Falling Upward (by Richard Rohr)

It’s fourteen years since I first came across Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest who has written several thought-provoking and encouraging books. The first one I read was ‘The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective’, which he co-wrote, and which I found immensely useful in seeing this personality system from a faith perspective. I’ve read a couple of his other books more recently, and earlier this year saw a recommendation for ‘Falling Upward’, a book about different stages of life. I put it on my wishlist, and was given it for a recent birthday.

The subtitle for this book is, ‘A spirituality for the two halves of life’. The author’s premise is that we all have the potential for two significant phases in our lives. He talks about ‘halves’, but this isn’t a rigid or clearly defined difference: it’s more a maturing, becoming more flexible and open, and also more relaxed as we grow older. He acknowledges that it can begin at a wide range of chronological ages, and that not everyone - no matter how old they grow - necessarily reach the second stage.

Rohr’s writing is always quite theoretical, and I found this book a bit heavy-going in places. I like to have a few examples alongside theories, in order to extrapolate, and there weren’t any. I got the general idea, and could resonate with it: in our youth and young adulthood (broadly speaking) we learn the rules and boundaries of life; in our later years we learn when to break the boundaries and ignore the rules. In our younger days we need places to belong; in our latter years we deal better with solitude. Many organisations, including churches, remain in the ‘earlier years’ stage, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But as we mature, we see beyond them.

That’s just an overview of rather a complex book. Rohr suggests that it often takes a major problem, perhaps a bereavement or job loss, to trigger our ‘falling’ out of the initial stages of life, and rediscovering ourselves facing ‘upwards’. I could see that, around mid-life, a lot of people have crises of some kind, whether tragic loss, a major life changes, serious illness, or perhaps issues such as children leaving home, or the loss or illness of elderly parents. This kind of thing is inevitable, and change is bound to happen as a result, but I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the author’s insistence that there must be some kind of significant suffering to propel us forward.

I can see that I am more relaxed than I used to be, with far less need to conform, or belong. I don’t need the approval of others, particularly, and am not too bothered by criticism. I’m much happier to go with the flow rather than needing rules or boundaries, and as the author suggests, there are times when I know what I must do and there’s little choice about it. Does this mean I’m more mature than others around me? I doubt it. I think it’s mostly due to my personality, and my particular circumstances. I am fortunate in that I have experienced very little in the way of suffering.

While I quite enjoyed reading the book, despite the lack of any real examples or actual suggestions, I’m not entirely sure, now I’ve finished it, what its purpose is. I don’t suppose it would be at all helpful to people still in the first ‘stage’, whatever their age, and of little comfort to anyone going through a serious problem or terrible situation.

However, for those who have retired, or who have become more relaxed, it’s quite encouraging - maybe I’m not meant to do anything in particular, other than listen for God and, when relevant, do whatever is right. But I had pretty much figured that out already.

There’s a strong Christian influence; this book is primarily written for followers of Jesus, although some fundamentalists or others driven by rules and guidelines might consider it heretical. There are references to other religions too, and a great deal about ancient Greek heroes. The Enneagram is mentioned in passing as an important system that helps us grow and move into the second stage of life, and I could see that this is the case; but for anyone unfamiliar with the topic, this wouldn’t be helpful at all.

Overall I’m glad I read it. I would recommend it in a low-key way if you like theoretical, thoughtful books and have observed that many older people are more relaxed than younger ones; but don’t expect it to answer any questions, or give any advice.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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