I think of myself as an adequate ice skater. I am proficient enough to go around the ice with my family and enjoy it. My ankles still turn in and my feet ache afterward, but my skill level is satisfactory enough for my occasional ice endeavors. There is one thing I aim not to do. I dread falling. The bump. The sting of the ice on my hand. The awkwardness of others seeing me go down. I skate and and I try very hard not to slip. Despite my trying, I often slip at least once a session.
Recently I went ice skating (in the summer!) with some of my family. As usual, I was trying not to fall. For most of the time I was successful. And then…plop…I hit the ice.
When I got back up, I noticed that I felt a degree of freedom. I was able to skate faster, have more fun, and be more relaxed. Soon, I fell again. This time I laughed at myself. “Falling is not so bad,” I said to myself. “ It’s also normal for many novices. And it doesn’t hurt too much. Besides, who is really watching me?” I continued.
As I contemplated my skating, I observed that when I was assiduously trying to protect myself from falling, I couldn’t enjoy the ice to its fullest. Part of my attention was focused on staying up. I couldn’t appreciate skating while I was also concentrating on not falling.
When I reflected on my ice skating experience further, I reached new appreciation of an age old Jewish tradition that elevates failing and falling. The verse in Micha (7, 8) states, “Let my enemies not delight over me because I have fallen – I have risen.” The simple meaning of the verse is that the speaker is exhorting his enemies not to rejoice over his decline, because he already bounced back. But the seminal work Shaarei Teshuva (Gate 2, 5) quotes a tradition from the Sages to interpret the verse differently by splitting it. The second part is is its own statement, “Because I have fallen, I have risen.” The speaker in the verse means, “Had I not fallen, I would not have reached the heights that I did.” In its new interpretation, that meaningful statement is a clarion call to look at failures as facilitating improvement instead of providing setbacks. It is an important mandate to normalize failure and use it as a catalyst for religious growth.
My experiences on the ice helped me with an additional perspective and deeper understanding of, “because I have fallen I have risen.” When I was distracted by trying not to fall, I couldn’t allow myself to be fully involved with the skating experience. Protecting myself was the inverse of immersing myself. But once I fell the first time, I allowed my defenses to dissipate. Had I not fallen, I would not have been able to embrace a fall as an event that I should expect. When I slipped, the wall began to crumble. I didn’t need to skate an Olympic 10, I was just going to enjoy the ice. Had I not fallen, I would not have been able to rise to the occasion of enjoying the experience. I would have still been protecting myself instead of immersing myself.
As we skate through life, we might dread failure and falling. Yet, If we unduly focus our energy on propping ourselves up and not allowing ourselves to fall, we might be stifling our accomplishments. Thomas J. Watson understood this as he charted his path to success in founding IBM. He coached the world, “if you want to succeed, double your failure rate.” If you are exceedingly cautious about falling, your energy is being used for protection and perfection instead of rising and realizing. That seems like a pretty slippery situation to slide into.