Falling Upward | Richard Rohr

Summary of: Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life — A Companion Journal
By: Richard Rohr


Embark on a journey of self-discovery and spiritual growth with Richard Rohr’s ‘Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.’ The book delves into the importance of understanding the two distinct phases of life and how one transitions from the first half to the second half. Drawing on insights from Joseph Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey’ and the spiritual wisdom of different cultures and religions, Rohr guides readers into the deeper and more meaningful stage of life. The book helps readers recognize where they stand in the continuum of life and how to transition, unraveling the significance of finding one’s true self, letting go of the ‘false self,’ and embracing a new perspective.

Unraveling the Two Halves of Life

Life can be divided into two halves, not necessarily related to age. The concept of these two halves is derived from Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey,” a universal narrative shared across different cultures. The first half of life represents the protagonist’s initial adventures, while the second half is about deeper self-discovery and imparting acquired wisdom to others. Many people remain in the first half, unaware of the second half’s existence. Recognizing which half one belongs to can assist in transitioning out of the first half or provide reassurance in the second.

In life, aging does not solely determine our move from the first half to the second half. In fact, these two halves of life aren’t always related to age at all. Some individuals, especially those who have faced hardships, might enter the second half of life quite early, whereas others might never experience it at all.

So, what exactly do we mean by these “two halves” of life? To answer this question, it’s crucial to understand Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey.” Campbell, a renowned comparative mythologist and theologist, observed that numerous unrelated cultures shared a similar narrative arc in their myths. This universal storyline, called the “monomyth of the hero,” is the base layer for understanding the two halves of life.

The hero’s journey unfolds as follows: The protagonist, often royal or possessing hidden divine origins, lives in a content and idyllic world. They embark on an adventure that pushes them out of their comfort zone, and during this quest, they encounter problems. The process of solving these problems enlarges and opens up their world, transforming their perspective as well. Though the protagonist initially believes they have completed their task, the real work for them begins later as they delve deeper into self-discovery. Eventually, they return to their origins and, seeing it with newfound clarity, share the wisdom they’ve gained with others.

This hero’s journey mirrors our progression from the first to the second half of life. Throughout history, various sacred and secular writings have explained this transition, providing insights on navigating from one half of life to the other. Observing people in the second half of life and those who never move beyond the first half can also teach us about this profound shift.

A significant challenge is that many individuals are unaware that a second half of life even exists. Various factors contribute to a person remaining in the first half throughout their entire life, which will be explored in the next chapter. However, recognizing which half of life you’re in is crucial—it can facilitate the transition out of the first half or offer reassurance and comfort to those in the second half, affirming they’re exactly where they’re meant to be.

First-Half-Life Culture

Living in a “first-half-of-life culture,” we focus on building our external identities and foundations for our lives – like relationships, communities, and careers. These structures provide us with predictability, security, and a sense of identity. However, it’s crucial to move beyond this stage and, instead, explore the meaningful contents or purpose for these “containers” in the later part of our lives. Drawing inspiration from Homer’s Odyssey, we should embrace the “hero’s journey” of self-discovery and growth.

Throughout history, our society has been a “first-half-of-life culture.” Our primary concerns revolve around survival, leading us to invest our energy in building elements that define our identities. We focus on forming relationships, creating communities, and establishing careers to create a reliable foundation for our lives. These foundational steps serve as a “container” that influences the development of our character and values.

In the beginning, our growth relies heavily on these external factors. We depend on established beliefs, traditions, and authorities to guide our development within a safe, secure, and predictable environment. Consequently, we’re equipped with a distinct and familiar sense of morality and stability that helps to tame our egos and build up a solid identity.

These basic building blocks are essential for our early growth, as they enable us to form a strong relationship with the outside world. However, as we progress into the second half of our lives, it’s crucial to shift our focus inwards and examine the contents or purpose of our established containers. Unfortunately, many of us continue to dedicate our time and effort into maintaining and upgrading our containers, neglecting the need to enrich its inner substance.

Our cultural, social, and religious institutions are designed to support and reward “first-life” objectives, leaving us in a constant state of dissatisfaction as we continue to complete the structures without considering the underlying meaning or purpose. Inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, we should embrace the “hero’s journey,” which entails overcoming external obstacles only to uncover greater personal growth and self-discovery.

In the Odyssey, the hero, Odysseus, endures ten years of hardships and adventures before finally returning home to reunite with his loved ones. Yet, the story doesn’t end with his homecoming; two additional chapters depict a second journey he must undertake. Even in ancient Greece, there was an awareness that simply building the foundation of one’s life wasn’t enough – a deeper exploration and understanding of our lives are necessary.

As we move through different stages of life, we must remember that focusing solely on the first half of life and constructing our containers is not enough. To truly thrive and find meaning, recognizing and embracing the hero’s journey towards self-awareness and genuine fulfillment in the second half of life is vital.

Embracing Life’s Second Half

Odysseus’s second journey, as depicted in Homer’s epic, teaches lessons about transitioning from the first half to the second half of life. It illustrates the importance of letting go of old ways, embracing new perspectives, and realizing that the transition cannot be achieved through willpower alone. Instead, it requires individuals to “fall upward,” embracing a downturn before rising stronger, much like Odysseus had to descend to Hades before embarking on his transformative second journey.

Returning home after a perilous adventure, the famed hero Odysseus sets out on a second journey, as foretold by the blind seer Tiresias during their encounter in Hades. This voyage to the realm of the dead can be seen as reaching rock bottom, but it’s here that Odysseus gains valuable insights for his life to come.

Leaving his island home of Ithaca, Odysseus’s metaphorical reconnection with the greater world is symbolized by his return to the mainland. He’s instructed to travel inland with an oar until he encounters someone who mistakes it for a winnowing shovel – a tool for separating grain from chaff. This meeting marks the end of his journey, symbolizing the initiation into a new stage of life, much like a child parting ways with their treasured toys.

To embrace this transformation, Odysseus must shed aspects of his past, represented by the ram, bull, and boar he sacrifices to the sea god Neptune. These creatures symbolize the raw and immature energy that served him well in the past but must now be relinquished. In its place, new tools and perspectives will emerge, allowing him to navigate the second half of his life.

His willingness to adapt and embrace change, rather than resist it, means Odysseus can return home to Ithaca, living the remainder of his life earthened by the wisdom of his trials, ready even for a peaceful, inevitable death.

Like Odysseus, individuals must transition from the first half to the second half of life, acknowledging that such a shift cannot materialize through determination or personal virtue alone. As spiritual author Richard Rohr observes, one’s path into this new stage requires them to “fall upward,” paralleling Odysseus’ visit to the underworld. Through falling, they can begin to rise, reshaped by the experiences that ground them.

The complexity of this transformative journey can feel daunting for those in their first half of life, as the true depth of its meaning only emerges once they have traversed the downward path and emerged on the other side, wiser and renewed.

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