In this visionary work, Rohr writes about the duties of the first half of life and then charts the adventures of the second half of life where spiritual maturity is the goal. Or to put it another way, the first stage is to create a strong container for identity whereas the second stage is to fill that container with the content of our deepest and fullest self.
— Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, reviewers of Richard Rohr’s
Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life
This is not a truth we want to hear, much less heed: we must fall in order to rise spiritually. Falling from the perceived grace of the first half of life (i.e., vim, vigor, and vitality) is actually rising to a kinder, gentler way of being . . . and of being a true elder.
We all know the powerful work of Joseph Campbell, capturing the essential contours of the hero’s journey—the pervasive human narrative that has three “acts” (with many scenes):
- departure from the familiar
- adventure–encounter with the unfamiliar and often dangerous
- return to the familiar with new insight, perspective, and “boons” (rewards of the adventure).
This last “act,” return, might be considered to be the “elder phase.”
But, can’t we mature and become a true elder more, well, elegantly? Like nimbly leaping, from stone to stone across a dangerous river, avoiding immersion in the river below that threatens to drown us with its rapid, unstoppable current?
Ah, according to spiritually wise people of all times and cultures, no.
Falling from our well-constructed reality (our “container,” our solid “stones”) jolts us into reality—the truth about the world, about ourselves, about our most authentic being and work. The cold shock of the water has a bracing, clarifying effect. It opens us up to the ways we’ve created a public persona that doesn’t fully match our true (unique, unrepeatable) God-given personhood and destiny.
“When we fail we are merely joining the great parade of humanity that has walked ahead of us and will follow after us,” Rohr assures us. It’s not moving away from truth, but towards it when we falter, fail, and fall. And, it’s normal, not aberrational. Falling is rising to a higher state of wisdom, of elderhood.
Because this falling is salvific—enlightening, truth-securing, awakening, it might be seen as “with grace.”
Lifespan developmentalist Erik Erikson noted the haunting distinction between being merely “elderly” and being a true elder (cf., The Life Cycle Completed, preface). Rohr echoes this implicit challenge in Falling Upward: our culture doesn’t cultivate rites of passage and honoring of stages as many more grounded societies have done with religious intentionality through ritual. What our culture doesn’t support, we must choose and, in a sense, re-create.
Elder is a capacity of soul that allows you to patiently understand things, and . . . our word for that is wisdom. It is not chronological maturity. It’s how you’ve dealt with the dark side and how successfully you’ve dealt with disappointment, betrayal, abandonment, failure, and rejection.”
—Richard Rohr in a November, 2011 interview)
So, we have a critical decision and choice: to fall with or without grace.
Falling—the disappointments, betrayals, abandonment, failure, and rejection that Rohr describes—happens in every human life. It’s inevitable.
Falling with grace transforms us into authentic elders, who can nurture and support others—especially, younger generations.
It seems that many are called and few choose this blessed falling . . . upward.
Consider pondering Rohr’s book and perhaps using the companion journals that a group of readers compiled as a way to deepen the lessons and integrate them more fully.