Thomas Merton once said that we may spend our whole lives climbing the ladder of success, only to find when we get to the top that our ladder has been leaning against the wrong wall.
We are shaken when we find out that, in building a life that we call success, that we are told is success, we have focused on the shiny objects in front of us and have neglected to add to our toolkit so many of the tools necessary to navigate to the far shore of peace, wisdom and contentment. We are so often left just holding our shiny toys, while we are buffeted and bruised by the winds that life blows our way.
We have no idea where we went wrong, what we should have done differently!
So how do we successfully navigate our path without becoming derailed by life’s challenges?
In New Thought communities like One World, we are so familiar with a certain set of tools for dealing with the difficulties that come our way. We examine our beliefs, affirm our good, refuse to give energy to the negative. We take positive action toward our vision and our goals. We affirm that thoughts of failure or lack have no power over us. We change our minds, we change our lives.
We know these principles work. However, today I want to look at them a bit differently, using a different lens and a different language. What I have just said above reflects the language of control, and today I want to at least raise the question of whether we might find a realm of freedom and peace when we are forced to a place where we are out of the driver’s seat.
My inspiration for many of the points to follow comes from Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, author and one of the most important writers in the Christian mystical tradition today. Father Rohr is the author of “Falling Upward – A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.”
First Half of Life Thinking
Father Rohr writes that we spend too much time, for some of us all our lives, on what he calls “first half of life” thinking. You may not have heard that concept before, but it’s an interesting notion.
Dividing life up into the first and second halves, first, is not a chronological notion. It’s an experiential and an awakening one. Generally, elders are those embarked on the second half of life, but it needn’t be that way. Younger people who have faced significant challenges or trauma may have had the push needed to begin them on a second – half journey. You don’t get there if your life has been easy.
So, what is the first half of life thinking? It’s the time frame in which we focus on security, identity, and achievement. The preoccupations evident in first half of life thinking include establishing our personal identity, including career goals and success, professional identifications, the pursuit of wealth or financial security, attaching ourselves to significant people or projects, and establishing status in our particular communities. Father Rohr says we are all trying to find what Archimedes called a lever and a place to stand so that we can move the world just a little bit.
So, what’s wrong with success and achievement? This is what we teach our kids, right? There’s nothing wrong with it.
The problem comes when we fail to realize that the first half of life is not the main act. It’s the training round, the warm up for the second half, which many of us never reach.
Father Rohr urges us to have the courage to continue the journey to the second half. It is there that we find the peace and the contentment that comes with wisdom. It is there that we find the tools to look life’s tragedies in the face and weather them in peace.
In the first half of life, we are young, ambitious, and unlimited. We don’t even consider death, tragedy, mortality. We are going to live forever!
We create our life’s structure, what he calls the container for our lives. Who am I? Why am I special? Where do I belong? We develop all the particulars that distinguish us; we achieve success and see how we stand out from the pack. We develop our healthy egos, because without it we cannot move into the next phase.
We learn the rules, the laws and codes, that give our individual and collective lives structure and meaning. We learn to be honest, to work hard and respect others. We learn the rules of the game and we become good at them. We succeed.
The occupations of the first half are necessary, and if we don’t do them right, with the proper guides and supports, we may never make it to the second half.
However, many of us stop here – we think we’re done! In our western culture, we believe that building a successful life is the reward at the end of a hard and long road, and now what is left is to enjoy the fruits of our labor. We are successful, we have made it. The tools of industry, compliance, hard work and playing by the rules have paid off.
So, what happens next? Life comes along and smacks you with its 2×4 on the side of the head. We experience illness, family disruption, job loss, natural disaster or some other event that shakes the foundations of our world view and taxes our resources beyond their ability to respond. We have all been there, we have all seen friends or families reeling from the effects of unexpected difficulty or tragedy.
At some point our first half of life agenda simply cannot carry us through. Spiritually speaking, we are led to the edge of our own private resources.
What do we do? Well, we call upon the tools that we have – what else can we do? We try to think our way through our difficulties, power through them, somehow show that we are still in control. We don’t want to seem weak so we remain strong. Don’t worry – I’m fine!
Father Rohr calls these events the stumbling stone that trips us up. The first half of life, where we have learned that a successful life is linear and progressive, has given us no frame of reference to weather difficulties that threaten to undo us. However, without these challenges we might never turn into the journey beyond our limited way of experiencing the world, toward the more spacious view we find in the second half.
When we find out that life is not the continuing upward path we thought it was, when we find out that we are not always in the driver’s seat, we need a new paradigm and a new roadmap.
What we have done in the first half of life is confuse our life situation, the structure we have built, with our real life, which is what he calls the “underlying flow beneath the everyday events.” We do not stop and pay attention to our real life, the unchanging substance of who we really are, until the particulars of our life situation, the structure we have created, falls apart.
Kate Bowler is an assistant professor of the history of Christianity at the Duke University Divinity school. She is a historian of what is known as the prosperity gospel, and is the author of a book entitled “Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.”
At the age of 35, she was diagnosed with an extremely rare cancer that at the time of her diagnosis was at Stage IV. She had an infant son at home, a loving husband, a great career, a book deal, and unlimited plans.
After her diagnosis, she wrote an article for the New York Times captioned “Death, The Prosperity Gospel and Me” that details her journey. It’s a wonderful and insightful article, and I highly recommend it.
She wrote that she watched her friends try to impose an order and a logic on the situation that just was not there. They kept trying to make sense out of it, in a way that might make them feel someone was in control where in truth of fact no one was. She writes “one of the most endearing and saddest things about being sick is watching people’s attempts to make sense of your problem.”
She described a neighbor coming to her home, knocking on the door to tell her husband that everything happens for a reason.
“I’d love to hear it” her husband said.
The startled woman answered “Pardon?”
Her husband’s response? “I’d love to hear the reason my wife is dying.”
Kate could think of no good reason. She wrote that as far as she could tell, bodies are “delicate and prone to error.”
She wrote that cancer “has kicked down the walls of my life.” She could not be certain she would ever take her son to his first day of elementary school, or finish the projects for a job she loves. She writes “cancer requires that I stumble around in the debris of dreams I thought I was entitled to and plans I didn’t realize I had.”
She fell through the carefully crafted structure of her life situation, and came face to face with her real life. This is how our journey into life’s second half so often begins.
She gained new clarity, however. She wrote:
“But cancer has also ushered in new ways of being alive. Even when I am this distant from Canadian family and friends, everything feels as if it is painted in bright colors. In my vulnerability, I am seeing my world without the Instagram filter of breezy certainties and perfectible moments. I can’t help noticing the brittleness of the walls that keep most people fed, sheltered and whole. I find myself returning to the same thoughts again and again: life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.”
Her illusion of control had to give way. She wrote that “at some point, we must say to ourselves, “I’m going to need to let go.”
Second Half of Life Journey
At some point, you realize that your own resources are not carrying you the distance. You surrender, and ironically it is then that you may find the strength, and the peace, that before were missing. Spirit does not always walk in through the doors you have carefully built, but sometimes only through the walls that have fallen.
It was at this point that Kate Bowler turned and entered the second half of life journey. The new truth of her life was that she was not in control, and that was just the fact. She was headed into a journey with an unknown destination, a journey involving suffering and loss. This journey brought her new insights she would not otherwise have known.
Do we need to suffer in order to awaken, in order to enter the second half of life?
Father Rohr discusses the concept of “necessary suffering” and I invite us all to think about this. I don’t know the answer, but I suspect he’s right.
He quotes Carl Jung, who said “so much unnecessary suffering comes into the world because people will not accept the “legitimate suffering” that comes from being human.”
What does Jung mean? Perhaps he’s suggesting that we add to our suffering when we expend so much effort to avoid any pain. Even though nature presents us each day with countless examples of death followed by renewal, we continue to deny the reality of pain as a fact of this life.
Suffering is, as Rohr says, “part of the deal” and we do ourselves a disservice when we say it’s an aberration that must be fixed.
Instead of being a linear march upward, life “is both loss and renewal, death and resurrection, chaos and healing at the same time: life seems to be a collision of opposites.” Even the science of quantum physics is teaching us that we are in a hugely complex web of interrelationships, of cause and effect.
Our lives open up when we permit ourselves to journey into this mystery, without fear or judgment. When we move beyond the narrow container we have created in our first half of life thinking, we become open to so much more. We see the beauty and fragility of life around us, we see the impermanence of it all, and we have a much deeper appreciation for what we know is fleeting but lovely.
Peace and wisdom follow when we can simply celebrate that we are part of this greater mystery. It is all right that we don’t have all the answers. Life is so much more than a wiring diagram – if we have all the answers, I suggest we have missed many of the key questions.
Peace can only be found when we let ourselves rest in the mystery, and often our suffering and loss are the life events that lead us there. As Father Rohr writes:
“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, the deep well, or the constantly flowing stream.”