Commusings: Falling by Jeff KrasnoSep 04, 2021
by Jeff Krasno
Two weeks ago, we cycloned through a college tour of the Northeast. Ten schools, five days, three cities. Planes, trains, automobiles.
My paternal wisdom seems to funnel into Phoebe’s left ear and directly out the right. But despite ignoring my occasionally insightful aphorisms she remains quite keen to imitate my choices – at least as it pertains to college. I accept this as insincere flattery.
On Day 3, Schuyler, Phoebe and I traipsed up the Upper West Side of Manhattan, slowly honing in on our alma mater. Columbia University presents itself quite suddenly. There’s a bagel store (the same one!), a Chinese dive with all-you-can-drink-white-wine, a shoddy grocery and then, quite precipitously, grandiose centuries-old marble imposes itself.
As we slipped past the iron gates and into the majesty of the quad, an unexpected nostalgia spread out its blanket on the vast lawn. We wound circuitously behind Low Library and arrived in front of Havemeyer Hall, the sturdy brick edifice in which Schuyler and I met thirty-three orbits ago. Long moth-balled memories shook off their dust from the attics of my mind.
Our art humanities class was presided over by an austere, angular and icy dame dubbed Miss DePoint. Jadis-like, she wielded a long pointer like a scepter that she thrust toward undulating works by Raphael or Degas projected on the screen at the front of the room. At any moment, I was quite certain she would pivot, and, on a whim, turn me to stone with her lengthy hickory stick.
Like a cowering forest creature out of Narnia, I installed myself sheepishly in a distant corner of the last row of desks. Schuyler, much to Miss DePoint’s irritation, arrived consistently tardy, prancing in nonchalantly from ballet. All talc-y, she flopped herself down in the last remaining seat next to me and, invariably, retrieved a plump grapefruit from her dance sack, clawed both her hands into its top and ripped back the peel. This vigorous action unbottled an aerosol of grapefruit particulates that, like fairy dust, infused the back of the room. As the citrus cloud enveloped me, I fell under the mystical and rapturous spell that you might call love.
One never falls purposefully. Certainly, one doesn’t choose to fall ill or fall from grace or fall out of favor. It’s never optimal to fall asleep at the wheel or apart at the seams or by the wayside. For the Romans, the sky was falling when its empire fell.
You fall quite by accident, often against your will. You’re left splattered on the sidewalk, falling all over yourself as you collect your affairs and wits. The same could be said for falling in love. It’s not an act you engineer or enter into your calendar. Love wells up from somewhere deep below the crust of consciousness, falling drop by drop upon the heart, emanating outward, perfuming your state of being with joy.
We strut through life confident that we are the thinker of our thoughts and feeler of our feelings. But, of course, that conception of reality is itself just a thought or a feeling. When we rigorously examine the nature of thoughts, feelings and sensations, we discover that we rarely are their sole authors.
This violates our instincts, but what’s your favorite song? Notice how the answer appears. You didn’t put it there. It simply fell into the lap of your mind. And, unless your pet refrain is New Frontier by Steely Dan, I didn’t magically put it there either. Of course, there is likely not just one solitary jingle humming through your head. Stairway to Heaven is in there, too. Maybe Sympathy for the Devil? Or Superstition? Or What’s Going On? And now the chatterbox of your mind is weighing the matter, comparing the catchiness of choruses and the lyricism of libretti, as if one great piece of art can be superlative to another.
The notion that we are not the provenance of our own feelings or thoughts can be initially quite disorienting. But, paradoxically, the more we come to terms with this understanding, the more influence we have over the vicissitudes of the psyche. It is not just love that we fall into. Fear, apprehension, jealousy, outrage – these negative emotions also well up in us. Sometimes they are the product of biochemical processes in the brain. Other times their origin is buried in the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. And, sometimes, they spring forth from our snap judgment of events.
What we lack in invention, we make up for in awareness. We have the capacity, when properly cultivated, to witness the emergence of phenomenon as sensation arising in consciousness. With the observer’s mind, we are in a sense the object of our own experiment. Instead of “being” outraged, we notice the feeling of indignation percolate from within ourselves. And, from this perch, we can focus our attention on its derivation. Is this emotion a product of a knee-jerk reaction or a bias? Does it warrant the valence we are assigning it? Is it useful? This capacity for observation resides in the “moment” between stimuli and response that Victor Frankl most famously referred to and, indeed, in it lies our potential for growth.
We are not so much the author of our emotions, but, with refined awareness, we can influence the environment in which they are published. All we truly have at our disposal is fittingly what everyone is vying for: attention. The salient matter is where we are going to put it.
As I wistfully spun this old yarn of freshman fancy, Phoebe was in a rare state of rapt attention. Hardly falling flat, my fairy tale elicited that unique and treasured look; her head tilts down and to the side, one eye slightly dewy, the other veiled by blond locks, her lower lip juts out and she peers up at me. This expression conveys her profound love. Its power resides in its utter lack of premeditation. She doesn’t choose it. My eldest daughter’s love for me is imparted in the absence of contrivance. It simply appears – for a fleeting moment – only to melt away behind the manufactured trappings of dull care.
When a child emerges from the womb, a mother, given the agony of childbirth, might be inclined to feel some resentment toward the culprit. But, on the contrary, oxytocin floods her system as she brings her baby to her chest and showers it with tenderness. Evolutionary biology throws a banana peel on life’s sidewalk precipitating our fall. We are coded for love if only to preserve our species.
But, over time, the love we have for our children ceases to be this rapturous plummet. We build the scaffold of it, dance recital by dance recital, doctor visit by doctor visit, college tour by college tour. We don’t thrust the requirements of our finances, our dreams, our egos on to them. And, in the absence of need, love becomes something given, not taken. Understanding this makes it easier to let go.
Next year, I will likely be taking Phoebe somewhere, but not back home with me. They say breath is life. But if you hold your breath too long, you lose it. If you don’t cling to it, it comes back to you. I pray the same is true for daughters.
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