Those who ski know that each ski hill has many different runs or ways to the bottom. Runs are classified as green circles (easy), blue squares (medium), and black diamonds (difficult). I am a solid blue-square skier. My husband, Bill, is a black-diamond skier. He developed his skills on the slopes of Colorado, where he went to college.
At various points in our marriage, Bill and I have used “black diamond” as shorthand for anything difficult. At the end of the day, as I hash over a challenge with a defiant child, Bill sometimes quietly interjects, “It was a black-diamond parenting day.” His words bring me relief, an affirmation that anyone would struggle—not just me.
So on this past winter’s ski trip, when I unwittingly picked up alarming speed on the steeper part of a blue run, somehow lost perspective with my goggles, and wiped out in a spectacular crash, I didn’t just injure my body and pride.
I damaged our family metaphor.
I didn’t get hurt skiing down a black diamond. I wiped out on a friendly blue square and limped off the hill. An MRI later revealed a fractured pelvis, and I was handed crutches.
In the time since my wipeout, I’ve had to tell the story many times. Every time I tell it, every listener wants to know why I fell. Nonskiers assume something got in my way: “Did you run into a tree?” Skiers ask how hard the run was and if there was ice. But there was no tree, no one cut me off, and the run was nicely medium and not too icy. I really don’t know why I couldn’t control my skis. I don’t know why I couldn’t lean into a turn and slow myself down. I’m not sure why I fell.
With a lot of time to sit on the couch with my heating pad, I had time to think. Why did you fall? is a question we ask each other directly or subtly all the time. In my case, it’s an appropriate piece of the conversation. My colleagues moved on quickly from the why to How can I help? They carried my laptop to meetings. In the month after the accident, my family rallied in a way that I didn’t even know was possible. They cooked, cleaned, and told me to stay put. Whether or not they thought they would have done better on that particular hill, they know I can’t carry a plate while on crutches.
But outside of my case, the question of Why did you fall? can be a tricky one: It can be laden with judgment as the questioner tries to discover whether the obstacle that caused the stumble justified the magnitude of the fall. Why does he have an addiction? Why did she lose her job? Why is he depressed? Whether we articulate it or not, when someone is sick or struggling we often try to identify whether their circumstances warrant their fall. We deem there is no need to fall on a green or blue run.
The question of Why did you fall? becomes more dangerous when it is applied to entire demographics. Those who blame the poor for their own plight, who oversimplify complex societal questions, who look past historical oppression and institutional racism will not be part of a solution. Their dismissal of obstacles they can’t see or don’t believe in prevents them from reaching out to help.
As winter thawed into spring and I gave up my crutches, I realized the problem is not the question itself of Why did you fall? The question can be asked with a spirit of compassion and with the understanding that the person or group suffering may not know the full answer. The key is not to get stuck on the question but rather to listen and then move on to what we can do to help. Jesus moved quickly to action—feeding the hungry, stopping the bleeding, chastising the rich to give to the poor. If he ever asked why the person was in need of help, it’s not recorded in the gospels. When Jesus himself fell, Simon was there to pick up the cross, without mentioning that maybe Jesus’ upper-body strength wasn’t what it should be.
Next winter, I will undoubtedly tell my ski story again with the first flurries of snow. By the end of this winter, it became a bit more dramatic, with occasional references to the famous fall of the skier in the opening of Wide World of Sports. But it changed the way I think about falling and diminished the importance of seeking a one-to-one correlation between the cause and the fall. The series of runs we each have in our lives will change color and shape—we will have our own green circles, blue squares, and black diamonds. And when we and those around us fall, sometimes it will be clear as to why and sometimes it will not. But our call as the faithful is not to judge the fall. Our call is to bring about healing and to encourage one another to get on the chairlift once more.
This article also appears in the April 2020 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 85, No. 4, pages 43–44). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: by Austin Kehmeier on Unsplash