelong spiritual quest to meet the demands of the academic life. It was what college professors do.
That year also brought him a diagnosis of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. That’s not a happy fact, but it sits there like a hairball in the soup. ALS tends to kill within four or five years of diagnosis, so Simmons is beating the odds. He does use a power wheelchair now and his speech has slowed a little, but the disease is showing him rare respect.
For Simmons, ALS was a spiritual wake-up call. Having lost the luxury of putting anything on hold, he resolved to live whatever time he had left as fully as he could. Denial was not part of this plan. An acute consciousness of his mortality, he says, has been his best guide to being more fully alive.
He’s written a book about living fully, Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life. Richly informed by both Western and Eastern religious traditions, it’s overflowing with vitality and warmth, a fount of good writing and good philosophy. It’s funny. It’s smart. It’s the best fusion of disability and spirituality I’ve ever read.
Simmons may have used his mortality as a philosophical springboard, but don’t look to Learning to Fall for morbid reflection, a triumph over adversity or for easy answers to much of anything. He sees life as a bewitching mystery, not something to be analyzed, reduced to its component parts and categorized. He is most drawn to the unknowable, to paradox, to the conundrum of being human.
“And what does mystery ask of us?” he writes. “Only that we be in its presence, that we fully, consciously, hand ourselves over. That is all, and that is everything. We can participate in mystery only by letting go of solutions. This letting go is the first lesson of falling, and the hardest.”
Simmons lives with his wife and two children in Sandwich, N.H., where he took time to talk to NM. You can hear the teacher in his voice, in his words. Material and concepts well organized and clearly presented. Not rehearsed, just eloquently stated the first time, every time. And you hear something else. You hear good health and vibrant humor, the voice of a life well lived.
BC: A few years ago I talked to a doctor who had ALS, and he told me that his colleagues treated him as if he was already dead. More like a ghost than a person. Have you run into that?
PS: No, I haven’t. I avoided it for the first few years by not telling my colleagues, just my immediate family and close friends, and for just that reason. I don’t want to be regarded as a sunk ship. I thought I could keep myself healthier, longer, if I was part of a world that regarded me as healthy.
BC: Your book is called “Learning to Fall.” Meaning what?
PS: I mean learning to live richly in the face of the losses we’ve all suffered. Those of us with disabilities have particular circumstances, but it’s the nature of being to suffer loss. That’s the first thing the Buddha said when he woke up under the bodhi tree: To be human is to suffer. And that’s most easily verified experimentally! [Laughs] There’s nothing otherworldly or mystical about that fact.
As the Buddhists say, we can’t control a lot of what happens to us, but we can control how we respond to it. In the end, that’s really all we can control, all we can be responsible for. And that’s all the difference between being at peace and being tormented.
BC: In your book you say, “We deal most fruitfully with loss by accepting the fact that we will one day lose everything.” That sounds like having nothing to lose.
PS: It means that you have let go of all that is inessential, so that to lose it does not strike to your core. God knows this is hard–I, like everyone, get pissed off every day by my limitations, by things I can’t do. But the extent to which I’m at peace is the extent to which I’m able to let go and stand in that place of emptiness–the Buddhists call it sunyata–where I have nothing of this world to lose.
It’s very hard for anyone to do. It’s hard for me as a husband and father. I am attached, after all, to my children and my wife, so I can’t pretend that this business of letting go is easy.
BC: Where do you fall in religious terms? Your book is so eclectic that it’s hard to pigeonhole you.
PS: I was raised Roman Catholic, my father is a nonreligious Jew. I took up transcendental meditation in the ’70s and explored other aspects of Eastern religion–more intensively after my diagnosis, and from a more mature standpoint–as well as returning to both Jewish and Christian teachings.
I attend the Unitarian Church, which is a free, liberal religious tradition that allows me to pursue the truth in my own way. It’s a church without a creed, but with certain guiding principles. So I’ve found a singularly supportive and noncoercive community in which to worship and develop spiritually.
BC: Where does faith enter into this mix?
PS: Faith is a tricky word. We need to distinguish between faith and belief. Faith is not about believing in a certain set of propositions or that certain things are true. Faith is an attitude, an essential attitude of the whole person. Faith is that which drives one forward in the world in the absence of certainty. You don’t find faith by trying to think your way through it or by summoning feelings.
Faith is found in the practice of faith. It’s really a bootstrap operation. And it’s by acting with faith, and in faith, in accord with our highest principles and commitments, that I think we find ourselves living more and more in a world that answers to our faith, that responds faithfully to us.
BC: People are forever trying to fix us. If they can’t cure us, they at least want us to pass as “normal.” So it was refreshing to read in your book that “life is not a problem to be solved.”
PS: That’s really at the core of what I’m saying. I spoke recently at the Harvard Medical School to a group of first-year students in a course on dealing with people with terminal conditions.
In the context of how you break that news to someone, I told them, “You have to realize that you can’t fix it.” You want to fix it. That’s what doctors–and all of us in this culture–are trained to do. We live in an engineer’s culture. We identify problems. We fix them. And these students have to learn that there are some situations they can’t fix. So if life isn’t reducible to a problem, what is it? What is this excess? What is it that cannot be reduced to a problem? My word for it is “mystery.”
Mystery, true mystery, is very different from a problem because a true mystery can’t be solved. All we can do is plunge into the mystery and participate in it. You bathe in it. You dance with it.
To live in the presence of mystery is to acknowledge that we’re all in the same boat. We all have our losses, our frustrations, our limitations. We all suffer. And by saying to others, “Don’t try to fix me,” we’re saying on the deepest level, “Be with me. Be with me fully. Let us be together with all our humanness, all our flawed and failing humanness.”
BC: In reference to falling, you write that you fall “into the presence of the sacred.” What do you mean by “sacred?”
PS: I think a lot of people hearing those words would think I’m referring to some state that’s esoteric and unobtainable, but the sacred is found in the everyday. [He surveys his surroundings.] The gateway to the sacred is the chewed pen cap on my desk, the crumpled sticky note, the Pez dispenser with the Homer Simpson head on it; it’s in the slight discomfort I’m feeling in my shoulders, in my moments of longing or worry. These are the stuff of sacredness. And living in the presence of the sacred, dwelling in the sacred, simply means that we experience the stuff of our lives in a larger context, against the backdrop of the ultimate.
We all contact that place, that source, whatever name we choose to give it, at different moments in our lives, often at extraordinary moments. I call them “mountaintop moments”–at the birth of a child, at the death of a loved one, at moments of ecstasy or literally on a mountaintop–when we contact that sense of ultimacy.
The problem with thinking about the sacred in those terms–as rare eruptions of sacredness in your life–is that you start to see your spiritual life as a highlights film. If you’re waiting around for the next highlight, you’re going to miss your life. So it’s important to cultivate the sense of sacredness in the ordinary and the everyday. Meditation is one time-tested way of practicing this, but I think it’s important to understand that the value in meditation is not necessarily what happens while you’re meditating; it’s that in contacting silence and stillness at some point in your day, you can then bring that silence and stillness into the rest of your day’s activities.
So even as you’re stuck in traffic or arguing with your spouse or trying to get dinner on the table, at some level you are always in contact with silence and stillness and are therefore able to see the present moment against that background of ultimate significance. That’s what I mean by dwelling in the sacred, in the sacredness of every small and ordinary human moment.
BC: One of your chapters is called “In Praise of the Imperfect Life.” Come again?
PS: That’s inspired by a poem by Wallace Stevens, who was resolutely anti-metaphysical. He didn’t believe in any world but this one, so he didn’t want to hear anything about some paradise elsewhere. Whatever paradise we find is here. And the “here” is necessarily imperfect.
I’m of much the same mind. I think it’s a waste of time to argue about an afterlife. This is something we cannot know on a rational level. What we can know is the present life, and if we are to prepare ourselves for any form of future life, surely the only way to do that is to dwell in sacredness now, to dwell in eternity now.
BC: You say something that sounds familiar from childhood Bible study days: “To be reborn, we first must die.” Die to what?
PS: I don’t know how it is for people who have been disabled for longer, but I find that my dreams are gradually changing. When I dream of myself I’m usually able to walk, but more and more I’m walking more slowly or sometimes I’m actually in a chair. So we die to our previous image of ourselves, to our precious notions of the way life should be. I think the most thorough healing comes about when we die to ego–to our small, grasping selves–and are therefore reborn into a freer, larger, more accepting version of ourselves.
By that I mean less judgmental of other people, which opens us up to new kinds of relationships. People we previously would have blown off can come into our lives and now we’re able to see and have compassion for the woundedness in that person, a woundedness that we share.
I’ve met people who are truly healed in the deepest sense. You feel free in their presence to express yourself fully, and I think that comes from the healed person being accepting and nonjudgmental and open to experience.
BC: There’s a notion in some religious traditions that you’ve got to choose between God and the world, between purity and corruption. You seem free to choose both.
PS: For me God is in the world, of the world, so to choose the world is to choose God. And for me God, sacredness, ultimate reality–whatever you want to call it–isn’t all sweetness and light, isn’t just the happy times, but is the whole of life including darkness, sorrow and suffering. We need to embrace all of it. We need to embrace our full humanness. We need to be present to our full humanness in every moment.
Learning To Fall, by Philip Simmons, Ph.D., is published by Xlibris and is available at www.xlibris.com or at 888/795-4274, $18 softcover, $27 hardcover. A Bantam edition will be published January, 2002. To read an excerpt go to www.learnigntofall.com.