Philip Simmons

Philip Simmons

In 1993 Phil Simmons was teaching at a small Midwestern college. He was 35 years old, married, on the fast track to tenure and deferring his lifelong spiritual quest to meet the demands of the academic life. It was what college professors do.

That year also brought him a diagnosis of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. That’s not a happy fact, but it sits there like a hairball in the soup. ALS tends to kill within four or five years of diagnosis, so Simmons is beating the odds. He does use a power wheelchair now and his speech has slowed a little, but the disease is showing him rare respect.

For Simmons, ALS was a spiritual wake-up call. Having lost the luxury of putting anything on hold, he resolved to live whatever time he had left as fully as he could. Denial was not part of this plan. An acute consciousness of his mortality, he says, has been his best guide to being more fully alive.

He’s written a book about living fully, Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life. Richly informed by both Western and Eastern religious traditions, it’s overflowing with vitality and warmth, a fount of good writing and good philosophy. It’s funny. It’s smart. It’s the best fusion of disability and spirituality I’ve ever read.

Simmons may have used his mortality as a philosophical springboard, but don’t look to Learning to Fall for morbid reflection, a triumph over adversity or for easy answers to much o