Friday, July 18, 2014

Richard Rohr's Falling Upward

Reflections on Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr, read on Kindle. Also "David Brooks's 5-Step Guide to Being Deep," by Uri Friedman, in The Atlantic on line. Also NPR's All Things Considered, "The Three Scariest Words a Boy Can Hear,"  (i.e., "be a man"), interview with Joe Ehrmann, 

"What is a normal goal to a young person becomes a neurotic hindrance in old age." - Carl Jung. 

By "neurotic hindrance," does Jung mean the feeling that I'm letting down my late father if I don't make myself rich and famous?  It looks like it.  To me, "maturity" has meant rising to prominence in some field and securing the future with responsible planning. 

At 55, I'm startled to hear that "growing up," as I've received it, is just preparation.  But now that I've heard about getting beyond "grown up" in Ronald Rolheiser's book Sacred Fire (see my article "Beyond Growing Up"), I'm hearing that message everywhere.

Columnist David Brooks uses the phrase "being deep" to describe the maturity that goes beyond setting up one's domain and securing it for one's family. He cites a rabbi's analysis of the two stories in Genesis about "the resume Adam," charged to fill and subdue the earth, who is all about building and starting things, and "the internal Adam," charged with "serving" and "keeping" the Garden, who is more about asking why we're here.  Brooks defines five qualities that lead us to depth -- love, suffering, internal struggle, obedience (i.e., to a call, to someone else's need), and acceptance -- "unearned admittance" of others into a "transcendant community."  Reviewer Uri Friedman notes that these are mostly things that happen to us, not things that "self-help" can attain. Brooks's idea "inverts the reigning culture of self-help in this country."

Football pro-turned clergyman - coach Joe Ehrmann urges us to give up the idea that "being a man" is based on winning at all costs.  "Transactional coaches" yell at the kids, and the game is all about the coach's identity; "transformational coaches" foster "authentic community." Raised by a "tough" father to control circumstances and dominate others without showing vulnerability, Ehrmann realized the emptiness of his "manhood" when he could find nothing to say or do while his little brother died of cancer.  

Rohr makes much of the story of another strong man, Odysseus, whose entry to "the second half of life" is the gate to Hell, literally.  He's a conqueror, lord of the island of Ithaca, and successful navigator of his "odyssey";  but during a trek to Hades, he receives the prophecy that he must carry an oar, symbol of his sea-faring life's journey so far, to bury it where his achievements will mean nothing, among land-locked people who won't even recognize what an oar is.  There, he's to sacrifice a wild bull, breeding boar, and battering ram -- symbols of three energies that drive the adolescent male -- and settle there awhile.  What happens next in the prophecy, and in Rohr' analysis, gets pretty vague: Somehow, the old man Odysseus will return home and die contented among "his people." 

Rohr admits that his book is "useless" as a self-help book, echoing the comments about Brooks's "Five Steps."  We all know that first half of life well, because it's the subject of all the Disney movies and all the hero stories in comics and myths, and it's what celebrities say when they get serious: "you have to go for your dreams!"  Rohr and these other sources say, yeah, sure, but once you've done that, all you've got is "the container" for your life.  Wait, and the contents will come unforced. To go on a quest to find the meaning of it all would be just another ego-centric effort that will prevent attainment of the goal!

Rohr relates this to Jesus's dictum, "He who would be first shall be last." He also counts 250 times that the phrase "Do not be afraid" occurs in Scripture, and another saying of Jesus: "Why do you ask what am I to eat?  What am I to wear?" (Luke 12:23).   The second half of life is about letting go the stuff you built up in the first part. 

Maturity also means honorable discharge for one's "loyal soldier," that part of one's consciousness that goes to battle for all those standards and strictures that define right thinking, right religion, proper living.  Freud called this "the super-ego," a voice in our heads that we often confuse with the voice of God (location 1039 in Kindle).  But Freud says that the "super-ego" is a poor substitute for "real adult formation of conscience" (1054), because it resists change and growth in oneself; it's always trying to change other people.

Whoa!  May I observe that ALL of our political and intra-church discourse of the past decade has been reduced to the "loyal soldiers" of opposing camps attacking at each other -- and setting up barricades?

A more mature "conscience" would be inclusive, forgiving, and cognizant that "one size [of justice] doesn't fit all."   Rohr reminds us how Jesus tells his disciples to forgive "seventy times seven" offenses, to love our enemies, and to heal -- without quizzing anyone on their beliefs or behavior.  "Every time God forgives us," Rohr writes, "God is saying that God's own rules do not matter as much as the relationship that God wants to create with us" (1148). 

Why should we imagine Jesus as a different kind of judge at the end of time?  Rohr quotes a professor of Church history who remarked offhandedly to his class, "Church practices have all been more influenced by Plato than by Jesus," by which he meant that we still prefer synthesis and resolution and certainty to mercy, grace, vagaries, and failure (1148 and before).  We prefer rules, hard and fast, to the give-and-take and unpredictable nature of "relationships."

The crucifixion is a supreme example of the necessary suffering that we must all go through.  It's part of the immature and ego-centric thinking to look upon the crucifixion as a "mechanical substitutionary atonement theory" (1273).  No matter how we prepare ourselves, suffering and sacrifice will come, and we have to be open to it to make something of it.

I've said that all this is a shock to me, but, as T. S. Eliot would point out, I've known this all along.  Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, and every fantasy hero from Dorothy and Frodo to Luke and Beowulf have to leave home and suffer to achieve the purposes of their lives.  Perhaps the strongest image of achieving maturity late in life is King Lear:  Powerful, richly robed, respected, he's still an adolescent who just wants to play around with his buddies.  "Responsible" daughters and sons-in-law take charge, with disastrous results.  Lear reaches insight after he has lost everything, and, nearly naked, he gives his cloak to warm a poor beggar. 

Typing all this on my little laptop, in my ideal house, with a couple contented dogs curled at my feet, I wonder what giving it all up would entail?

Well, the Book of Common Prayer gives me this to pray every morning:  "...and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose."  Amen, I guess.

1 comment:

Susan said...

Beautifully written, and you've done a wonderful job of pulling all these threads together. One answer to your question "What would it entail to give it all up" is that you--,and all of us-- will give it all up, whether we like it or not. Mortality doesn't offer another option. Maybe part of maturity is recognizing this, and recognizing that we don't control this fact, nor other people, nor the particular events that come our way. And that none of us is at the center of the universe pulling the strings. Maybe recognizing this without self-pity or despair is part of maturing.All of this seems to me to be pretty much the opposite of the immature striving (but necessary) these readings address.