Originally published March 2001

leap-into-mysteryby Philip Simmons

I was 35 years old in 1993 when I was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Until then, life was going great. I was on the tenure track as an English professor at Lake Forest College, had a wonderful marriage and two beautiful children, ages 2 and 4. My lawn had the proverbial greener grass that always seems to grow in someone else’s yard.

But this pretty summary, the sort of thing you’d read in a college alumni bulletin, didn’t tell the whole story. It didn’t tell of the sour stomach, bleary eyes and unsettled sleep with which I’d purchased success. And my spiritual life, important to me in my earlier years, had been pushed aside. I just didn’t have the time.

Age 35 is a hinge year, half of our biblical allotment of threescore and ten. Especially for many men, it’s a year when — I’ll be polite — “stuff happens.” It’s the age at which Dante makes his journey into the inferno.

I guess it was time to make a journey of my own.


Philip Simmons left as his legacy the wonderful book Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life, which received wide critical acclaim for its clear-eyed journey through “the harrowing business of rescuing joy from heartbreak.” Dubbed “a spiritual handbook for mortals” by one reviewer, the book is still in print and available from Amazon and other booksellers.

A few months before the onset of my illness, I found myself pausing on the landing of my stairs, looking out the window at a gray November day, cold rain soaking the ground, saying these words to myself:

Rain is falling on the earth.