By Annemarie Scobey-Polacheck  

Those who ski know that each ski hill has many different runs, or ways to the bottom. Runs are classified as green circles (easy), blue squares (medium) and black diamonds (difficult). I am a solid blue square skier. My husband Bill is a black diamond skier; he developed his skills on the slopes of Colorado, where he went to college.

At various points in our marriage, Bill and I have used “black diamond” as shorthand for anything difficult. At the end of the day, as I hash over a challenge with a defiant child, Bill sometimes quietly interjects, “It was a black diamond parenting day,” and his words bring me relief, an affirmation that anyone would struggle — not just me.

So on this year’s ski trip, when I unwittingly picked up alarming speed on the steeper part of a blue run; then somehow lost perspective with my goggles and wiped out in a spectacular crash, with legs and arms flying, I didn’t just injure my body and my pride.

I damaged our family metaphor.

I didn’t get hurt skiing down a black diamond. I wiped out on a friendly blue and limped off the hill. An MRI later revealed a fractured pelvis and I was handed crutches.

In the time since my wipeout, I’ve had to tell the story many times. Every time I tell it, every listener wants to know why I fell. Non-skiers assume something got in my way. “Did you run into a tree?” Skiers ask how hard the run was, and if there was ice. But there was no tree, no one cut me off, the run was nicely medium and not too icy. I really don’t know why I couldn’t control my skis; I don’t know why I couldn’t lean into a turn and slow myself down. I’m not sure why I fell.

And with a lot of time to sit on the couch with my heating pad, I have had time to think. “Why did you fall?” is a question we ask each other directly or subtly all the time. In my case, it’s an appropriate piece of the conversation. My colleagues move on quickly from the why to the “How can I help?” And then they carry my laptop to the meeting. My family has rallied in a way that I didn’t even know was possible: cooking and cleaning and telling me to stay put. Whether or not they think they would have done better on that particular hill, they know I can’t carry a plate while on crutches.

But outside of my case, the question of “Why did you fall?” can be a tricky one — it can be laden with judgement as the questioner tries to discover whether the obstacle that caused the stumble justified the magnitude of the fall. Why does he have an addiction? Why did she lose her job? Why is he depressed? Whether we articulate it or not, often, when someone is sick or struggling, we try to identify whether their circumstances warrant their fall. We deem there is no need to fall on a green or blue run.

The question of “Why did you fall?” becomes more dangerous when it is applied to entire demographics. Those who blame the poor for their own plight; who oversimplify complex societal questions; who look past historic oppression and institutional racism, will not be able to be part of a solution. Their dismissal of obstacles they can’t see or don’t believe in prevents them from reaching out to help.

Continuing to sit on the couch, and giving the issue even more thought (especially the day the Netflix stopped working), I realized the problem is not the question itself of “Why did you fall?” The question can be asked with a spirit of compassion, and with the understanding that the person or group suffering may not know the full answer. The key is not to get stuck on the question, but rather to listen; then move on to what we can do to help. Jesus moved quickly to action — feeding the hungry, stopping the bleeding, chastising the rich to give to the poor. If he ever asked why the person was in need of help, it’s not recorded in the Gospels. When Jesus himself fell, Simon was there, picking up the cross, without mentioning that maybe Jesus’ upper arm strength wasn’t what it should be.

Moving into the second half of the winter, I will undoubtedly tell my ski story again. It gets more dramatic with each telling, with occasional references to the famous fall of the skier in the opening of Wide, Wide World of Sports. But it has changed the way I think about falling and has diminished the importance of seeking a one-to-one correlation between the cause and the fall. The series of runs we each have in our lives will change color and shape — we will have our own green circles, blue squares and black diamonds. And when we and those around us fall, sometimes it will be clear as to why, and sometimes it will not. But our call as the faithful is not to judge the fall. Our call is to bring about healing, and then, to encourage each other to get on the chairlift once more.