Falling into Community
Standing in a tight circle in the woods of Northern California, a dozen 11-year-old boys brace their bodies to catch their companion. With eyes closed, body clenched, and arms crossed over his chest, the boy in the middle of the circle calls out to his summer camp bunkmates: “Spotters ready??”
His bunkmates raise their hands to shoulder height, preparing themselves to hold his weight, and respond: “Ready!!”
Exhaling as he entrusts his body to his brothers, the boy in the middle calls out: “Ready to fall!!”
Confident in their ability to support their friend, the others give him permission to let go: “Fall on!!”
Before he even realizes that he has released himself, the faller feels the supportive hands of his friends gently and confidently reaching out to hold him up and pass him around the circle. After he has been passed around twice, a counselor instructs the others to place him upright and asks, “Who wants to fall next?” All the boys excitedly jump up and down, raising their hands as high as they can, eager for their chance to fall.
What an interesting reversal of expected behavior! After all, who wants to fall? Whether we physically stumble as we walk down the street, bomb a big job interview, get dumped by a significant other, or drop the game winning touchdown pass, falling is painful, unexpected, and often embarrassing. As we go through our lives most of us do everything we can to avoid falling.
Yet on this warm summer morning, the boys all jump at the chance to fall. Why? Because when one bunkmate falls, the rest catch him. Feeling the hands of his friends sustain him is reassuring and empowering—every boy wants that! Furthermore, this act of support fortifies the bonds between the boys, strengthening their communal connection.
In Jewish tradition, sitting shiva is a trust fall. Mourners remain in their houses, cease work, fall back and let those around them lend support. In tight knit Jewish communities, friends, family, and neighbors come together to visit the mourning house every day, bringing food, comfort, and prayers for an entire week. Although painful, these times of heartbreak are when communities often ascend to the highest level of interconnectivity and unity.
While nobody wants to be a mourner, just about everybody wants to feel supported by friends and family. Conversely, most people derive satisfaction from helping others. And yet, much of the time, we feel isolated in our solipsistic urban lives, distant from the comforting arms of loved ones. After literally or figuratively falling, many of us find ourselves in an emotionally unsupportive world longing for a group of peers to hold us up.
So how do we seek support and provide support?
By learning how to fall and how to spot!
Learn how to fall?!
Yes, counterintuitive as it may seem, we can control the way we fall. We can fall in a way that leaves us inconsolable or we can fall in a way that enables others to catch us. For the boys at camp, falling properly means making their bodies stiff like a tree trunk so that when they lean on their peers, they can be held up. If a boy were to fall like limp spaghetti, he would simply crumple to the ground. Despite their best efforts, his bunkmates would not be able to support him.
So too, when we fall in life we need to make ourselves catchable. How do we do this? By sharing our experiences with community members, by acknowledging that we are going through difficult times and opening ourselves to support. We must announce to others we are “Ready to fall,” if not falling already. Of course there will be occasions when we just want to be alone with a pillow over our head. Yet, if we can step out of our solitude, allowing ourselves to be simultaneously vulnerable and solid, we can enable our communities to lend support.
As communities, we must develop and practice our spotting techniques. First of all, we can call out, “Fall On,” letting our friends and family know that we are there to catch them. Rather than act as though everything is good all the time, we can open our hearts to the reality that life is a series of falls and recoveries. We can reframe falls as opportunities for community-building, fuel for powering the engine of interpersonal unity.
Secondly, we can work on our presence and awareness. Camp counselors are trained to remember the mantra, “I am always aware.” If we develop our own awareness to the struggles of those around us, brace our bodies and raise our hands to catch our peers, we enable them to climb higher.
For both fallers and spotters, the most important component is trust. While trust takes time to develop, it is the key to relationship and community building. Trust means letting go and knowing that friends and family will be there to catch you. Trust means demonstrating confidence in those around you, knowing that they will be your co-spotters, ready to help lend a hand when somebody else falls.
Let us tighten our circles, hold up our hands, and maybe start thinking of falling less as a tragedy and more as an opportunity. As those boys at camp will sing later that evening…
Lean on me when you’re not strong
I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on
For, it won’t be long
Till I’m gonna need somebody to lean on