Falling Upward

Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life
By Richard Rohr
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011

Richard Rohr’s newest book unpacks a simple, and yet profoundly important, idea: that the goals and purpose of the spiritual life evolve over the lifespan; in other words, what is important and necessary in the first half of life might actually impede our spiritual calling in the second half. While even a cursory knowledge of developmental psychology can make this idea seem like mere common sense — after all, isn’t it rather obvious that the keys to happiness for a twenty-year-old and a sixty-year-old are in almost all cases going to be radically different? — the real meat of the issue involves the fact that conventional, Sunday-morning Christianity has very little to offer for mentoring those in the second half of life. Institutionally speaking, Christianity is almost entirely geared toward first-half-of-life issues (creating a spiritual identity, finding one’s place in the world, and adopting a code of conduct appropriate for that identity and place) and leaves those wrestling with the second-half-of-life issues (finding meaning, giving back to others, learning to let go of the limitations that identity/place entail) to basically fend for themselves.

So Falling Upward addresses this blind spot. Combining Rohr’s earthy writing with mythology (particularly the story of Odysseus), insights from scripture and from poets and mystics ranging from W. H. Auden to Pema Chödrön, a dollop of Ken Wilber’s integral theory, and helpful concepts such as double belonging and the tragic sense of life, Rohr teases out why rules of behavior, boundaries, dualistic thinking, and other stock-in-trade characteristics of conventional religiosity may be important when we’re young, but actually get in the way as we mature (one of the many ways in which this book is wise is how Rohr continually insists that “first half” and “second half” of life are general terms and should not be used in any sort of rigid chronological sense: some people might enter the second half of life in their teens, while others don’t make it until their hair is white — and others, alas, never seem to make it at all). Think of it this way: in the first half of life, we are given the task of building a religious “container” within our psyche: a sense of spiritual identity (I am a Christian, not a narcissist; therefore I behave in certain ways while other choices are off-limits) that helps us to navigate through the stresses and choices of life. But by the second half of life, the issue is not whether we’ve built such a container or not, but rather, what are we going to do with it? For Christians, the “container” is meant to be filled with radical love, radical forgiveness, radical compassion, radical fearlessness. Ironically, sometimes the contents seem to pull us away from the very limitations that the container imposes.

Richard Rohr, speaking on "Contemplation and Action" at the Wild Goose Festival

The wisdom of the second half of life involves learning how to discern the difference between the container and the contents, and knowing what choices to make that best serve the deepest calling of the Spirit in our lives. Wisely, Rohr remains gracious and affirming in his discussion of the ordinary tasks of conventional religion. He sagely points out that if we do not master the challenges of the first half of life, then we’ll never get to the place where the invitation of the second half can take place (he points to criminals as examples of those whose lives have been derailed by an inability to learn the limitations and control of the first half of life). The point is not to dismiss the basics of Christianity (or any faith), but rather to understand that sometimes true wisdom takes us into places where the contents of our spiritual calling matter more than the container — and that the “rules” of the first half of life simply cannot address the realities of the second. For example, the quest for religious identity often can lead us to judge, ignore or even repress the “bad” parts of ourselves. Those shadow dimensions will not remain hidden forever, and often the second half of life calls us to come to grips with our own brokenness, woundedness, and (to use religious language) sinfulness. Do we learn to forgive and accept even the shadow parts of ourselves, or do we embark on increasingly neurotic attempts to make ourselves “perfect” even at the cost of serenity and self-esteem? How we answer this question will often set the stage for how capable we become to showing true compassion toward others whose lives are as messy (or even messier!) than our own.

I particularly love the concept of double belonging — one that I also heard Paul Knitter (author of Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian) speak about at the Wild Goose Festival. Double belonging acknowledges that sometimes our spiritual calling takes us to places beyond the neat and tidy boundaries of first-half-of-life religious identity. For Knitter, this means being a committed Christian who is also a practicing Buddhist. For others it might entail learning to balance spirituality and art, or religion and political activity, or even integrating the choices of youth with those of maturity. In my life this means integrating my exploration of neopaganism with my current commitment to contemplative Christianity (and interfaith work). Hmmm, that sounds like triple belonging!

Rohr is a wonderful and gifted speaker, and this book reads like a transcript of one of his talks — informal and accessible, more conversational than logical in its tone. But its imperfections are minor. Falling Upward is a warm, wise, and useful book. It will make the most sense to those who are already engaged, at some level or other, with second-half-of-life issues. Of course, as Rohr points out, that can happen even to those who are young. If you find yourself questioning the limitations of religious identity, or how to integrate your faith with the wisdom of other traditions or the promise of science, or what it means to practice your faith in light of the mandate to care for the earth and the struggle for justice in a world that seems increasingly distracted by stress and entertainment, then I suspect this book will speak powerfully and eloquently to who (and where) you are. If not, well, read it anyway — it will serve as a foreshadowing of the invitation that will yet surely come.

Why Trappists Make Great Spiritual Guides
Seven Essential Thomas Merton Books
Sister Joan Chittister and the Way of Paradox
The Intelligent Person's Guide to Prayer
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.