The Second Half of Life ~ Rev. Melanie Eyre
As we explore a new way of looking at our life’s journey, we take a look at the idea that the wisdom and peace we seek are largely found in the second half of our lives. If simply increasing age doesn’t get us there, what does?
Talk starts at 19:35
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A transcript of this week’s talk is provided below for the Deaf and hard of hearing.
Prayers, readings and songs from this week’s service are also included.
Thomas Merton once said that we spend our whole lives climbing the ladder of success, only to find that our ladder has been leaning against the wrong wall. This is an image I truly love. Today, I want to talk about how we pick the walls we climb with greater awareness and intention.
It can truly be a disappointing day when we find out that we have spent so much time and effort scaling one wall, and we think we’re done–why wouldn’t we were at the top–but we’re wrong. It shakes us when we find out that in building a life that we call success–that others have told us is a success–that we have focused on the shiny objects in front of us and have paid almost no attention to building our capacity to cultivate the peace, wisdom and contentment that truly make our lives rich. We are so often left just holding our shiny toys while we are buffeted and bruised by the winds that life sends our way.
Our toys don’t save us. They don’t make everything OK. They don’t protect us.
We have no idea where we went wrong, what we should have done differently. We were told that we would be happy with all this stuff. That it would be enough–all those diplomas on the wall with their gold seals and their fancy writing, all this stuff that we’ve accumulated–not so much.
So, what happened?
My topic today is the second half of life and I take much of my inspiration from Richard Rohr’s great book, Falling Upward: The Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. So, let’s focus, as we go forward, on that notion of falling upward, because that’s kind of what it is.
For him, dividing life up into the 1st and 2nd halves, it is not a chronological notion, even though it would be so much easier if it were. It’s an experiential and an awakening one. Generally, we find that those who are embarked on the second half of life are the elders among us, but it’s not always that way.
Something, and it’s not age alone, pushes us into the second half. Something points out for us on a pretty visceral level that the stuff we have focused on in our first half of life thinking will not get us through all of it.
Father Rohr writes that we spend way too much time, for some of us all of our lives, on what he calls first-half-of-life thinking. So, what is he talking about?
Well, he’s talking about all the values that we’ve been taught to put first. The first half of life is the period in which we build our security, our identity, our achievement. The preoccupations that we focus on in the first-half-of-life thinking include establishing our personal identity, including our career goals, our career success; professional identifications; the pursuit of financial security and wealth; attaching ourselves to significant people or projects; and establishing status in our professions or our communities.
So, is all this sounding familiar? Yes, because we’ve all done it. So, what is wrong with success and achievement? It’s what we teach our kids to do, isn’t it? It’s how we encourage them to grow up. We do, and 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 ground. It’s the warm-up for the second half, which many of us never reach. Why? Because we remain focused on our first half.
We need to keep going and recognize the first half for what it is. It’s the phase in which we prepare ourselves to go further, to move into the broader vistas of our second half of life. It’s there that we find the peace and contentment that comes with wisdom. It’s there that we find the ability to look life’s tragedies in the face and weather them without letting them derail us.
The second half brings us to what he calls the far shore.
In the first half of life, what are we? We’re young. We’re ambitious. We’re fearless. We are unlimited. We don’t even consider mortality or death. We are going to live forever in this phase.
In this first half of life phase, we answer the questions that are important in life, such as what makes me significant. How will I support myself and my family? Who will travel with me on this journey?
This first half of life is when we, in a sense, create our lives’ structure, what he calls the container for our lives. Who are we? Why are we special? What do we know how to do? Who do we love? What is our place?
We develop all the particulars that distinguish us, we achieve success and we see how we stand out from the pack. You develop your healthy ego, because without it you cannot move into the second phase. You create the image of you.
The occupations of the first half are necessary, and if we don’t do them right with all the proper guides and supports, we may not even make it to the second half. It’s a half we have to do, and we have to do it right. The problem is that many of us don’t realize it’s just half. In this phase of life, what do we do? We learn the rules, the guidelines, the laws, the codes that give our individual and collective lives structure and meaning. We learn to be honest, to play, fair to work hard and respect others. We learn the rules of the game and we become good at them. We succeed.
However, many of us stop there in our western culture, we believe that at the end of a long and hard road, we have the right to sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labor. We’re successful. We’ve made it! The tools of industry and competence and compliance and hard work and playing by the rules have paid off. I made it! I’m retired! Here I am. I’m just enjoying Life.
OK, so what happens next as you’re sitting there enjoying the fruits of your many years of labor? Bwam! Life comes along and hits you upside the head with illness, family disruption, job loss, global pandemic, natural disaster, some event that shakes the foundation of your worldview and taxes your resources beyond their ability to respond.
We have all been there. I have been there. I recently spoke about it. We have all seen friends or family members reeling from the effects of unexpected difficulty or even tragedy.
At some point, our first half agenda shows itself to be insufficient. Spiritually speaking, we are led to the edge of our own private resources.
So, what do we do?
Typically, we call upon the tools that we’ve learned to try to get through these challenges. We call upon the tools of mastery which made us so successful in our first-half-of-life thinking. We try to outthink them, power through them, control them, somehow show that we can get through this.
We don’t want to seem weak, so we remain strong. We project that we can do this ourselves. We take a few days off, we’ll be fine–not a problem–not so much.
Father Rohr calls these unexpected life events the stumbling stones that interrupt and just get in the way of what appeared to be a seamless an unobstructed path. These stones prompt us to move beyond our limited way of experiencing the world toward the more spacious view we find in the second half.
So how does that happen? Why does that happen?
Because the first stage of life doesn’t really equip us to deal with life’s setbacks. It teaches us that life is progressive and linear, or at least a successful life is progressive and linear. We continue to work. We move up. Life gets better as a result of our efforts.
The problem is life is not like that. It moves from side to side. It zigs and it zags. It’s back and forth, often at the same time. It’s not neat, predictable, or controllable. Much as we would like it to be.
First-half-of-life thinking gives us no frame of reference when life throws us a curveball. So, we despair. We think we’ve lost our way, that our lives have somehow completely gone off the tracks. However, we need to look at it differently, and it frequently takes such derailment to help us find what is actually our real life–our deeper life. It is this paradigm change that helps us weather life’s challenges.
What we have done with our first-half-of-life thinking, is confused our life situation–the structure we have built, the container we have built–with our real life, which is what father Rohr calls the underlying flow beneath the everyday events. We do not stop and pay attention to our real life, the substance of who we really are, until the particulars of our life situation–the structure we have created–simply falls apart. We have to find a way to move forward when that happens, to make progress, as Joan Chittister puts it, not in terms of advancement, but in measures of depth.
Kate Bowler is an assistant professor of history of Christianity at the Duke Divinity School. She is a historian of what is known as The Prosperity Gospel and she’s 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 form of cancer, which at the time of her diagnosis was in stage four. She had an infant son at home, a loving husband, a great career, a book deal, and unlimited plans.
I can’t even imagine the progression of emotions and fears that she went through. 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 an insightful article.
In it, she wrote that she watched her friends try to impose an order and a logic on a situation that had no order or logic. They kept trying to make sense out of it in a way that might make them feel that someone was in control, where in truth and 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. They looked for order, where in fact there was none.”
She described a neighbor coming over to her house, knocking on the door to tell her husband that everything happens for a reason.
Her husband said, “I’d love to hear it.”
The woman was startled, and she said, “Pardon?”
Her husband said, “I’d love to hear the reason my wife is dying.”
No one could articulate a reason, because at the end of the day there was none. She wrote that as far as she could tell, bodies are delicate and prone to error. She wrote that cancer kicked down the walls of her life. She could not be certain that she would ever take her son to his first day of elementary school or finish projects for a job that she loved.
She writes, “Cancer requires that I stumble around in the debris of dreams I thought I was entitled to, and plans that I didn’t realize that I had.”
She fell through the carefully crafted structure of her life situation and she came face to face with her real life. With this new clarity, she also had new insights, she wrote, “But cancer has also ushered in new ways of being alive. Even when I am this distant from Canadian friends and family, 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.”
At some point you just surrender. You realize that your own resources will not carry you through, cannot give you peace. You drop the walls around your survival station and Spirit flows in. Some call it Grace. God does not walk in through the doors that you have so carefully built, but through the walls that have fallen down.
It was at this point that Kate Bowler turned an entered her second half of life journey. The new truth of her life was simply that she was not in control and that was just the fact. She was headed down an unknown path, one that involves suffering and uncertainty and loss.
This metaphor of the journey is a common one. When we look at those in myth and legend who have grown through suffering, they all have left home in order to learn and grow. The Buddha left his Palace. Jesus wandered throughout Galilee and Judea. The Jews wandered in the desert for 40 years. Odysseus leaves home for war and the 10-year journey home.
Father Rohr suggests that we must do the same, obviously not geographically most of the time. We grow by leaving the comfort and familiarity of the world that we have constructed. We leave the container we built, and we venture into unknown places. We don’t go willingly. We go when we are booted out of our comfort zone by a life event that was unexpected and sharp and just moved us off the familiar path on which we were walking.
She could not have had the realization she had if she had not endured the suffering of that cancer diagnosis.
So, let’s talk for a second about the question of suffering.
It’s a loaded word. We spend so much time trying to avoid it and ban it from our lives. I do. I want to ban it from my life and the life of everybody that I know and love. We regard it as unnatural, unexpected, an aberration. However, when we tell ourselves that suffering is an aberration, we are simply wrong. It is, as Father Rohr put it and Kate Bowler realized, part of the deal.
Instead of being a linear march upward, life is messy.
We learn, and it includes loss and renewal, order and disorder, chaos and healing, all at the same time. Our life opens up when we permit ourselves to journey into this mystery. When we give up the rigid box that we have put ourselves into in our first-half-of-life thinking–what we do, the structure we’ve built, the rules we follow–we become open to so much more. We see the beauty and fragility of life around us. We see the impermanence of it all. We have a much deeper appreciation for what we know is lovely but fleeting.
When we let down our walls and simply accept that life is wonderful and heartbreaking all at the same time, we give ourselves the ability to hold it all lightly.
Father Rohr writes, “Whole people see and create wholeness wherever they go. Split people see and create splits in everything and everybody. By the second half of our lives, we are meant to see in wholes and no longer just in parts. Yet, we get to the whole by falling down into the messy parts, so many times in fact, that we long and thirst for the wholeness and fullness of all things, including ourselves.”
Falling upward, we get to that greater vista of our second half; we get to greater wisdom by the depths that we experience. Ultimately, we see this wholeness and we gain the wisdom in our second-half-of-life journey.
We seek to know life in its wholeness and to know ourselves in our own wholeness. What a journey and what an opportunity.
As we move through this series, let’s open ourselves to these questions and to these possibilities.
Thank you for listening.
“All I Can Be” written by Asha Lightbearer
Closer to Fine written by Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls
This transcript is from the One World Sunday Gathering on September 6, 2020.