Falling Upward cover

Falling Upward - Book Summary

A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life

Duration: 24:09
Release Date: November 21, 2023
Book Author: Richard Rohr
Categories: Religion & Spirituality, Mindfulness & Happiness
Duration: 24:09
Release Date: November 21, 2023
Book Author: Richard Rohr
Categories: Religion & Spirituality, Mindfulness & Happiness

In this episode of "20 Minute Books", we are diving into the profound philosophy presented in "Falling Upward" by Richard Rohr. Exploring the duality of our existence, this transformative work emphasizes that life is not just about aging, but about the evolution of our inner selves.

"Falling Upward" beautifully illustrates the 'tasks' of the two halves of life. In the first half, we focus on building our 'container'- defining our identity and laying down the foundations of our personality. In the second half, we start filling this 'container' with essence and wisdom, seeking our true purpose and spiritual fulfillment.

Penned by Richard Rohr, a renowned Franciscan priest and a prolific author, this book is the culmination of his vast experience in spirituality, scripture, and nature. He has authored over 20 enlightening books and been a global speaker sharing his profound wisdom. He contributes his deep insights to several magazines like Radical Grace, Sojourners, and Tikkun.

"Falling Upward" is a lighthouse for those sailing in the sea of life. It offers solace to those who have 'fallen' and are seeking comfort and perspective. It’s a guiding beacon for those embarking on the second half of their life journey, reassuring them of their growth and transformation. For the individuals in their first-half of life, this book provides an illuminating insight into what lies ahead, preparing them for the wisdom and growth that comes with age. Join us today as we navigate through the enlightening pages of "Falling Upward".

Dive into the depths of life's two crucial stages.

Life, as it turns out, is a grand play set out in two acts - the first half and the second. Quite like a coin, every one of us finds ourselves heads or tails up, as first-halfers or second-halfers, at any given point in time.

What defines these halves, you ask? Well, the first is all about exploration. It's where we embark on a journey to decipher the narrative of our lives. On the flip side, or the second half, we take charge as the authors, giving life and weight to our personal narrative.

Here's another way to picture it — the initial half is dedicated to building the vessel of our identity. The latter half, in contrast, is about filling this vessel with meaningful content, thereby lending purpose to our existence.

Whether you're still navigating your way through the first half or are deep into the second, these insights offer a guiding light. They clarify the concept of life's two halves, and elucidate the intriguing concept of 'falling upwards' as a means to journey from the first stage to the second.

Without further ado, let's delve into the crux of the matter.

Decoding Life's Dual Stages

Here's a catch — the division of life into two halves doesn't necessarily correspond with your age. Some individuals, particularly those who've endured profound hardships, may find themselves diving into life's second half while they're still children. Others might inch into this phase at a more mature age or may never reach it at all.

So, what does it mean to have "two halves" to life? And how can we be certain these halves exist?

Let's turn to the wisdom of Joseph Campbell, the renowned comparative mythologist and theologist. He coined the term "the monomyth of the hero", a universal narrative found in numerous cultures, despite their lack of interconnectivity. While the fine details may vary, the broader narrative arc remains strikingly similar.

In this story, we find the protagonist contently dwelling in an idyllic world, oblivious to their often divine origins. Their peaceful existence is then disrupted as they embark on an adventure that leads them out of their comfort zone. This journey introduces them to a problem, the resolution of which broadens their world and perspective significantly.

In this journey, the protagonist initially believes that their initial mission is their ultimate one. However, they soon realize that their real task lies further down the path. They discover the depth of their existence, extending far beyond outward appearances. Upon their eventual return home, they perceive their world anew, and like T.S. Elliot puts it, they know "the place for the first time," imparting the wisdom of their experiences to others.

This narrative pattern is referred to as "the hero's journey," and it beautifully mirrors our transition from the first to the second half of our lives. We find a similar pattern resonating through countless texts, both sacred and secular, penned by individuals in the midst of this transition, or who have successfully navigated it. Additionally, our observations of those still in the first half, as well as those established in the second, further validate this concept.

Many individuals remain oblivious to the existence of life's second half, spending their entire existence within the confines of the first. The reasons behind this will be explored further in the following section. However, regardless of which half you're currently in, it's essential to understand your position. This awareness is a powerful tool that can either guide you through the transition out of the first half or, if you're already immersed in the second half, provide comfort and affirmation that you're exactly where you're meant to be.

Understanding the Initial Stage of Life

We exist in a society deeply entrenched in the "first-half-of-life" mentality — a phenomenon as old as time itself. Given our primal instinct for survival, we find ourselves fixated on building our identities, carving out a home, fostering relationships, friendships, and cultivating a sense of community.

The quest for significance, securing a means of sustenance, and forging life-long companionships — these are the critical considerations that mark the first half of life. These are the very aspects that contribute to the creation of the 'container' of our lives.

In this initial phase of life, our journey revolves heavily around external factors; respect for laws, traditions, customs, and authoritative figures. This stage establishes clear boundaries and instills in us a discernible sense of morality. It offers a comforting sense of security and predictability, teaching us impulse control and structuring our egos. This helps us develop a robust sense of identity.

But these factors aren't simply byproducts of societal expectations; they are fundamental necessities for growth. Without such structure, our egos could spiral out of control, leaving us overwhelmed by limitless options. These laws and structures provide limits, preparing us for our interaction with the external world.

However, it's only in the second half of life that we begin to ponder over what our 'container' should hold: the true purpose and direction of our lives. Unfortunately, many individuals invest so much energy into creating and preserving their 'container' that they overlook the importance of its contents.

Our societal institutions, including religious entities, predominantly facilitate and reward these first-half tasks. Despite occasional inklings that something may be amiss, we persist in laying the groundwork, unaware of the additional layers awaiting construction.

Returning to the narrative of the hero's journey, let's transport ourselves back to 700 BC, to the time of the ancient Greek author and poet, Homer. His epic work, The Odyssey, narrates the adventures of the hero, Odysseus, as he attempts to return home from the Trojan wars. Along his journey, he faces numerous obstacles — seductive sirens, the menacing cyclops Polyphemus, and the tempting lotus eaters. It takes him ten years, but he finally reaches his homeland, Ithaca.

One might expect the story to conclude on a jubilant note as Odysseus reunites with his wife, father, son, and loyal dog, Argos. But Homer had more in store — two additional chapters chronicling another journey Odysseus had to undertake. Evidently, even in ancient Greece, Homer had an inkling that there was more to life.

In the following chapter, we'll delve deeper into this 'something more', resuming Odysseus's story.

Moving Towards the Next Stage

Let's journey back to Odysseus.

After a triumphant return and an emotional reunion with his family, Odysseus embarks on his second voyage. He had heard about this impending journey during his homeward odyssey from a blind seer named Tiresias, whom he encountered in Hades, the realm of the dead. This descent into Hades can be metaphorically perceived as Odysseus hitting rock bottom. Ironically, it's at this lowest point that he learns new things, even if he doesn't immediately register their significance.

His subsequent journey requires him to venture back to the mainland — an important aspect given Ithaca's insular nature. It represents a metaphorical reconnecting with the bigger picture of his existence. As he journeys inland, carrying an oar, he is to continue until he encounters someone oblivious to the sea — so unaware that they mistake his oar for a winnowing shovel, a tool used for separating grain from chaff. This marks the end of his journey. He is then required to plant the oar at this location and leave it behind. This act can be seen as a kind of initiation ritual, akin to burying one's childhood mementos. But his tasks aren't over just yet.

He then has to offer a ram, a bull, and a boar — symbols of his "raw and unrefined" masculine energy — as a sacrifice to Neptune, the sea god who had accompanied him during his first voyage. Essentially, he's discarding the tools that served him in the first half of his life, making way for a new set of tools required for the journey through the second half.

At last, Odysseus returns to Ithaca. Following more sacrifices, he is finally allowed to live the remainder of his life surrounded by his loved ones, until age wears him down and death claims him "gently from the sea". Death doesn't alarm Odysseus; he's lived both halves of his life and is, consequently, prepared to embrace the end without resistance.

The transition to a new stage of life is also echoed in the narratives of the world's three monotheistic religions. For instance, God instructs Abraham and Sarah to abandon their homeland, family, and paternal house to journey towards a new land. Similarly, in the New Testament, Jesus summons his disciples to embark on a fresh journey.

The transition from the first to the second half of life is an inevitable path every individual must tread. However, this shift isn't merely a product of willpower or moral uprightness. As Rohr phrases it, one needs to "fall upward". Before ascending, one must first descend — much like Odysseus's journey to the underworld. It requires a fall, albeit a well-executed one (we'll explore this concept further in a while). The challenge for those in the first half of life is to understand that they won't truly comprehend this truth until they have undergone the descent themselves and emerged on the other side.

The Art of Letting Go

Consider post-World War II Japan. Soldiers, recently returned from the battlefield, often found it challenging to adjust to the everyday rhythm of civilian life. They had been the “loyal soldiers”, but now, they needed a broader identity to contribute meaningfully to their communities. In response to this, a collective ritual was introduced. In this ceremony, the soldier would be appreciated and thanked for his service, and an elder would officially announce that the war was over, and the soldier was needed by the community as more than just a combatant. This concept of “discharging the loyal soldier” is an integral part of closure during transitions from one life chapter to the next.

Like these loyal soldiers, we have our own internal warriors that help us navigate the first half of our lives. They guide us to look both ways before crossing the road, provide impulse control to avoid addictive behaviors, and instruct us to establish our boundaries, fostering our dignity and identities. Yet, these internal warriors aren't equipped to help us transition to the second half of our lives. They lack the knowledge and understanding of this new territory. While they might have assisted us in making decisions based on black-and-white thinking, there comes a time when we must bid them farewell, just as the Japanese soldiers did — and just as Odysseus did, rowing his boat into his second journey.

Rohr likens the moment you finally bid goodbye to your loyal soldier to a "severe death". It's as if you're banishing yourself from everything you once knew. Many lack the courage to take that step forward, requiring a guide or a "stumbling block" to propel them onward. Wise guides are a rarity, and usually, it's only when our internal warriors prove ineffective in handling real-life challenges that we finally decide to release them.

This brings us back to the concept of "falling well" that we alluded to earlier – our metaphorical "stumbling block".

There comes a point in our lives when we encounter a situation we simply can't overcome, regardless of our abilities, knowledge, or willpower. It could be an event, a relationship, a loss, a tragedy, or even an idea. Regardless of the nature of the stumbling block, it pushes us to the edge of our capabilities. We stumble. We fall. Yet, this is crucial. If we never stumble, if we never fall, if we never endure what Rohr refers to as "necessary suffering", we would never be compelled to step out of our comfort zones.

Life is tough. Suffering, akin to death, is an inescapable facet of life. Denying this truth serves no purpose. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung noted in his 1938 book 'Psychology and Religion' that neuroses often stem from an inability to accept the "legitimate suffering" that comes with being human. Rejecting this "necessary pain" only amplifies our suffering in the long run.

However, it's essential to remember that we can't manufacture this necessary fall. If we attempted to, we'd only prepare for what we anticipate, and in reality, remain unchanged — merely experiencing a form of "self-improvement" on our own terms. Rohr advises that it's only through genuinely stumbling and falling — not merely reading or hearing about it — that we learn to surrender control to the "Real Guide".

Spiritually speaking, to find something, it appears, we must first lose, neglect, miss or long for it, and then rediscover it. Stories like Odysseus’s and other mythological tales teem with examples of loss and humiliation, represented by dragons, sea monsters, illnesses, plagues, shipwrecks, journeys into hell, homelessness, blindness, poverty, and an array of other scenarios.

The Gospels offer valuable insight into this process. In Matthew 16: 25–26, Jesus proclaims, "Anyone who wants to save their life must lose it. Anyone who loses their life will find it. What gain is there if you win the whole world and lose your very self? What can you offer in exchange for your one life?"

Through these words, Jesus conveys that necessary suffering is inevitable. It's necessary to "lose your life" — or as Rohr and other spiritualists call it, your "false self": your role, your title, your personal image — in order to discover your true self.

Zen masters refer to your true self as "the face you had before you were born." It's your core identity, or as Rohr describes it, who you were "from the beginning in the mind and heart of God." When you discover your true self, you learn to dwell in the "big picture" — you become a part of both time and history. For Jesus, this translates to living in "the Kingdom of God".

Embarking on the voyage of the second journey

Imagine standing on the cusp of a grand voyage. But this is not just any journey — it's the second voyage of your life, and it is marked by a subtle blend of stark solemnity and radiant joy. Richard Rohr in 'Falling Upward' refers to this phase as a period of 'bright sadness and a sober happiness'. It's a unique time when the shadows of our life still linger, but we navigate them with less distress. As our perspective evolves, we tend to release grudges, loosen judgments, and shed feelings of superiority. Our obsession with combating ignorance fades away — instead, we learn to consciously avoid it, and we embrace the virtue of quiet persuasion to bring about change.

Our journey so far has broadened the boundaries of our internal "containers". In our youth, we hunted for aspects that set us apart from our friends and family, looking for our unique identity. But on this second voyage, we find more comfort in similarities, in shared experiences, and in the common human condition. We no longer strain to stand out or control others — we are content with merely being.

Yet this quiet acceptance in itself carries a profound weight. The presence of true elders can define and deepen the scope of a conversation, without a word being uttered. When they do speak, they use minimal, well-chosen words to convey their thoughts. Rohr notes, if you find yourself buried under too many words, you might still be lingering in the realm of your first journey.

In the first half of life, our minds are filled with strong opinions, needs, and preferences. But as we venture into the second phase, we lose that relentless urge to form stubborn views on everything. We no longer desire to mold others for our own happiness, even if we hold the power to do so. Our mere existence becomes a source of influence and assistance.

In this stage of life, you might also experience a sense of "double belonging". No singular group can fulfill all your needs and visions. You learn to balance the scales and master the art of nondualistic thinking — of thinking in terms of "both-and" rather than "either-or". The world ceases to be a battleground of right versus wrong.

According to Rohr, Jesus was perhaps the pioneer of nondualistic thinking in Western culture. Jesus taught that God's sun shines on both good and evil, and His rain falls on the just and unjust alike. He urged us to let the weeds and wheat grow together — to not let our urge to weed out wrong tear apart the fabric of what's right.

Without embracing this shift to nondualistic thinking, we risk remaining anchored to the first half of our lives.

Often, people envision the second half of life as an ending, a countdown to their final breath, ridden with health issues and the grappling fear of mortality. Hopefully, you now perceive it differently. It's about soaring upwards into an expanded, interconnected world.

For Rohr, his ascent began in his forties when he recognized a startling paradox: some people adored him for who they thought he was, while others despised him for the same illusion. Simultaneously, some loved him for his true self — with all his imperfections — while others disparaged him for the same genuine identity. In realizing this, he also understood that people's reactions often reflected more about them than him. In the second half of life, you start recognizing the distinction between those addressing their issues through you, and those engaging with your authentic self.

The only one who can stop you from stepping onto the path of your second journey is you. Navigating this phase necessitates confronting some form of loss or pain — "pain is part of the deal," states Rohr. But remember, reframing your perspective on the challenges you encounter — a failed relationship, job loss, financial hardships, or loss of personal identity — can help pave the path to your second journey. Ultimately, your voyage is shaped by your desires and aspirations.

Wrapping up the journey

Over the course of our exploration of Richard Rohr's "Falling Upward", we've uncovered that life consists of two distinct stages. The first part involves crafting our 'container' — building our identity. The second, more profound stage, is about filling this 'container' — embracing our purpose. However, some individuals remain entangled in the pursuit of the first part, never making the leap into the second.

Transitioning into the second half of life requires a 'descent' — an encounter with a predicament in life that we can't resolve within our existing capabilities. This stumbling block serves as a catalyst, propelling us into the next stage of our journey. In the final analysis, the second half of life bestows upon us a unique combination of 'bright sadness and a sober happiness'. This is where we welcome the concept of nondualistic 'both-and' thinking and realize the immense value in simply being.

Falling Upward Quotes by Richard Rohr

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