Falling Upward by Richard Rohr
Updated: May 28
If you are wrestling with big life questions like I am, I beg you to read what Rohr has to share. It really hit home, and I trust it will for many of you too.
Here’s to the second half of life!
P.s. Friendly reminder that the words (and italics) below are the author’s alone. :-)
“The greatest and most important problems of life are fundamentally unsolvable. They can never be solved, but only outgrown.” --Carl Jung
A journey into the second half of our lives awaits us all. Not everybody goes there, even though all of us get older...a “further journey” is a well-kept secret, for some reason. Many people do not even know there is one. There are too few who are aware of it, tell us about it, or know that it is different from the journey of the first half of life.
I am driven to write this book because…after 40 years as a Franciscan priest, I find that many, if not most, people and institutions remain stymied in the preoccupations of the first half of life. By that I mean that most people’s concerns remain those of establishing their personal (or superior) identity, creating various boundary markers for themselves, and seeking security. These tasks are good to some degree and even necessary...the world would be much worse off if we did not do this first and important work. But, in my opinion, the first-half-of-life work is no more than finding the starting gate.
What I hope to do in this book is make the sequencing, the tasks, and the direction of the two halves of life clear…The language of the first half of life and the language of the second half of life are almost two different vocabularies, known only to those who have been in both of them...in fact, if you cannot include and integrate the wisdom of the first half of life, I doubt you have moved to the second.
You cannot walk the second journey with first journey tools. You need a whole tool kit.
People at any age must know the whole arc of their life and where it is tending and leading…Usual crossover points from first half of life living to second half of life living include a kind of “necessary suffering,” stumbling over stumbling stones, and lots of shadowboxing, but often just a gnawing desire for “ourselves,” for something more, or what I will call “homesickness.”
Transformation is often more about unlearning than learning…
So get ready for some new freedom, some dangerous permission, some hope from nowhere, some unexpected happiness, some stumbling stones, some radical grace, and some new and pressing responsibility for yourself and for our suffering world.
“No wise person ever wanted to be younger.” --Native American Aphorism
We are a first half of life culture, largely concerned about surviving successfully…as Bill Plotkin puts it, many of us learn to do our “survival dance,” but we never get to our actual “sacred dance.”
Life, if we are honest about it, is made up of many failings and fallings, amidst all of our hopeful growing and achieving….Most of us find all failure bewildering, but it does not have to be.
The familiar and the habitual are so falsely reassuring, and most of us make our homes there permanently. The new is always unfamiliar and too often untested, so God, life, destiny, suffering have to give us a push--usually a big one--or we will not go.
The supposed achievements of the first half of life have to fall apart and show themselves to be wanting in some way, or we will not move further. Why would we?
In legends and literature, the sacrifice of something to achieve something else is almost the only pattern...Normally a job, fortune, or reputation has to be lost, a death has to be suffered, a house has to be flooded, or a disease has to be endured before we move on to our second half of life...some kind of falling, what I will soon call “necessary suffering,” is programmed into the journey.
No one would choose such upheaval consciously; we must somehow “fall” into it. Those who are too carefully engineering their own superiority systems will usually not allow it at all.
If there is such a thing of human perfection, it seems to emerge precisely from how we handle the imperfection everywhere, especially our own.
The human ego prefers anything, 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.
We belong to a Mystery far grander than our little selves and our little time…Remember, the opposite of rational is not always irrational, but it can also be transrational, or bigger than the rational mind can process; things like love, death, suffering, God, and infinity are transrational experiences.
Chapter 1: The Two Halves of Life
“One cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life's morning; for what was great in the morning will be of little importance in the evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.” --Carl Jung
The task of the first half of life is to create a proper container for one’s life and answer the first essential questions: What makes me significant? How can I support myself? And who will go with me?
Problematically, the first task invests so much of our blood, sweat, eggs and sperm, tears and years that we often cannot imagine there is a second task, or that anything more could be asked of us…Only when you have begun to live the second half can you see the difference between the two. Yet the two halves are cumulative and sequential, and both are very necessary.
If you try to skip the first journey, you’ll never see its real necessity and also its limitations; you will never know why this first half of life must fail you, the wonderful fullness of the second half of the journey, and the relationship between the two.
Such is the unreality of many people who “never grow up” or who remain narcissistic into their old age. I am afraid this is not a small number of people in our world today...they cannot understand what they have not yet experienced. They are totally involved in their first task, and cannot see beyond it. Conversely, if a person has transcended and included the previous stages, they will always have a patient understanding of the juniors, and can be patient and helpful to them somewhat naturally.
You have to first have an ego structure to then let go of it and move beyond it…In the first half of life, success, security, and looking good to ourselves and to others are almost the only questions...if we do not move beyond our early motivations of personal security, reproduction, and survival (the fear-based preoccupations of the lizard brain ego), we will never proceed beyond the lower stages of human or spiritual development.
Carl Jung first popularized the phrase “the two halves of life.”
Two general insights:
First of all, you can only see and understand the earlier stages from the wider perspective of the later stages.
Second...from your own level of development, you can only stretch yourself to comprehend people just a bit beyond yourself.
We have not found a way to do the age-appropriate tasks of the two halves of life, and both groups are losing out. The first halfers are made to think that the first half of life concerns are all there is and all they should expect...the second halfers are not challenged to any adult faith or service to the world...so everyone ends up muddled in the middle, where, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” as William Butler Yeats put it.
Chapter 2: The Hero and Heroine’s Journey
The stages of the hero’s journey are a skeleton of what this book wants to say! In some ways, we are merely going to unpack this classic journey and draw out many of the implications that are even clearer today, both psychologically and spiritually.
The hero or heroine is by definition a “generative” person concerned about the next generation and not just about himself or herself. The hero lives in deep time and not just in his or her own small time. In fact, I would wonder if you could be a hero if you did not live in what many call deep time--that is, past, present, and future all at once. Heroism serves the common good, or it is not really heroism at all.
What are you going to do with the second half of your life? That is the heroic question.
The very first sign of a potential hero’s journey is that he or she must leave home, the familiar...unless you build your first half of life house well, you will never leave it. Ironically, to build your house well is to be nudged beyond its doors. We build it to leave it.
Many of us cannot move ahead because we have not done the first task, learned from the last task, or had any of our present accomplishments acknowledged by others...we can--and will--move forward as soon as we have completed and lived the first half of life.
Once the old agenda shows itself to be insufficient, or even falls apart, is when the second half of life begins. All that each of us can do is to live in the now that is given. We cannot rush the process; we can only carry out each stage of our lives to the best of our ability.
Chapter 3: The First Half of Life
As Rilke put it, “when we are only victorious over small things, it leaves us feeling small.”
You ironically need a very strong ego structure to let go of your ego. You need to struggle with the rules of society more than a bit before you throw them out…Basically, if you stay in the protected first half of life beyond its natural period, you become a well-disguised narcissist or an adult infant (who is also a narcissist!)--both of whom are often thought to be successful by mainstream culture.
When some have not been able to do the task of the first half of life well, they go back and try to do it again--and then often overdo it!
Because we have lost any sense of the need for rites of passage, most people have no clear crossover to the second half of their lives. No one shows us the stunted and limited character of the worldview of the first half of life, so we just continue with more of the same….Western people are a ritually starved people, and in this are different than most of human history.
Paradoxically your loyal soldier (ego) gives you so much security and validation that you may confuse his voice with the very voice of God…the loyal soldier (ego) is the voice of all your early authority figures.
The loyal soldier (ego) cannot get you to the second half of life. He does not understand it. He can help you “get through hell”...but then you have to say good-bye when you move into the subtleties of midlife and later life…There is a deep voice of God, which you must learn to hear and obey in the second half of life. It will sound an awful lot like the voices of risk, of trust, or surrender, of soul, of “common sense,” of destiny, of love, of an intimate stranger, of your deepest self.
Our loyal soldier normally begins to be discharged somewhere between the ages of 35 and 55….if it happens at all.
To let go of the first half of life will be a severe death, and an exile from your first base...First half of life folks will seldom have the courage to go forward at this point unless they have a guide or stumbling block to guide them toward the goal....wise guides are hard to find.
When you first discharge your loyal soldier, it will feel like a loss of faith or loss of self. But it is only the death of the false self, and is often the very birth of the soul. Instead of being ego driven you will begin to be soul drawn.
Chapter 4: The Tragic Sense of Life
As Jung put it, “where you stumble and fall, there you find pure gold.”
The tragic sense of life is ironically not tragic at all, at least in the Big Picture. Living in such deep time, connected to past and future, prepares us for necessary suffering, keeps us from despair about our own failure and loss, and ironically offers us a way through it all. We are merely joining the great parade of humanity that has walked ahead of us and will follow after us. The tragic sense of life is not unbelief, pessimism, fatalism, or cynicism. It is just ultimate and humiliating realism, which for some reason demands a lot of forgiveness of almost everything.
Chapter 5: Stumbling Over the Stumbling Stone
Sooner or later, if you are on any classic “spiritual schedule,” some event, person, death, idea, or relationship will enter your life that you simply cannot deal with, using your present skill set, your acquired knowledge, or your strong willpower. You will be led to the edge of your own private resources. At that point you will stumble over a necessary stumbling stone...this is the only way that can get you to change, to let go of your egocentric preoccupations, and go on the further larger journey of the second half of life. I wish I could say this was not true, but it is darn near absolute.
Any effort to engineer or plan your own enlightenment is doomed to failure because it will be ego-driven. You will see only what you have already decided to look for, and you cannot see what you are not ready to look for. So failure and humiliation force you to look where you never would otherwise...so we must stumble and fall, I am sorry to say...falling, losing, failing...are the pattern, I am sorry to say. Yet they all lead toward home.
In the end, we do not so much reclaim what we have lost as discover a significantly new self in and through the process. Until we are led to the limits of our present game plan, and find it to be insufficient, we will not search out or find the real source for our second half of life…Suffering does not solve any problem mechanically as much as it reveals the constant problem that we are to ourselves, and opens up new spaces within us for learning and loving.
If you do not do the task of the first half of life well, you have almost no ability to rise up from the stumbling stone. You just stay down and defeated...in Western society today, with no proper tragic sense of life, we try to believe that it is all upward and onward--and by ourselves. It works for so few, and it cannot serve us well in the long run--because it is not true.
Chapter 6: Necessary Suffering
Jung said that so much unnecessary suffering comes into the world because people will not accept the “legitimate suffering.”
As we move into the second half of life, we are very often at odds with our natural family and the “dominant consciousness” of our culture...it takes a huge push…to move beyond family-of-origin stuff, local church stuff, cultural stuff, flag-and-country stuff is a path that few of us follow positively and with integrity. The pull is just too great to conform.
Your false self is your role, title, and personal image that is largely a creation of your own mind and attachments. It will and must die in exact correlation to how much you want the Real. “How much false self are you willing to shed to find your True Self?” is the lasting question. Such necessary suffering will always feel like dying.
Your True Self is who you objectively are from the beginning...the surrendering of our false self is the necessary suffering needed to find “the pearl of great price” that is always hidden inside this lovely but passing shell.
Chapter 7: Home and Homesickness
“Life is a luminous pause between two great mysteries, which themselves are one.” --Carl Jung
The soul lives in such eternally deep time….our problem is that we seriously doubt that there is any vital reality to the spiritual world, so we hear no life-changing voices--true even for many who go to church, temple, or mosque.
If we go to the depths of anything, we will begin to knock upon something substantial, “real,” and with a timeless quality to it. We will move from the starter kit of “belief” to an actual inner knowing. This is most especially true if we have ever loved deeply, accompanied someone through the mystery of dying, or stood in genuine life-changing awe before mystery, time, or beauty.
Chapter 8: Amnesia and the Big Picture
If you accept a punitive notion of God, who punishes or even eternally tortures those who do not love him, then you have an absurd universe where most people on this earth end up being more loving than God! God excludes no one from union, but must allow us to exclude ourselves in order for us to maintain our freedom.
Chapter 9: A Second Simplicity
After almost seventy years, I am still a mystery to myself! Our youthful demand for certainty does eliminate most anxiety on the conscious level, so I can see why many of us stay in such a control tower during the first half of life.
First-half-of-life “naivete” includes a kind of excitement and happiness that is hard to let go of, unless you know there is an even deeper and tested kind of happiness out ahead of you. But you do not know that yet in the early years! Which is why those in the second half of life must tell about it! Without elders, a society perishes socially and spiritually.
Wisdom happily lives with mystery, doubt, and “unknowing”...It takes a lot of learning to finally “learn ignorance.”
Humans are creators of meaning, and finding deep meaning in our experiences is not just another name for spirituality but is also the very shape of human happiness. This new coherence, a unified field inclusive of all of life’s paradoxes, is precisely what gradually characterizes a second-half-of-life person. It feels like a return to simplicity after having learned from all the complexity. Finally, at last, one has lived long enough to see that “everything belongs,” even the sad, absurd, futile parts.
If you have forgiven yourself for being imperfect and falling, you can now do it for just about everybody else. If you have not done it for yourself, I am afraid you will likely pass on your sadness, absurdity, judgment, and futility to others. This is the tragic path of the many elderly people who have not become actual elders, who have not transitioned well into second-half-of-life people, probably because they were never mentored along the way themselves.
We need to hold together all of the stages of life, and for some strange, wonderful reason, it all becomes quite “simple” as we approach our later years.
Chapter 10: A Bright Sadness
There is a gravitas in the second half of life, but it is now held up by a much deeper lightness, or “okayness.” Our mature years are characterized by a kind of bright sadness and a sober happiness...In the second half of life, one has less and less need or interest in eliminating the negative or fearful, holding on to old hurts, or feeling any need to punish other people. Your superiority complexes have gradually departed in all directions. You do not fight these things anymore; they have just shown themselves too many times to be useless, ego-based, counterproductive, and often entirely wrong. You learn to positively ignore and withdraw your energy from evil or stupid things rather than fight them directly.
By the second half of life, you have learned very slowly, and with much resistance, that most frontal attacks on evil just produce another kind of evil in yourself, along with a very inflated self-image to boot, and incites a lot of pushback from those you have attacked. This seems to be one of the last lessons learned...holier-than-thou people usually end up holier than nobody.
The Eight Beatitudes speak more powerfully than the Ten Commandments in the second half of life. I have always wondered why people never want to put a stone monument of the Eight Beatitudes on the courthouse lawn. Then I realize that the Eight Beatitudes of Jesus would probably not be very good for any war, any macho worldview, the wealthy, or our consumer economy…In the second half, you try instead to work for change, quietly persuade, change your own attitude, pray, or forgive instead of taking things to court.
If you talk too much or too loud, you are usually not fully in the second half of life...if we know anything at this stage, we know that we are all in this together and that we are all equally naked underneath our clothes...when you are young you define yourself by differentiating yourself; now you look for things we all share in common. You find happiness in alikeness...in the second half of life, it is good just to be a part of the general dance. We do not have to stand out, make defining moves, or be better than anyone else on the dance floor.
In the second half of life, I no longer have to prove that I or my group is best, that my ethnicity is superior, that my religion is the only one that God loves, or that my role and place in society deserve superior treatment. I am not preoccupied with collecting more goods; quite simply, my desire and effort--every day--is to pay back, to give back to the world a bit of what I have received.
In the second half of life, we do not have strong and final opinions about everything, every event, or most people, as much as we allow things and people to delight us, sadden, and truly influence us. We no longer need to change or adjust other people to be happy ourselves...we have moved from doing to being to an utterly new kind of doing that flows almost organically, quietly, and by osmosis.
In the second half of life your concern is not so much to have what you love anymore, but to love what you have--right now. This is a monumental change from the first half of life, so much so that it is almost the litmus test of whether you are in the second half of life at all.
Such inner brightness ends up being a much better and longer-lasting alternative to evil than any war, anger, violence, or ideology could ever be. All you have to do is meet one such shining person and you know that he or she is surely the goal of humanity and the delight of God. I hope you are becoming that shining person for yourself, and that this book is helping you see it, allow it, and trust it.
Chapter 11: The Shadowlands
By the second half of life, you have been in regular unwelcome contact with your shadow self, which gradually detaches you from your not-so-bright persona that you so diligently constructed in the first half of life. Your stage mask is not bad, evil, or necessarily egocentric; it is just not “true.” It is manufactured and sustained unconsciously by your mind; but it can and will die, as all fictions must die.
Your shadow is what you refuse to see about yourself and what you do not want others to see...
The movement to second-half-of-life wisdom has much to do with necessary shadow work and the emergence of healthy self-critical thinking, which alone allows you to see beyond your own shadow and disguise and to find who you truly are...the Zen masters call it “the face you had before you were born.”
Spiritual maturity is largely a growth in seeing; and full seeing seems to take most of our lifetime, with a huge leap in the final years, months, weeks, and days of life, as any hospice volunteer will tell you.
Shadow work is humiliating work, but properly so. If you do not “eat” such humiliations with regularity and make friends with the judges and those who reveal to you and convict you of your own denied faults who come into your life, you will surely remain in the first half of life forever.
We never get to the second half of life without major shadowboxing. And I am sorry to report that it continues until the end of life, the only difference being that you are no longer surprised by your surprises or so totally humiliated by your humiliations! You come to expect various forms of halfheartedness, deceit, vanity, or illusions from yourself. But now you see through them, which destroys most of their power.
Remember, hypocrite is a Greek word that simply means “actor,” someone playing a role rather than being “real.” We are all in one kind of closet or another and are even encouraged by society to play our roles. Usually everybody else can see your shadow, so it is crucial that you learn what everybody else knows about you already--everyone except you!
I am afraid that the closer you get to the Light, the more of your shadow you see…Invariably when something upsets you, and you have a strong emotional reaction out of proportion to the moment, your shadow self has just been exposed. So watch for any overreactions or overdenials.
There will always be some degree of sadness, humiliation, and disappointment resulting from shadow work, so it’s best to learn to recognize it and not obsess over it. It is the false self that is sad and humbled, because its game is over...but let me distinguish between good and necessary sadness from some forms of depression. Many depressed people are people who have never taken any risks, never moved outside their comfort zone, never faced necessary suffering, and so their unconscious knows that they have never lived--or loved! It is not the same as necessary sadness, although it can serve that function. I am afraid that a large percentage of people in their later years are merely depressed or angry. What an unfortunate way to live one’s final years.
One of the great surprises is that humans come to full consciousness precisely by shadowboxing, facing their own contradictions, and making friends with their own mistakes and failings. People who have had no inner struggles are invariably both superficial and uninteresting....shadow work is almost another name for falling upward.
Chapter 12: New Problems and New Directions
If you are on course at all, your world should grow much larger in the second half of life. But I must tell you that, in yet another paradox, your circle of real confidants and truly close friends will normally grow smaller, but also more intimate.
So our question now becomes, “how can I honor the legitimate needs of the first half of life, while creating space, vision, time, and grace for the second?” The holding of this tension is the very shape of wisdom. Only hermits and some retired people can almost totally forget the first and devote themselves totally to the second, but even they must eat, drink, and find housing and clothing! The human art form is in uniting fruitful activity with a contemplative stance--not one or the other, but always both at the same time.
Soulful people temper our tantrums by their calm, lessen our urgency by their peace, exhibit a world of options and alternatives when all the conversation turns into dualistic bickering...this is why all institutions need second-half-of-life people in their ranks; just two or three in each organization are enough to keep them from total self-interest.
There is a certain and real loneliness if you say yes and all your old friends are saying no. So be prepared when your old friendships no longer fully speak to you the way they used to. But I promise you that those confusing feelings are far outdistanced by a new ability to be alone--and to be happy alone. One of the great surprises at this point is that you find that the cure for your loneliness is actually solitude! Who would have imagined that to be the case?
We all tend to move toward a happy and needed introversion as we get older. Such introversion is necessary to unpack all that life has given us and taken from us. We engage in what is now a necessary and somewhat natural contemplation...we move toward understimulation, if we are on the schedule of the soul...silence is the only language spacious enough to include everything...poetry now names your own inner experience even if you have never read poetry before.
In fact, if your politics do not become more compassionate and inclusive, I doubt whether you are on the second-half-of-life journey...the trouble is that a lot of people don’t get there...
In the first half of life, the negative, the mysterious, the scary, and the problematic are always exported elsewhere…forgiveness of everything is the very name of growth, maturity, and holiness…Unless you let the truth of life teach you on its own terms, unless you develop some concrete practice for recognizing and overcoming your dualistic mind, you will remain in the first half of life forever, as most of humanity has up to now.
In the first half of life, you cannot work with the imperfect, nor can you accept the tragic sense of life, which finally means that you cannot love anything or anyone at any depth.
Chapter 13: Falling Upward
Most of us tend to think of the second half of life as largely about getting old, dealing with health issues, and letting go of our physical life, but the thesis of this book is exactly the opposite.
What looks like falling can largely be experienced as falling upward and onward, into a broader and deeper world, where the soul has found its fullness, is finally connected to the whole, and lies inside the Big Picture...it is not a loss but somehow a gain, not losing but actually winning.
By the second half of life, you learn to tell the difference between who you really are and how others can mirror that or not. This will keep you from taking either insults or praise too seriously. I doubt whether this kind of calm discrimination and detachment is much possible before your mid-fifties at the earliest.
The only final and meaningful question is “is it true?” not “who said it?”
By all means, you must find at least one true mirror that reveals your inner, deepest, and, yes, divine image. This is why intimate moments are often mirroring moments of beautiful mutual receptivity, and why such intimacy heals us so deeply. Thinking you can truthfully mirror yourself is a first-half-of-life illusion.
It is all a matter of learning how to see, and it takes much of our life to learn to see well and truthfully. In the second half of life, people have less power to infatuate you, but they also have much less power to control you or hurt you.
It is the freedom of the second half not to need.
Just remember this: no one can keep you from the second half of your own life except yourself. Nothing can inhibit your second journey except your own lack of courage, patience, and imagination. Your second journey is all yours to walk or to avoid. My conviction is that some falling apart of the first journey is necessary for this to happen, so do not waste a moment of time lamenting poor parenting, a lost job, failed relationships, physical handicap, gender identity, economic poverty, or even the tragedy of any kind of abuse. Pain is part of the deal. If you don’t walk into the second half of your own life, it's you who does not want it.