The phrase “two halves of life” was first popularized by Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist. He says that there are two major tasks. In the first half [of life] you've got to find your identity, your significance; you create your ego boundaries, your ego structure, what I call “the creating of the container.” But that's just to get you started. In the second half of life, once you've created your ego structure, you finally have the courage to ask: What is this all for? What am I supposed to do with this? Is it just to protect it, to promote it, to defend it, or is there some deeper purpose? The search for meaning is the task of the second half of life. (This is not always a chronological matter – I've met 11 year-old children in cancer wards who are in the second half of life, and I have met 68 year-old men like me who are still in the first half of life.)
Why is the “further journey” of the second half of life especially important for people of faith who are seeking a deeper relationship with God?
I think the further journey has to be clarified especially for religious people because for the most part we've pushed off the journey into the next world. We’ve made the teaching of Jesus largely into an evacuation plan for the next world so we don’t have to take this world seriously, this life, this earth, what's happening right here or now. The further journey has to happen in this world. I wrote the book because I want to say the further journey happens in this world and then you're ready for heaven. You're living in heaven now, you're practicing for heaven and so heaven is not even a big change of venue. It's a continuation of what you've already begun to experience.
What do you mean when you say, “we grow by falling down”?
You know, when I chose the title of Falling Upward I thought that surely there would be six other books with that title. Believe it or not, there weren't. I thought it was a perfect title because it conveys a sense of paradox. The first part of the title (about falling) isn't about what you expect. In fact, most of our concern in the first half of life is about rising, achieving, accomplishing, performing. I tried deliberately to use a somewhat shocking or controversial phrase, implying that there is a necessary falling that comes into every life. It's not like you have to manufacture or create the falling; it will happen. If you can find grace or freedom in and through that falling, you find that it moves you forward, upward, broader, deeper, better—to growth. That’s just the opposite of what you first think when you fall, fail, or lose.
What is so important about the idea of necessary suffering? Why is it necessary?
The question of why is suffering necessary is probably the greatest and most problematic question in Christian theology. Why is there suffering? How is God good if there's so much suffering on this Earth? There’s no answer that appeals to the rational mind. The answer lies elsewhere; I'm going to therefore start with the psychology. Carl Jung and many others said that suffering is the only thing strong enough to defeat the imperial ego. In other words, when you're in control, in charge, looking good, building your tower of success -- which is what you expect a young person to be doing into their 30s -- you get so addicted to it that you think it's the only game in town. When that game falls apart, it’s because it's largely a self-constructed game, a game at which you can look good, you can succeed, you're building your own kingdom, which is not, in Christian language, what Jesus calls the Kingdom of God, so your little kingdom usually has to fail you. It has to fall apart. It has to, or you'll remain narcissistic, egocentric well into your later years, asking questions like what makes me feel good? What makes me look good? What makes me make money? Many people do. It might feel like success, but no spiritual teacher would agree. First half of life preoccupations won't get you into the great picture, the big picture, which Jesus would call the Reign of God. So, necessary suffering is whatever it takes to make your small self fall apart, so you can experience your big self--maybe what Buddhists would say is your Buddha self. We would say your Christ self, your God self. It doesn't really matter. You can tell people who have passed over from the first to the second half of life, usually you can tell it within the first ten minutes, whether someone is still building their tower of success. And that isn't even wrong; it's just they have something else to experience, and you pray for them and you hope that they will be able to see suffering as a doorway and not an obstacle when it happens.
What do you think prevents many of us from growing in the second half of life?
If you eliminate necessary suffering in the first half of life and you don't know anything about the second half of life, you won’t know what to do. As a Christian, I would say that's why we largely don't understand Jesus. He's talking from the ultimate perspective of maturity and we're all back here just trying to look good. It doesn't work.
Right now there's a lot going on in the world. We have a financial crisis in the U.S. We had a natural disaster in Japan, political upheaval in the Middle East. How would you address suffering in regard to those situations?
I can talk about necessary suffering somewhat glibly and theologically, but if I were in Japan right now, I might not be talking about it so easily. Or if I was a rebel in Libya, perhaps I would not be talking about it so glibly. We have to try to talk about it, to give some kind of frame, to give some kind of direction or meaning, but it never satisfies the rational mind. As a Christian, we're the only religion that has a very strange God image: a naked, bleeding, dying man. A naked, bleeding man is not a natural, even rational or even attractive, image of God. It's not an image anybody would have expected, really. It's about as counterintuitive as you can get. And, so, as a Christian, I've got to say: if I am to believe that Jesus is the image of God, then what is Jesus saying about the nature of God? He's saying, “I am in this crucified situation with you.” For those who are suffering, those who can gaze upon the crucified one, it is an unbelievable consolation to the soul. It gives deep meaning to human suffering. At the heart of Christianity is what I call the myth of redemptive suffering. Actually, even though Jesus gave us the myth of redemptive suffering, if I look at most of our history, the myth we've really lived out of is the myth of redemptive violence, that somehow by killing bad people, we were going to redeem the world and make the world safe for democracy or safe for Christianity. Jesus gives no such message. He doesn't inflict suffering on other people. He, as the image of God, participates in the pain of the world, and that's an answer to the soul. I admit, it is not a satisfying answer to the brain. When you're seeing your loved ones suffering, you better be looking at the crucified every hour, and trying to find some meaning for the soul, because the rational mind will rebel (and it probably should).
What are the qualities of people who have successfully taken the further journey into the second half of their life?
You can recognize a second half of life person is by a kind of inner outpouring, a kind of inner generativity. They're not guarded. They're not overly self-protected. They're looking for ways to give themselves away, because they're now living out of their abundance, and they find that it's an overflowing wealth. I think of a wonderful woman like Maya Angelou. When she talks, you yourself feel grounded because she is. You want to be compassionate because you can feel the compassion in her very voice. You want to have soft eyes, because you see her soft eyes. It almost comes through non verbally, but you especially see her concern about others. So, second half of life people are generative people. They're people who've learned to pay back. They know they've been given to abundantly so now they say, "Okay, I've got enough. In fact, I've been given more than enough, and the only thing that makes sense is to give away this generous grace that has been handed to me when so many people in this world have never experienced it." So in the second half of life, I think you have an increased empathy and sympathy; you know inside how much it hurts to hurt, and so when you see another person hurting, you can feel it and you know, many times, that you can't change it. Most of the time you can't change it, so you want to pray for them. You want to help them if you can. You want to send good energy toward them. You want to give them wisdom that will lead them out of their suffering according to your gift, and we're each gifted in different ways. What you'll never not find in a second half of life person is this universal caring.
I want to emphasize, finally, the word universal. In the first half of life, as Jesus put it, you can only care for your neighbor, those who are your own religion, your own class, your own social group, your own skin color. That means very little by the second half of life. You've learned to see the soul, and once you see the soul, you see it's evenly distributed, and you don't look at externals. They don't mean that much. You know that the wino on the street has just as much a soul as the rich man who's working at the bank. You stop being what we used to call a “respecter of persons.” Of course, that upsets first half of life people, because they think you're not patriotic. Now you see that Mexicans are just like Americans, that Americans aren't any better than Mexicans. Or, as a Catholic, you can’t say anymore that only Catholics are going to heaven. Lots of people who are still in the first half of life will say you're a heretic or disloyal or rebellious or unfaithful, but you are thick skinned enough that those criticisms don't deter you from what you know you have to do, what you know you have to be. You like to make people happy, but you don't need to please them to be happy yourself. A second half of life person knows that happiness comes from within, not from whether other people like you.
How can people start to look at that second half of their lives?
You can plan for it. As I say at the beginning of the book, you fall into it just like you fall into love. You normally have to fail through some form of transgression or humiliation or defeat (the necessary suffering). Then you can look to some elders, some wiser people in your circle of friends or to a book if you don’t have friends who know how to guide you across the transition and into the second half of life. We're a culture with many elderly people but not a lot of elders.
How do you hope your book will make a difference in people’s lives?
Well, I guess first of all I hope it’s going to give them courage and some kind of safety in that courage. Most of us have been taught to be afraid of ourselves, afraid of our journey, afraid of our mistakes, our sins. Sin was something you just didn’t do. But I don’t think that’s what the Bible is saying at all. The Bible takes sin for granted. It’s given, even in the Genesis story, where God tells Adam and Eve not to eat the apple. That creates the whole story line. God absolutely knows they’re going to eat the apple. That’s what creates the creative tension and it’s in the eating of the apple and the struggling with the relationship that they come to relationship with God. An awful lot of Christian people live in shame and guilt and enormous lack of self esteem. I knew the great spiritual teacher Henri Nouwen as a personal friend. We were walking once on the streets in Cincinnati and I said to him, “Henri, how would you define what the Church called original sin?” And he said, “Richard, I think original sin is humanity’s endless capacity for self-loathing, or maybe self-doubt.” I think that’s true, but sadly I think we in the world of religion have often contributed to that self-doubt and self-loathing. In that, we haven’t given the world good news at all, but bad news, and you know the world Gospel means good news. So I hope my book is a bit of a gospel. I hope it’s good news. I hope it’s truthful news, not false good news, but good news that really is good and new.
"Imperfect people" are sometimes more equipped than "perfect people" to help those who are struggling... The person who feels that he has ruined his life often has more capacity for humility and compassion."