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Matt Geiger

We used to sleep high up in the trees, nestled among fragrant branches in the cool night air. Each evening we would ascend, far above the leopards and lions that so often devoured us below. 

But with slumber comes paralysis. With paralysis comes the very real possibility of falling from the tree. With falling from the tree comes the near certainty of death on the ground. 

Sometimes, just as wakefulness left us, our minds would start to detach from our bodies for the evening, our muscles would relax, and we would start to fall from our branches. When that happened, our brains would send an emergency signal to our bodies, a jolt of neurological energy that would make us shudder and wake up just enough to prevent a deadly plunge. 

That, according to some scientists, is why so many of us experience the sensation of falling just as we drift into sleep. That is why we sometimes wake, as if shocked, just as we begin losing consciousness. 

That is why we sometimes feel like we are falling when we “fall” asleep. 

We are remembering the experiences of our ancestors.

It’s called a hypnic jerk. A nurse told me about it, over dinner, several years ago. 

Perhaps that’s why falling is so scary; because it is a primal fear, right up there with being shredded by a Smilodon. Maybe after a million of your ancestors fall out of trees, the fear of it becomes part of your DNA. 

One study showed that nearly all children, including those who had never previously actually seen a tiger, or even a photo of one, instinctively knew to climb upward to get away from it. Fear of the beast was literally part of them, as was how to get away. Because often, the only way to go is up. Because falling is something we usually try to avoid. 

I go to physical therapy every week now. I don’t know if it’s actually improving my balance, which was recently damaged by something called vestibular neuropathy. But it does make me feel better, because most of the other people in the building are in pretty rough shape, comparatively speaking. To put it delicately, I am quite spry compared to most of the other patients. My initial injury was not sustained in a buggy accident or a steam engine explosion. I think the average age in there is 126.

I always leave feeling lucky to be able to “do stairs,” happy in the knowledge that even if I do fall, it will be, at worst, a minor inconvenience. Because at 41 you can usually clamber back up after a tumble. At my age, falling over and dying do not always run in tandem. 

On the wall looking over an area where a therapist makes me do exercises intended to improve my vertigo, is a large quote: “Nothing is impossible. The word itself says, ‘I’m Possible!’” It’s attributed to Audrey Hepburn, who I always thought was a beloved actress, but who was, now that I’m familiar with something she said, actually a moron. 

It’s clearly intended to be inspirational, but I categorize it as almost profoundly perplexing. 

This is not a case of nitpicking. There could be major consequences for someone who doesn’t understand that the prefix “im” means mean NOT. Here are some potential terms that could lead to confusion, or even premature death, for someone who fails to grasp that “impossible” doesn’t mean “possible,” “immature” doesn’t mean “mature,” and “imperfect” doesn’t mean “perfect.” 

I want to say that Hepburn was imprecise with her language, but that might only further confuse matters, because perhaps “imprecise” means “I’m precise!’” I hope I’m not being impolite about the whole thing, and by “impolite” I obviously mean that I am in fact being polite. 

I can only imagine some poor soul spending all of eternity trying to move a million-ton boulder with his bare hands. 

“Why are you trying to push that rock?” you would ask. “It’s clearly immoveable.”

“Right! When I look at this rock, it says to me, ‘I’m moveable!’”

This seems like a good time to add the disclaimer that–and I’m a little disappointed the medical professionals who run the physical therapy clinic didn’t think to do this in fine print beneath the quote–“immortal” and “mortal” mean two diametrically opposed things. This is of paramount importance. 

Also, a lot of things actually are impossible. That’s probably why the word exists in the first place. Living forever. Getting everything you want. Traveling faster than the speed of light (if you have mass). Going back in time and murdering your own grandfather. These endeavors don’t exactly scream: “I’m Possible!”

Hepburn was probably just trying to make a glib point about believing in yourself. I’m sure the clinic is trying to do the same. But seriously, I have seen the people doing physically therapy there, and it seems a little unfair to suggest to someone who was born during the Garfield administration and has to use three walkers to get around, that nothing is impossible. That’s setting the bar way too high. For me, hearing out of my right ear is not possible. So, it is walking across a tightrope. That’s fine. 

No one is owed perfect hearing or perfect balance or perfect health. Some things are impossible. 

Why pretend it is otherwise?

Probably because it has become fashionable to believe that words do not have actual meanings. If you try to use any word in its correct context, someone, somewhere, will get mad at you and tell you it means the opposite, or that it means something else entirely. The idea springs from the fact that language is malleable, but it’s only flexible to a point before it snaps and loses all significance entirely. That’s probably why everyone is always so angry at one another. Everyone wants the same basic things: peace, security, time with loved ones. But most of them can’t even agree on what basic words mean, which renders reasonable dialogue impossible. If you can’t even agree on the meaning of “5 o’clock,” or “library,” or “door” or “chair,” it’s pretty hard to go to the library at 5 o’clock, walk through the door, sit down in a chair and engage in a meaningful debate. It’s even harder if you don’t agree on the definition of “debate.” 

If you think I’m being hyperbolic, keep in mind that we, as a society, can’t even agree on what “milk” is. 


Right this second, there are millions of dollars being spent lobbying politicians to legislate whether or not you can successfully milk oats. If you can’t agree on the definition of milk, how are you ever going to come to an agreement on abortion, gun laws, immigration, carbon emissions, education or anything else? I don’t watch the US House of Representatives in action very often, but I assume, when debating important bills, they spend the entirely of their time on the floor arguing about whether or not the Speaker is holding a wooden gavel or a brightly-plumed kookaburra. Because apparently, words always mean anything, and as a result nothing at all. 

I suggest we go back to the time when words had actual definitions. That way, when a doctor tells you that you need surgery to prevent the immediate cessation of your life, you won’t gleefully yell, “I’m immortal!” and run out the door and into the street, where you will be stuck by a car, or, as you call it, a “spoon.” Whatever you call the thing that hits you, it will cause immeasurable pain, by which I mean pain that is measurable, perhaps. 

As for me, I am mortal. But I am also learning to live with a shrill ringing in my right ear and getting used to being a little less steady than I used to be. It’s strange, though, because sometimes my vestibular system fails me, and I start to fall. But I don’t. Instead, my brain saves me, again and again, sending a quick signal to grab onto something or right myself. 

I recently found a fascinating paper that explains the hypnic jerk. In it, a group of scientists posit that our evolution into the complex, intelligent animals we are today began with our sleep. Apparently, species that sleep high up in the canopy are light sleepers, because of the aforementioned risk of falling. 

You simply can’t sleep too soundly when perched on a wobbly branch. Primates who spend the night up high only sleep for a few hours, and they never sleep very deeply. The result is that they do not dream as much, or as intensely, as those who sleep on the ground. 

With our decision to climb down for the night came risks. Many of our ancestors were eaten by leopards as they snored. But those who survived slept longer, and harder, and dreamed rich, wild dreams that helped their growing brains sort out the madness of the waking world around them. With more dreams came the ability to think more meaningfully about the world. With the ability for abstract thought came the capacity to map terrain and anticipate the behavior of other people and animals. 

Our dreams opened up the world in a way nothing else could. 

By sleeping on the ground, we were eventually able to ascend higher than ever before. Because today we often look down at the canopy, from our airplanes and rocket ships and satellites. Because some things are impossible, sure. But not everything. And that’s the most important thing of all. 



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