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  • johntambornino

After the Fall

Updated: Apr 24, 2022

The most well-known story in the Bible presents a pivotal event for humanity: The Fall. Adam and Eve, the first humans, are in paradise, a blessed and carefree state, with exquisite beauty and love. Nothing could be better. And then a misstep changes everything. They are expelled from paradise, confronted by pain and hardship, to be punished by a world that had felt perfect, with no going back and no choice but to make do, uncertain regarding the future. They are fallen. The enduring power of this myth reflects in part the universal human experience of a single misstep resulting in serious error or accident, injury or catastrophe, overwhelming shock and lingering trauma, of having to start over in life, wiser but worse off.

I experienced my own fall several months ago. It had many of the above elements, with a momentary misstep abruptly ending a state of joy and blessedness, ushering in pain and uncertainty, since which life has not been the same. In August 2021 I was kayaking on the Potomac River, on a day that felt truly perfect, with warm sun, a gentle breeze and calm water, splendid solitude along with the company of turtles, deer, ducks and herons. It felt like I was at the height of my powers, with strength, skill and focus. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for life. I made my way to my favorite spot, a hidden waterfall on the shore, where cool water cascades over ancient boulders. I went ashore, tying my kayak to a tree, treasuring this beautiful handmade vessel, itself my father’s last gift before passing, one of his most gentle gestures. And I was filled with love for a woman I had gotten to know the past year (and brought to this special place), realizing that it was time to propose marriage, that life could not be better. Standing tall on a boulder, it all came together – feelings of clarity, vitality, gratitude, beauty, love – certain that I was exactly where I belonged, headed in the right direction, and sure in my next step.

Yet at that very moment, my next step was misplaced, and I fell. It happened so quickly that there was no sensation of falling. I was in a state of bliss until the very second that I felt a violent smack on the side of my head, heard a loud knock of skull on rock, and immediately knew that everything I was treasuring was suddenly at risk. I was stunned, frightened by the blood spurting from the side of my head, with large drops falling in every direction I looked. The precious solitude was now dangerous isolation, the incredible natural beauty of massive rocks was now nature’s brutal indifference to human aspirations, my eagerness to propose a new future was now mocked by a cruel god. Excitement for the next chapter in life was confronted with the terrifying prospect that this could be it, that my remaining decades could be reduced to minutes. It was all so sudden and unexpected, and felt so unfair.

The mantra of the ancient Epicureans was “death is nothing to us.” They believed that the joy of being truly alive, in this one life, was a basis for not fearing death. For a number of years I believed this, that I had already enjoyed such vitality in my life that death was nothing to me. Yet suddenly death was everything to me. Rather than displaying Epicurean courage and tranquility, I cried and pleaded for more time. The awesome universe I had embraced was robbing me of all that was mine.

Nevertheless, I desperately tried to maintain some degree of Epicurean courage and calm, helped by the steady yogic breathing that has become second nature. As I paddled upriver in search of someone who could help, praying I would not lose consciousness or necessary strength, the horizon that had been so clear was now hazy – not only because my eyeglasses were broken when my head hit the rock, but because my life suddenly felt radically uncertain.

These past several months have indeed been uncertain. The emergency room diagnosis was traumatic brain injury (TBI), though with no sign of bleeding in the brain. The loving woman to whom I had been so ready to propose was soon by my side. And yet in the days and weeks to follow very little in life felt the same. TBI often presents a range of symptoms, including physical imbalance and problems with vision, depression and emotional numbness, slowness and forgetfulness of mind. The bodily organ responsible for mood and thought is now injured – and less able to address its own disrupted mood and thought. Thinking is much harder. Words do not come easily, and when they do are soon forgotten. Complex ideas unravel or elude understanding. Reading can be frustrating, sometimes futile. The self has itself been compromised. Relationships with others feel different, and distant.

The degree and timing of recovery from TBI is often uncertain, so it is hard to know whether to reinvent oneself or wait for the return of the old self, to adjust to a new inner life and personal relationships or to wait patiently for things to be made right. Fortunately for me, things are now close to feeling right. I could not have written this essay even a few weeks ago. And yet even with full recovery (as is most likely), things may never be quite the same, if for no other reason than the lessons from this tortured journey.

Lessons and new questions, including the inherent challenges in turning to philosophy when one’s intellect is compromised. Whether to trust intuition when feelings are absent or erratic. What to draw upon when everything seems empty or reduced. How to stay grounded in certain values and commitments when their philosophical foundations are harder to see. What a good life would be for someone little able to do philosophy. I hope to address these questions in the coming months, reflecting upon my recent experience of philosophy being least available when it was most needed. And my experience emerging, once again, from the Cave into the bright sun. That’s a more hopeful origins story that also speaks to me.

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