Reading Group Guide for Learning to Fall

A theme and discussion questions are provided for each of the book’s 12 essays.

1.  “Learning to Fall”

Theme: Mystery

Simmons distinguishes between “problem” and “mystery.”

Can you explain this distinction in your own words? 

Can you give examples of “problems” on the one hand, and “mysteries” on the other? 

According to Simmons, what should be our attitude toward mystery? 

How easy is this to do?

2.  “Getting up in the Morning (And Other Essential Duties)”

Theme: Acceptance

Simmons writes, “All of us at certain times in our lives, in the face of failure, loss, illness, and finally, our certain ends, find ourselves asking: why get up this morning?  And, given what I’m facing, what work is there for me to do in this world that can possibly make a difference?  Lately I’ve come to feel quite strongly that answering these questions begins with acceptance.  Not resignation, not passivity, but a profound and thorough acceptance of our place in the natural order.”

What’s the difference between acceptance on the one hand, and resignation or passivity on the other?

What do you think Simmons means when he writes, “Death, in other words, is good for us.”?

How does the turtle exemplify the stoicism of Marcus Aurelius?

3.  “In Praise of the Imperfect Life”

Theme: Imperfection

Simmons writes that the title of this essay was inspired by a Wallace Stevens poem, whose climactic line is, “The imperfect is our paradise.” 

What can this line mean? 

How does Simmons’s story of the ant illustrate it?

4.  “Unfinished Houses”

Theme: Unfinished Lives

Simmons quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote, “people wish to be settled; only so far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”

What is the value, according to Simmons, of remaining “unsettled”?

Simmons writes, “The present moment is the unfinished house in which we dwell.” 

What do you think he means by this? 

How does he recommend that we live in our unfinished houses and unfinished lives?

What does the story of Orrin Tilton illustrate?

5.  “Wild Things”

Theme: Wildness

What qualities of wild animals does Simmons admire?

Do you agree that we should become more “wild,” in the way Simmons describes it?

6.  “Out of the Cave”

Theme: Solitude and Community

Simmons writes, “[N]othing serves relationships, families, or communities better than a well-cultivated solitude. Having given generously and fully to ourselves, we can give generously and fully to each another and our children and, by extension, to our communities.”

Do you agree?

What’s the value of solitude?

What’s the proper relationship between solitude and community? 

7.  “Mud Season”

Theme: Resurrections

What lessons does Simmons claim to have learned from mud season?

Do you agree that “in order to be reborn, we first must die”?  Die in what sense?

8.  “Choosing the World”

Theme: Ways of Seeing

Scientific seeing, for good reasons, seeks to fix the world like a bug pinned to a tray, wants to make it fully present to our rational understanding. Mystical seeing, on the other hand, discovers both presence and absence equally.”

How does Simmons distinguish between scientific seeing and mystical seeing?

Do you think everyone has the capacity for mystical seeing, or do only special individuals have it?

9.  “Winter Mind”

Theme: Emptiness and Silence

Emptiness, like silence, like love, is not something we choose, not something we reason our way into, but rather something into which we fall, something in which we find ourselves.  The fall into emptiness, into silence, has the nature of an accident.  And though we can’t choose our accidents, we can learn to make ourselves accident prone.  We can point our sleds downhill.”

Why does Simmons say that the slide into emptiness can be “scary”?

What does the sledding story illustrate?

Do you agree that love is not something we choose or reason our way into?

How might this also be true of the silence and emptiness Simmons is describing?

10.  “The Art of Doing Nothing”  

Theme: Busyness

“I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we can agree that our busyness—whether of body or of mind—is often a distraction, a way of avoiding others, avoiding intimacy, avoiding ourselves.”

Do you agree?

How do you distinguish between necessary, fruitful work and the kind of busyness Simmons is describing here?

The Tao says, “The world is ruled by letting things take their course.”

Under what conditions do you think this is true?

11.  “Returning Home”

Themes: Control and Character

“Life throws things at us that we cannot predict and cannot control. What we can control is who we are along the way.”

Do you agree?

To what extent is your own character under your control?

How does character help us deal with life’s surprises, both good and bad?

How useful is hitchhiking as an analogy for a way to live one’s life?

12.  “Living at the Edge”

Theme: Eternal Life

“More and more I find that dwelling in the present moment, in the face of everything that would call us out of it, is our highest spiritual discipline.  More boldly, I would say that our very presentness is our salvation; the present moment, entered into fully, is our gateway to eternal life.”

What do you suppose Simmons means when he says, “I want my eternal life now, before it’s over with.”  What sort of eternal life is he talking about in this essay?

What does Simmons’s story of his encounter with the homeless man illustrate?