When was the last time you looked at the world upside down?
My weekend began with a trip to Ada Jenkins, our local community center, to garden with elementary school youth on Friday afternoon. At the time, I was panicking because I didn’t have a lesson plan, so I rushed to find activities and games for composting. When I finally got to the center, I remembered that my co-teacher and I had made a plan: we were going to rake leaves!
With our tools, we gathered as a group and set to our task of raking oak leaves at the bottom of a hill. The familiar crunch, scraping of the rake against the ground, and grassy scent in the air calmed me down, until I felt as energetic as my seven-year-old friends! We made our pile as mountainous as we could – and then ..
I don’t mean any kind of leap-frog-hop into the leaf pile, I mean SERIOUS running down the hill, arms totally wide open, falling down face first. We took turns counting down before rolling down – upside down, tumbling into gravity until we were face up towards the sky. With young ones by my side, I laughed harder than I had in weeks.
Falling is one of the most exhilarating experiences for the human body. Think of skydivers, or those dreams when you find yourself flying – or the idiom “falling in love.” We long to be able to let go, to be liberated even if just for a moment, to let gravity carry our weight. In the same moment, falling can be terrifying if we don’t know what will catch us in the end.
This past Saturday, I learned about falling from mountains and waterfalls. A few friends and I went to Stone Mountain State Park on a mindfulness hiking trip, rising early in the morning to hike, do yoga, and meditate on a crisp and clear autumn day. The moment that I saw the summit view, tears fell from my eyes. I fell in love, as I always do, with the timeless wisdom of the Appalachians. Though I was higher than the crow nests and all of civilization, I was powerless, awestruck, and humbled.
Then, on the hike down, I experienced falling of a different kind – I must have tripped over logs at least four times. Somehow, summiting mountains is always easier than bringing my feet back to level ground. I learned to be patient and careful, placing my feet one step at a time.
As we reached the end of the trail, we came to a magnificent, 200-foot waterfall. Children ran between the rocks and held their parents’ hands for dear life not to fall. Their playfulness encouraged me to see the waterfall from a different angle – so I laid down at the foot of the crashing water, and looked up. My breath escaped my lungs and one by one, my friends laid down beside me. We laughed like we were on the edge of a roller coaster, expecting the water to crash on us at any moment. Looking upside down, we felt like we were falling.
the waterfall has no way of her own. nothing keeps her tied
down like the rock cliffs, the hanging trees.
she is steadfast in her outpouring of affection to her lover
river, waiting to embrace her.
the waterfall has no intention but to give
herself to gravity. I want to bury my body
in her outstretched mouth – I want her to swallow me whole
like Jonah in the whale’s belly. Oh, that I could ever wander
so openly on the paths of love and suffering,
that my soul would be a waterfall
tumbling my way in faith.
Waterfall from Stone Mountain
So often, I avoid experiences of falling because I do not have faith that I will survive. Falling requires me to let go of my feet, and that means I can’t control where I land. Falling forces me to confront conflict and disappointment – and, as someone terrified of failure, I find these experiences daunting. Falling makes me realize that my life is not my own; I am at the mercy of gravity, other people’s decisions, and God’s direction of my footsteps. I am nothing but a naked, defenseless tree whose leaves have been blown off by the wind.
The first step in any 12 step program is to accept one’s powerlessness over addiction. While it seems counter intuitive to first surrender before moving forward, the first step is the way that one can stop fighting a never-ending battle and learn to trust in one’s Higher Power for healing. The first step allows us to experience suffering without being afraid because God accompanies us. At the top of mountains and the bottom of crashing waterfalls, on nights that I want to curl into a ball and sob or fall into a pile of leaves, God is waiting to catch me. When suffering breaks me from my selfish ways, and love opens me to the Way of my Higher Power, I may finally let myself “fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).
This is the way of upside down love: when we let ourselves fall, we are lifted up. This is why Jesus says blessed are the poor, and the children, and the meek and the lowly – for they most deeply trust in God, and each other, to hold them through difficulty. The faithful do not hold on to their status or control to avoid failure; rather, they are blessed because they know their dignity lies not in success, but in community and solidarity. Such suffering – and falling – has purpose because it teaches us to live together in community.
Jesus shows us that failure is not what we think it is; he willingly bears crucifixion to teach us that suffering is not the end, and death is not the final word. Yes, suffering is an inevitable aspect of human life – but through Christ, we learn to trust that we will encounter the resurrection. Through pain, we encounter grace. Our burdens are flipped “upside down,” transformed into humility and compassion.
Life is riddled with contradictions and upside down tensions. We are humbled by summiting mountains. We are lifted into laughter by cascading tears. Once we learn we can’t climb the waterfall, we learn to let go and experience the whole of life.
May we all learn to fall, stumble, and trip with grace into the upside down love of God.