The Hidden Benefits of Falling
A dog trainer told me to walk my puppy Stanley on elevated surfaces to get him used to heights, practice his balance, build confidence and stimulate his mind.
So when I spotted a slightly elevated round brick planter while walking Stanley downtown one sunny afternoon, I let him try it out. He easily jumped up on the brick tightrope surrounding flowers nestled in mulch and began trotting, his head held high, a big puppy smile on his face.
But just as his confidence blossomed, his back left paw slipped off the raised brick path and he fell into the mulch. It happened in a puppy-flailing instant, and though the fall was less than six-inches, you could see that to him, it felt like 600 feet; there was terror in his eyes the second that first paw felt air.
But almost before he or I knew he slipped, he was back up on the brick, walking boldly, with a distinct look of joy on his face, one I hadn’t seen since adopting him. It seemed to say, “Hey! I’m alive! I didn’t die! This is actually fun! And even more fun now that I know that I can survive the worst that can happen!”
Related: How to Bounce Back From Failure
I don’t know if that was what Stanley felt that day, if anything at all. But I do know that for the rest of that walk, his eyes were wider, his mouth was open as far as possible, his tongue hung out and to the left, and he held his head higher than I’d ever seen. I don’t know much about dogs, but I know this one looked like he felt alive, confident and happy—maybe even proud.
He’d made it through his first fall.
Since that day, I noticed he was genuinely less afraid of heights. He bounded more, never looked down and moved faster. He frequently jumped. He fell less.
I tried to learn from him.
I got my first puppy during a time when I had fallen and was and unsure how to get out of the proverbial planter. While pivoting my career and trying to write a book, I’d suddenly fallen from my normal routine and sense of self; I felt like I was 600 feet under and all I could do was curse myself for trying, for stepping up to that elevated brick path in the first place. Stupid, stupid, stupid, I thought.
But eventually I realized I hadn’t actually fallen as far as I’d felt I had, and it was just a matter of seeing that and realizing that even though I’d fallen, I was still alive. I was still breathing. I could still move.
I climbed out much less quickly than Stanley, but climb I did.
And when I got back up and looked around, I realized that I was different than I was before. I’d learned something down there I would have never learned if I’d never fallen.
I learned that I hate falling.
I learned that I didn’t die.
I learned that a puppy can teach you things, like how falling can have benefits.
I don’t see the benefits when my foot first slips and I realize things aren’t going like I thought they were going to go. I don’t see them when I’m stuck below the surface, without any light. It’s hard to breathe down there and it feels a lot like permanent failure. I try not to think about it and watch Netflix and avoid cleaning things. I cry a lot.
But somehow, after time and tears, texts with friends and Thai takeout, I find myself back on solid ground, standing. Breathing. And I start to wonder if maybe the greatest benefit of falling is a special kind of resilience that helps you continue past the points where most people give up—not because they’re weak, but because it really is that hard. That maybe there’s something special on the other side, past the points of pain, something you can share with those who are in the thick of it, who have fallen.
And of course, maybe not—but I realize the only way I’ll know is if I keep trying. It almost feels like an experiment. It almost feels crazy. It often feels stupid. But I can’t help but feel like I’ve got to know what’s on the other side. What happens when you keep trying after all the falls are telling you to stop, that it isn’t safe, that you’ll get hurt? That voice that celebrates the fall, that tells you when you’re in the pit, that you should really stop now before you fall so far that you can’t ever get back up? It can be scarily convincing.
But I fight back with what the falls have taught me: A fall—no matter how terrible, how far or how long—does not have to be permanent.
For me, the worst part of falling is the illusion that this is my new reality, that the fall somehow says something or means something about who I am and that this place to which I’ve fallen is my new reality, what I deserve; it’s the cruel voice that says after a fall, You’ll never walk again.
All this time I thought my falls were a sure sign of my innate inadequacy, when really they were just signs that I was living.
But I’d be lying if I said I recover from a fall as happily and quickly as my puppy. There is no bounding. It’s more like oozing.
The joyous smile eventually comes when I recognize I’m out of that hole for now and I didn’t die, but I don’t look forward to the next fall. I dread it with every fiber of my being. And yet somehow I keep choosing paths above my current altitude, the ones where falling is not only likely, but inevitable.
I blame my puppy.