My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Any book that quotes Gerard Manley Hopkins and T.S. Eliot in its first few pages is going to speak to me quite personally. I knew from the outset this would be a book to be taken seriously and considered thoughtfully. I guessed it might be hard work. I was not wrong.
Falling Upward is a book for those who are on a journey. Richard Rohr illustrates his thesis with the journey of Odysseus, but the journey he describes and seeks to explain is a spiritual and emotional one – and moreover a journey that, according to him, not everyone will be ready, willing or equipped to make.
Rohr’s central point is that we live a life of two halves, each with its own task: “The first task is to build a strong ‘container’ or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold”. The world’s focus, he says, is fixated on the first task: establishing one’s identity, creating boundaries, seeking security and status, building community. That is all our society and culture seems aware of or demands of us. But it is only half the story.
“We are a ‘first-half-of-life’ culture,” says Rohr, “largely concerned about surviving successfully.” The concerns of the first half of life are addressed by everything from sermons to self-help books to the job market. They are the concerns and drivers of the vast self-help industry described by Susan Cain in her book Quiet (review to follow), running from Dale Carnegie to Tony Robbins and beyond, which epitomises the American “extrovert ideal” and permeates our cultural expectations from the pre-school classroom to the Fortune 500 boardroom.
Reading Falling Upward, I became aware that even books like Cloud and Townsend’s Boundaries, which speaks thoughtfully of a maturing of character, are still focused on the first half of life. And as Rohr states, “not everybody goes [into the second half of life], even though all of us get older, and some of us get older than others.” To do the first half of life rightly is essential.
So what is this second half of life? It is not a comfortable place to go, but it involves moving – usually being pushed – beyond the comfort zone we have spent so much time and energy creating. After his triumphant return to Ithaca from the Trojan War, Odysseus was called to leave his island home a second time, and travel to the mainland on a second, quite different, quest. This second task in our lives, Rohr tells us, “is more encountered than sought.”
His use of myth to illustrate his point is telling. He notes that the contemporary West has lost its respect for myth, but that most cultures have had a strong mythic tradition as a means of sharing timeless truths about who we are. In the words of Professor Clyde Kilby, “myth is the name of a way of seeing, a way of knowing“. “Systemising flattens,” says Kilby, “but myth rounds out. Systemising drains away color and life, but myth restores.”
There is plenty of scope for restoration. Rohr talks about “a gnawing desire for ‘ourselves’, for something more, or what I will call ‘homesickness.'” He describes the second half of life as “shadowboxing”, where we are forced to synthesise the dark and light sides of our experience, and move beyond dualistic either/or thinking to a wiser and more inclusive perspective. The problem, Rohr says, is that “our Western dualistic minds do not process paradoxes very well. Without a contemplative mind, we do not know how to hold creative tensions.”
(I have had a theory for some time that the reason we respond to music and poetry so deeply and viscerally, is that they act as carriers for emotions and ideas that are too complex, contradictory and overwhelming for us to process rationally. Rohr seems to agree: “As good poetry does, myths make unclear and confused emotions brilliantly clear and life changing.” The second half of life is a place of ambiguity, of myth and poetry and paradox, where we do not force ourselves to try to resolve that paradox, but our imagination and perception is somehow enlarged to accept and embrace it.)
We are usually tipped into our second task by some upheaval in our lives that is too great to handle within our established comfort zone. Failure is not something that only happens to the unsuccessful or the ungodly – nor is it something to be avoided or stigmatised. “By denying their pain, avoiding the necessary falling, many have kept themselves from their own spiritual depths – and therefore have been kept from their own spiritual heights.” We have to fail and fall, says Rohr, but in doing so we find that “the way down is the way up”.
It is only those in the second half of life, he says, who are equipped to act as ‘elders’ in society, as spiritual and moral leaders. From where I’m sitting, there are too few of them. Look at the political leaders whose fixation on ‘us’ and ‘them’, on the crude labels of inclusion and exclusion, has led to the current situations in Gaza and Mosul. Look at the religious leaders who obsess about outward conformity to rules and customs, creating a culture of checklist obedience and guilt that, at best, distracts their followers’ attention from coming to know God and know themselves. (Rohr, himself a Franciscan priest, has some fairly pointed comments about the dangers of Pharisaical thinking – about “rigid and angry old Christians” – and says that the phenomenon “seems to be true in all religions until and unless they lead to the actual transformation of persons”.)
Look, even, at the culture of the Harvard Business School, chillingly described in Susan Cain’s Quiet, which prizes assertiveness over the art of listening, and surgically removes any time for quiet individual thought and work from the schedules of its students. (Maybe this is part of the reason why Jonathan Sacks, writing in The Times last week, said “Thus far the 21st century has been marked by an unprecedented series of new technologies, but no new ideas”.) The things of the second half of life are not group activities.
Rohr does make it clear, though, that the second half of life is not a place of isolation. “You can usually do this well,” he says, “only if you have one true mirror yourself, at least one loving, honest friend to ground you… one true mirror that reveals your inner, deepest and, yes, divine image.” We do not withdraw as a result of the second half of life; we are able to live relationally, and far more so than we we before.
Falling Upward was a short read but a hard one. It demands a second and third reading. It has left me with as many questions as answers; I believe, for example, that there is a more fluid and gradual boundary between the first and second halves of life than Rohr seems to suggest. Nor does he offer any major roadsign to say “You are now entering the second half of life” – perhaps because there is none. He offers several passing comments that need more thought – for example, an interesting definition of eros as ‘life energy’, which means I will need to re-read C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves through a different lens.
Rohr does a better and more coherent job of describing the qualities and characteristics of the second half of life, than of helping us to navigate the tumultuous life events that may lead us there. This is not a book to be read in isolation; I was left more daunted than energised by reading it, and it needs to be seasoned with others which offer encouragement for the journey.
But it makes more sense of that journey than anything else I can remember reading. And it sets out the destination in the words of two unerring poets, people I have grown to trust as companions on my own journey: Hopkins’ As Kingfishers Catch Fire, quoted in the early pages of the book; and Eliot, whose Four Quartets are the poetic counterpoise to Rohr’s challenging thesis:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.