Read with Ears to Hear: My Review of Richard Rohr's Falling Upward

Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of LifeFalling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have never not been preoccupied by aging and death. My friends have observed that about me and exploit it for comedic effect; my younger friends like to tell me what grade they or their parents were in when I passed through some key rite of passage; my older friends like to remind me that I haven't been a kid for a long time and that there is a fiber-rich diet in my future. They laugh when they see me stress out over such comments, but I'll get the last laugh, I think: the younger ones will eventually themselves be old; the older ones will eventually be dead.

The passage of time is certainly fascinating to me, but it's made more profound and troubling by its association with questions of vocation. "What do I want to be when I grow up?" is a question that plagued me for a long time but that has long since been replaced with "What am I doing with my life?" or, worse, "What am I going to do with the rest of my life?" In the face of such weighty questions, a simple vision for aging and calling is undeniably attractive. I found such a simple vision in Richard Rohr's Falling Upward.

I saw Rohr speak on this topic at the 2011 inaugural Wild Goose Festival and was immediately won over to his take on it. The basic premise is this: we spend the first half of our life building the container into which we will pour the product of the second half of our life. Our first half is preoccupied with externals--status, yes, but also personal rules and priorities, a vision for how life should be. In the second half we turn our eyes from such externals and start to note both what they've done and failed to do for us, what they've allowed us to do in life and what our preoccupation with them has cost us and those we love. The first half is the search for identity; the second half is the search for serenity.

That is probably oversimplifying things, but Rohr's premise is alarmingly simple. There are two distinct calls placed on us in life; the first is provisional, preparing us for the second. The transition from one call to the next is often precipitated by crisis, but more generally by a sense that the first call is completed, or incomplete: it cannot fulfill a life in and of itself.

The notion of "falling" enters in at this transitional moment. We experience the death of a loved one, or the collapse of a profession that we had come to define ourselves by, or the end of a relationship that we thought was forever. Or we start to notice that the things we have invested so heavily in for so long are simply not returning their investment; they don't prop us up so much as trap us inside themselves. We feel ourselves in free fall, all the while hearing a whisper to some higher aspiration. We are being beckoned beyond ourselves; we are, it turns out, falling up.

This transition calls for wisdom and humility and resolve. "The human ego prefers anything," Rohr writes, "just about anything, to falling or changing or dying. The ego is that part of you that loves the status quo, even when it is not working. It attaches to past and present, and fears the future." Rohr suggests that most people actually never enter into the second half of life; rather than fall upward they grasp tightly to some artificial anchor to the present--they make an idol of their kids or their spouse or their job or their car--and drown out the divine whisper with TV and music and corporate worship and even their own inner diatribes against the status quo. People who reject the second call don't become the elders that ground a culture and give it a future; they just become old--wrinkly, crotchety, useless. They have neglected or even rejected the search for their true self, the self beyond the reputation that they've often carefully cultivated. They never ceased being the persona they created to occupy the space they found themselves in, and so never die to themselves only to be resurrected into what their community needs, their God demands and they themselves have always wanted to be. "Your stage mask is not bad, evil, or necessarily egocentric; it is just not 'true,'" Rohr writes. "It is manufactured and sustained unconsciously by your mind; but it can and will die, as all fictions must die."

That's the thing: we should outlive our fictional selves. The world needs us to, because in order to run well it can't itself be bothered by these deeper truths. We need ourselves to, because we will search in vain for the ultimate meaning of our lives without the perspective of the second call. The people we love need us to, because the grace God invests in us is dispensed best and perhaps only out of this second half of life. "The classic spiritual journey always begins elitist and ends egalitarian." In other words, only our elders (in the truest sense of that word) can give us what we need for our own spiritual journeys, and they can only do it by forsaking their own impulses toward elitism. The truest elders among us, like Desmond Tutu or the Dalai Lama, are sometimes the most childlike.

The book wasn't perfect. For as much as Rohr avers that not everyone achieves their second calling (in fact most don't), it often comes across as an inevitability, which will reinforce in some old (but not elder) readers their automatic moral and spiritual superiority over people who are younger than they are. The old, crotchety people I know don't need any such reinforcement, and so I'd be reluctant to put this book in front of them. Rohr also implies that Christian doctrine is the enemy of the second call, that the codes of conduct and the attitude of exclusivity that attends to most organized religion (not just his own religion, although he minces no words about the state of contemporary Christianity) is helpful for the immature but to the person on the second journey seems silly. He may well be right, but his argument feels a little thin (and self-serving), and will be a bridge too far for many readers.

Bottom line: this book, like any book that aspires to call someone from one developmental stage to the next, should be read mainly by those with ears to hear. And those folks should read it more than once. So, probably, should those who read it without ears to hear; the second or third time might be the charm.

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