Sunday, September 28, 2014

Falling Upward: Book Review

Published January 1, 2011.
I've been reading more intentionally about the second half of life for the past four years.

Recently, I've been choosing books from Changing Aging's recommended list of books that depict aging as a period of growth and development. 

This week, I've been reading Richard Rohr's Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (Jossey-Bass 2011). 

Rohr describes life as having two distinct and opposing tasks. 

The first half of life is dedicated to building a self that is based on goals, accomplishments and ego.  

But many people end up learning how short-sighted life is when defined this way. Consequently, many adopt the task in the second half of life of transcending narcissism, accomplishments, material security and the vanities of the temporal world.  

Rohr argues that most people don't escape the trappings of the first half until they suffer a devastating blow such as job loss, divorce, injury, or some type of failure.  Once people "fall," they learn to "rise."   Listen to him briefly explain his book's core idea: 

This may sound like a psychological observation. True, Rohr brings in the works of some psychologists as he writes. However, his book is largely grounded in the tradition of devotional literature. 

As a well-educated, articulate Franciscan priest, Rohr has conversed directly or indirectly with a number of religious leaders, devotional writers and spiritual pilgrims of many faiths.   His book quotes a great many wonderful people.

I have been selecting quotes from his book while I read so that I could share them in this post. Quotes by Rohr and quotes he includes from others. However, I selected so many that my post would be book length. Instead, let me list some of his influences (nowhere near an exhaustive list):
Robert Bly ~ Joseph Campbell ~ Pema Chodron ~ Annie Dillard ~ Victor Frankl ~ William James ~ Jesus ~ Carl Jung ~ Dalai Lama ~Thomas Merton ~ Bill Plotkin
Rohr himself offers some golden nuggets of insight, making this a book that is best read slowly with time to meditate on the meaning and implications of his words.  And much of what he has to say is counter-intuitive to most self-help books.

Let me share one passage as an example:
"God has to undo our illusions secretly as it were when we are not watching and not in perfect control, say the mystics.  That is perhaps why the best word for God is actually Mystery.  We move forward in ways that we do not even understand and through the quiet workings of time and grace." (p. 51)
I had some inkling of this concept when I was an undergraduate studying literature. I remember we read The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), which I thought was an odd title for a Bostonian businessman who lost everything that he worked hard to achieve.  My teacher talked about what Silas gained as a result of his failure, but I couldn't see it. And it seemed Lapham paid a high price to gain insight. Can't a person be super rich and super enlightened?

Now I need to reread William Dean  Howell's novel, because the requirement to fall before rising is probably exactly what Rohr is talking about in his thought-provoking book.

Love and light to us all in our quests to age well. And may we be aware that there are various measuring sticks we can use to define "Quality of Life."  I am thankful for writers like Rohr who invite us to challenge our comfortable frameworks.


Books on Aging
Shifting from Doing to Being


  1. sounds like something i need to take a closer look at --my pile of books is growing larger!

    1. I think you would enjoy this book because of your strong spiritual outlook.

  2. What a wonderful review! There's a lot to tide me over until I have a chance to read this one. I love the image of falling so that we learn to rise again. I am doing a lot of that these days! Thanks for sharing.

  3. This is very timely for where I am at. Thank you.

  4. I will buy a copy of this book, it sounds like a good match for me to read now, as a widow and senior. I told my Bible study ladies this week that the ordeal of becoming a widow has led me closer to God than I have ever been.

    1. Thank you for sharing how widowhood has brought some opportunities amid the challenges. I hope that you enjoy the book. He draws on a lot of other devotional authors, so it's a great gateway to additional readings in addition to being inspirational on its own.