the art of falling
Two days ago, in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon in New York City, I did something unpredictable, playful, and spontaneous.
I went ice skating.
See, a couple years ago I read the seminal book on creativity The Artist’s Way, in which Julia Cameron changed my life and coached me into a more creative way of living. One of her biggest suggestions in the book: Go on “artist dates”, a.k.a. do fun creative things by yourself. I recently discovered that the famous Bryant Park ice rink offers free admission to anyone with his or her own skates — which I have, from my stint on the club hockey team in college — so today I hopped on the 5 train to Grand Central and walked to Bryant Park, skates in tow.
As soon as I stepped onto the ice, it was like my legs were frozen. In the six years since I had last skated, it seemed I had forgotten how to move on thin metal wedges atop a slippery surface. I glided slowly, not daring to pick up a foot, while my body stayed in fight-or-flight mode trying to ensure I didn’t run into any of the people whizzing by me, skating far more fluidly than I. How could I have forgotten how to do something I used to do so effortlessly?
After a dozen or so trips around the oval of ice, I was starting to feel more comfortable, and I dared to try a left crossover (in which you make a turn by picking up one skate and crossing it over the other.) It felt uncomfortable, scary, edgy. I waved my arms in the air to maintain balance. I didn’t dare try another one.
But after a few more rounds skating safely and slowly around the ice, I stopped abruptly and watched a man in front of me fall gloriously. It seemed almost intentional — he tried a crazy one-footed move, was thrown off balance, and gracefully accepted the fall, allowing his body to glide across the ice on his back. He quickly got back up, skated for a few seconds, and tried again. Another fall.
Watching this happen, I realized how afraid I was to do just that: fall. Merely imagining the impact of the cold, hard ice against my skin made me recoil in fear. But because of this fear, I realized, I had been on the ice for a half hour now, and I had made little to no progress in regaining any of my skating fluency. I was afraid to try anything that held any risk of pushing me down onto the ice, so I stayed in my comfort zone of “regular forward skating” around the rink, with an occasional crossover.
I’ve always had this fear of falling, I suppose. I can remember feeling it as a child, when my siblings and I would play a silly game that involved free-falling onto one of our beds, and I could never let myself relax enough to do it — I feared the impact too much. My body tensed up and it never worked. I have always held a similarly strong aversion to snowboarding, skateboarding, and any other sport in which falling is a likely occurrence. It’s a miracle I ever even learned to skate.
As soon as I realized this, I knew intuitively that this fear of falling carries over to other parts of my life, in which I hold a profound fear of failing. I am afraid to try anything in life that involves visibly putting in effort or investing my emotional energy, because failing would entail (a) physical or emotional pain, and/or (b) public embarrassment. I am afraid to hit the hard ice. I am afraid of the impact. I am afraid to lose control.
But as any skater knows, falling is often the best way to learn anything. How will I ever attempt and gain the muscle memory of the tough new tricks if I’m not willing to risk an inevitable fall or two? Nothing worth doing will ever be fail-proof and easy unless I first work through the part in which it’s fail-prone and impossibly hard.
I think of myself as a personal development junkie. I’m obsessed with growing and reaching new goals in consciousness, skills, and creativity. But how will I achieve the extraordinary personal growth I’m after if I ruthlessly avoid the feeling of failure, of scraping a knee or an elbow? This applies to all of my goals — ending my food addiction, completing a coding bootcamp this year, writing more songs, doing more monthly experiments. I won’t ever achieve my dreams if I’m not willing to dare boldly and risk a few glorious crashes.
Six months ago, during the 2016 Summer Olympics, I watched American gymnast Simone Biles pull off routines that made my mouth drop and my heart pulse with her beauty and flow. I felt inspired to start practicing yoga more, to become more flexible, to try out gymnastics. But how could I ever learn to do anything truly awe-inspiring like that if I’m afraid to fall during the practice runs? Do I really think that she never fell while learning the moves that made her a champion?
As I skated around the ice pondering this pattern in my life, I reassured myself that I would be okay even if I fell, and reminded myself how badly I wanted to advance and regain my skating skills. I forced myself to slowly work through more challenges — first that basic left crossover, then a basic right crossover, then skating backwards, and finally the momentary-but-difficult transition between skating forward and backward. I took it all slow, taking one concept and practicing it until it felt effortless. It wasn’t always graceful-looking, but by the end of the hour, I had regained several fundamental skills and could perform them with relative ease.
And here’s another thing I realized about falling: Those falls can be beautiful. As I’ve been told by other skaters, there’s an art to falling, and the people who master it — who learn how to fall gracefully and without seriously injuring themselves — will do it more often, taking more risks and ultimately achieving so much more. The key to learning to fall gracefully? Fall often.
By the end of my skating session, though I’d had a few close wobbly calls, I still hadn’t pushed myself far enough to truly gloriously fall. I’m still in my box of relatively safe, upright comfort. But I can feel myself reaching the outside edges of that box, tapping my skates against the walls and shaking it up.
I think I’ll tip it over soon.
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