Sooner or later, it happens to each of us, Richard Rohr says.
“There always will be at least one situation in our lives that we cannot fix, control, explain, change or even understand,” the Franciscan priest said.
Maybe you’ve been laid off from a job you held for years. Perhaps you’ve experienced a nasty divorce. Or maybe the crisis is more subtle: You suddenly realized that you’ll never have the life you dreamed of living.
Any life-changing moment can knock a person down. But it can also open doors if, as Rohr puts it, a person learns how to “fall upward.”
Rohr, a 68-year-old Roman Catholic author and internationally known speaker, says older Americans face a problem: Religious leaders aren’t paying much attention to them.
Much of contemporary religion is geared toward teaching people how to navigate the first half of their lives, when they’re building careers and families. Rohr calls it a “goal-oriented” spirituality.
Yet there’s less help for people dealing with the challenges of aging: the loss of health, the death of friends, and coming to terms with mistakes that cannot be undone, he says.
Rohr’s new book, “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life,” is his attempt to fill that void. It also functions as a spiritual survival guide for hard times as millions of Americans young and old struggle to cope with “falling”: losing their homes, careers and status.
Rohr says he coined the phrase “falling upward” to describe a paradox. Nearly everyone will fall in life because they'll confront some type of loss, he says. Yet failure can lead to growth if a person makes the right decisions.
“I’ve met people who because of the loss of things and security have been able to find grace, freedom and new horizons,” he said.
If you’re falling in any area of your life, Rohr says, one of the first skills to learn is accepting surprises.
He says it’s easy for people to turn bitter when things don’t go as planned. He sees such people all the time, whether throwing tantrums at the airport because of long lines or flocking to angry rallies in opposition to some form of social change.
“You start attacking anybody else who is not like you,” Rohr said. “If you don’t know how to deal with exceptions, surprise and spontaneity by the time you’re my age, you become a predictable series of responses of paranoia, blame and defensiveness.”
Why suffering is necessary
Rohr’s book may address contemporary issues, but the wisdom is old. He extracts insights from sources as varied as Greek mythology, Catholic mysticism and fairy tales like Cinderella.
Such stories often teach similar lessons about hard times: Suffering is necessary, the “false self” must be abandoned, and “everything belongs, even the sad, absurd and futile parts.” Rohr, who has also written “Quest for the Grail,” a book on mythology, says people have learned these hard lessons for centuries through myth.
The heroes in mythological stories follow the same pattern. They must first experience humiliation, loss and suffering before finding enlightenment. They are often forced on their journey by a crisis.
No contemporary American is going to be asked to fight a monster, but an event like the evaporation of a retirement fund or the death of a spouse can force you to summon strength you didn’t know you had, Rohr says.
The key is not resisting the crisis.
“You have to allow the circumstances of God and life to break you out of your egocentric responses to everything,” he said. “If you allow ‘the other’ - other people, other events, other religions - to influence you, you just keep growing.”
That growth, though, is accompanied by death - the death of the “false self,” Rohr said. The false self is the part of your self tied to your achievements and possessions.
When your false self dies, you start learning how to base your happiness on more eternal sources, he says.
“You start drawing from your life within,” Rohr said. “You learn to distinguish from the essential self and the self that’s window dressing.”
Those who break through the crisis and lose their false selves become different people: less judgmental, more generous and better able to ignore “evil or stupid things,” he says.