Here’s the way it happened. True story. We were carrying 2x4s and buckets of nails and scraps of tin down a zig-zagging path into a ravine in Pokot country far out in the Kenyan bush. The plan was to extend a dam to capture more rainwater, which would help both people and livestock through the dry season. The Pokot were clearly amused by how little we American college kids knew about practical tasks like the slaughtering of goats, and they took even more delight in consuming parts of said goats mid-slaughter to test our delicate gag reflexes.
They were also so much better at descending those winding paths. I don’t know how many trips I took before I had the sense to stop and watch the men who were traveling twice as fast as we were and falling half as often. Less than that, actually. I don’t recall a Pokot slipping. But neither did I see one entirely in control. Their secret was to tumble just slower than the stones.
Their method went against everything my body had ever learned about staying upright on the earth. But eventually, I realized that each time I tried to plant a foot firmly on the ground the dusty hillside would slip out from under it, and down I’d go with my load. I had to forgo these brief moments of control. Illusions of it really. Because they were precisely what kept taking me down.
More than 30 years have passed since that hot, humbling day in Africa. But I’ve returned to its lesson dozens of times, not so much as a metaphor for life, but as an instance of it. There’s a memory of falling I can still call up as a whir in my ribcage, a felt knowing that there is no entirely safe way through. Even that our little attempts at composure and stability can become the very conditions that make for our failures and our falls. What we must learn, over and again, is, not to barrel headlong, nor to plant our feet with every step, but to skip and shuffle and trot along with the other tumbling things on the path.
The world has always been so, hasn’t it? The things in this life that matter most—a friend’s effortless affection, joy that porpoises into an ordinary day, forgiveness like a sudden clearing in a dark wood you thought stretched forever in every direction—such things can’t be held onto by holding them more tightly. They won’t linger longer if we try to make them stay put. We have to make our peace with movement. We have to tumble together, just slower than the stones, if we’re to live wisely and well.
“I am the way,” said Jesus once. How is it that, from that very moment on, it seems, we’ve made him a fixed destination, a settled truth, life we hold onto for dear…what?