The fall of man is the story in Genesis whereby man loses his privileged position in the Garden of Eden and is kicked out into a world of death, suffering, and hard work. He was tricked by the classic combination of woman and serpent that we've all fallen for at one time or another. It's something about the way they slither. Regardless, whether you're religious or not, the fall of man is a very important story for gaining perspective on our lives.
Whenever you think about your own personal situation or the health of your society, you necessarily need some sort of reference point. Comparisons are meaningless without something to compare with. Judgements on your own personal misery or the sorry state of affairs in your country cannot simply hang on their own if they are really to have meaning.
When we are overwhelmed with personal misery it is precisely this objectivity that we lack, and yet no-one can blame us; it is as if the whole world itself conspired to commit a grievous blow against us, and we mistrust its ability to make us happy again as a result. This is why we are sad in the face of all of the world's potential to give us joy. A man with a prettier turn of phrase than I once remarked that misery is like a gas - however much of it there is, it fills all the available space in our minds. All that is available to us is a gradual process of healing, coping, and forgetting, until eventually the natural joy in each new day takes precedence again.
Such struggling for renewal is the lot of humankind, which is precisely the point of the idea of the fall of man. The idea of the Garden of Eden and the story of our leaving it is almost incidental, unless you are religious; what matters is to hold in clear focus the nature of our life here, outside of the garden, in reality. Here in reality each individual and each group of individuals experiences their suffering as if it were unique and not faced by countless billions before them. Ancestral memory has not built up a resistance in these matters, but nor has it innoculated us against the experience of joy. Our feelings will always be cruelly dealt with by an indifferent and unhelpful reality, but they are our own - and with no hope of the utopia from which our ancestors were apparently ejected, we must fight with reality to assure our own happiness.
When it comes to our societies and our achievements as countries, the idea of the fall of man is an even more useful concept to bear in mind. People often speak of our politics and our societies as if the Garden of Eden really once existed; as if once there was a magical era of beautiful, unselfish co-operation ruled over by John Lennon. Utopionists imagine "no Hell below us, and above us only sky", but they also commit the cardinal sin of politics: they imagine they can create Heaven here on Earth.
I've got news for you. There never was any utopia among mankind and there never will be. We evolved out of the dirt and one day we will return there. People are too quick to dismiss the enormous accomplishments of mankind - especially of our peaceful western countries - because they hold up against them some standard of perfection that never existed outside of men's minds. No, we are not perfect - but no-one ever will be! Reality demands of us that we accept some basic truths - our fellow men often do not have our best interests at heart; there will always be those who will resort to violence against us, and we must defend ourselves; and we all of us will grow old and die, and so will our countries. This is what the fall of man means.
Only by realizing the nature of the fall can we hold in clear focus what our ancestors accomplished. The first sentient beings opened their eyes to find a world without rules, without law, without structure - with nothing to protect them against each other's violence but the uncertain trust in one another's capacity for love and forgiveness. Since then they have built a world in which I do not need to fear for my life or the lives of those I love; in which I will never starve, and indeed live in abundance; and in which my capacities for learning and creating and loving have been freed from the slavery to my natural urges, which billions died having spent a lifetime merely striving to satisfy. None of this happened by accident - it was built from nothing, and the continued existence of any of it is only guaranteed by our vigilance.
And yet there are so many parts of the world now where anarchy reigns, at least in part; or where autocracies and tyrannies and single parties serve their own interests and not those of the millions they rule over. When we compare our western situation to these places, we realize again how lucky we are. Complaints about cultural decay and the sport of bourgeois-bashing are the luxury of those with nothing better to worry about. There exists across the planet a multiplicity of societal miseries as abundant as personal ones, and we in the west have the most to be grateful for. Our drive for continual self-improvement must never lose sight of how lucky we basically are, and it must never condescend to those who are not.
We owe it to ourselves to be honest about how good we have it. We must never abandon a critical stance and we must always demand ever better things of our leaders and our fellow human beings, for it is only these demands that dragged us out of the dirt and within reach of the stars. But we must remember that those stars will never really be grasped, that perfection exists only as an idea in our minds, and - above all else - that we would be better focusing on concrete goals in the here and now rather than criticizing from the standpoint of the unobtainable. We started on the floor and the whole of human history has been a process of getting onto our feet. Our personal capacity to overcome our own suffering through joy and contribute to the collective good is our only weapon against an indifferent and cruel reality. This is the meaning of the fall of man.