Falling Upward and Embracing the Second Half of Your Life

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This post is from my archives. I speak about taking my health in a new direction, but if you suffer from severe mental illness (including episodes of psychosis and dangerous mania), please consult your physician before making any changes. My story is just one story. It is not yours.

There comes a moment in every person’s life when she realizes she has just entered the second half of her life.

With the average lifespan of a woman in the United States being 81, I technically crossed that line three years ago. Yes, that’s when my waist disappeared and the pregnancy questions started; my squiggly gray hair came in and I purchased my first pair of readers; I started doing things like placing ketchup in the freezer and cereal in the refrigerator; and the medical appointments on my calendar started to outnumber the social gatherings by a ratio of about 10:1.

A month ago I went through the rite of passage to the second half of life: my first colposcopy with an added bonus of an upper endoscopy. As I lie in the preparation room for this christening event, I read the book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr. He writes:

There is much evidence on several levels that there are at least two major tasks to human life. The task is to build a strong “container” or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold. The first task we take for granted as the very purpose of life, which does not mean we do it well. The second task, I am told, is more encountered than sought; few arrive at it with much preplanning, purpose, or passion.

Fr. Rohr, a Franciscan priest and the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, goes on to explain that rarely does a person want to enter this second phase of life. It’s usually thrust on you as a consequence of failure or embarrassment or some kind of raw pain. When we are enjoying success, who really wants to look deeper? We literally fall into the latter task by shedding ourselves of the goals and the boundaries and the identities that seemed so critical to us for most of our lives, only to find out that they have nothing to do with who we really are.9963483

“It is when we begin to pay attention, and seek integrity precisely in the task within the task that we begin to move from the first to the second half of our lives,” writes Fr. Rohr. Yes, that usually coincides with gray wisps and colonoscopies and readers hanging on your neck. But only because the older we get, the better perspective we have on what really matters. Ironically, as our eyes fail, we begin to see life with much better vision.

However, telling our egos that we no longer give a damn is an arduous task in our First-Half culture where LinkedIn congratulates us a few times a day on being endorsed for skills we didn’t know we had; and in order to make it as a health columnist you need to pretend you have your life together, touting 10 tips for practically everything from cutting up watermelon for your next neighborhood block party to rebalancing your gut bacteria. If you are truly a Second-Half person living out the wisdom of your hard-earned humility, you don’t need the noise of Twitter or to brag on Facebook.

In the half-hour I lie waiting for my colonoscopy, I realized that what has propelled me fully into the second half of life this year is a sequence of events much deeper than my gray hair, thick mid-section, and bad vision. What happened is precisely what Fr. Rohr describes: All of the institutions in which I sought safety and comfort and some kind of identity turned out to be mere containers, with no answers inside.

First my husband confronted me about my health and said that the traditional psychiatric approach I had been taking—trying different medication combinations and psychotherapy– was obviously not working because I was still very depressed after five years. I began to think seriously about all my conditions (hypothyroidism, pituitary tumor, aortic valve regurgitation, Raynaud’s, inflammatory bowel disease), and I realized I had been letting my specialists, the medical institution I wanted to trust, guide my health journey—and it felt as if we were merely doing circles in the dark. I was petrified that I would stay sick forever.

Then I became disillusioned with the publishing world after unsuccessfully fighting for my print and electronic rights back for my books Beyond Blue and The Pocket Therapist after they went out of print. Ever since I penned my first book in the fourth grade—How to Get to Heaven—I have always revered the publishing world, especially New York publishers, and wanted so desperately to be part of this prestigious industry. When I became a published author—and by a New York house!–I attached too much of my identity into that. So when I observed the very ugly side of publishing the last few months, I was crushed. As a result I never want to submit my intellectual property to a publisher again.

Finally, then there was my naivete about the nonprofit world. A year ago, I believed that all you needed was a noble dream in order to build a formidable foundation. Now I know money and power dictate the land of do-gooders just as much as with corporations, plus you’re handcuffed by bureaucracy and politics. I suppose I expected be refreshed from years of working as a government contractor, only to find my aspirations lost in a sea of red tape and aggravation.

“Where you stumble and fall, there you find pure gold,” said Jung.

When I looked closer at each of my failures, I realized how much my ego and a false sense of self were central to the containers I had built. All of these deaths were opportunities for the scared girl inside of me to shed her unnecessary attempts to prove that she was someone in this world—because she ultimately felt unlovable. Without a published book, without a doctor directing my next move, without a worthy nonprofit behind my name, who would I be? Only after identifying all my lame attempts at security and a sense of identity, could I recognize my authentic self and my mission.

I didn’t need a foundation with eight successful programs and walks and lecture series and popular fundraising events to help people with treatment-resistant depression. Why not take the money I give to other nonprofits each year and fund one small initiative? I didn’t need a New York publisher to help me disseminate my message and to spread hope to the readers I write for. Why not self-publish my next manuscript? And instead of blindly following a road map from a medical model that no longer fits with my philosophies, what about beginning a new chapter on my health where I take the helm and guide my own course? How would that feel?

What we do in the second half of our lives is “shadow work,” according to Fr. Rohr. It is filled with humiliations: of books that don’t sell and publishers who creatively interpret contracts, of infuriating diagnoses despite doing everything right, of losing your good intentions in a heap of bureaucracy. However, the good news is that as we move deeper into our second half, we are no longer as humiliated by our let downs. We come to expect various forms of illusions.

Fr. Rohr writes:

Most of us tend to think of the second half of life as largely about getting old, dealing with health issues, and letting go of our physical self, but [it] is exactly the opposite. What looks like onward, into a broader and deeper world, where the soul has found its fullness, is finally connected to the whole, and lives inside the Big Picture.

Blurry vision stinks, especially when your readers are in the freezer with the ketchup. And yes, some days I wish my hair would grow in blonde like it did at one point and I could get my waistline back. However, I’m much happier on this side of life, where there is less pressure to be someone I’m not.

Somewhere in all my disappointments this year, I crossed over to freedom.

I fell upward and embraced the second half of my life.

Continue the discussion on ProjectBeyondBlue.com, my one simple initiative.

Originally published on Sanity Break.

 

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10 thoughts on “Falling Upward and Embracing the Second Half of Your Life

  1. Thank you for this. For both the sharing of your own journey on this path and for sharing this resource. It sounds like a fabulous book. I will be sure to check it out.

    It brings up so many of the things that are in life but that we don’t often see….

    …..the container building but being unaware of the container….
    not seeing ourselves as the builder….
    ………..and then the awareness of this second half…..

    This quote by Deepak Copra came to mind as I read your post…

    ““To acquire true self power you have to feel beneath no one, be immune to criticism and be fearless.”

    Easier said than done

    But is something to hold in mind and heart.

    And it seems like you are finding these things in yourself…..

    It is our striving that nourishes us.

    1. Thank you. And thanks again for your posts when I ran into the critics. Your blogs really touched my heart. Bless you. t

  2. Therese, I read you as often as I can, since I found you 2 years ago when my then 20 year old daughter first acknowledged deep depression and anxiety (though hinted at it for years…). All this to say I wanted to write to you many times and for me the balance of time and work and home and family, is still not easy though I am 56 yrs old! All that to say that you are priceless to me and my heart and my faith! I appreciate you and your blog immensely, even though I hardly comment!! I so wanted to do so especially a few weeks ago when that horrible tragedy occurred; so here I am now telling you, thank-you.
    I appreciate not only that you are vulnerable in your discussion of your honest truth and experience, but also the deep expression of your spiritual hunger and integrity, makes me just love you so much as a sister/daughter!! I have alot of “mommy” in me so please forgive me if I can be so forward that it can make you feel weird. I just really appreciate your person and you come through to those of us that love to experience truth and love, and the journey of that together. Hearing and being heard. Seeking health, seeking healing, seeking Hope. For me, the truth is embodied in the person of Jesus and all His light brings. And the challenge of this world is so explicit in the reality of truth versus lies and light versus darkness, and love verses hate. Can we forget humility versus pride??
    Anyway, it is so encouraging to see you explore these ideas in your healing blog. Also, I have experienced the same need to balance the colon bacteria, support my adrenals, stay away from sugar and gluten, all at the same time as you. Now my youngest, the one (of five kids) really battling the mental health thing, is willing to see my wholistic doctor. And take her health very seriously and proactively. I am praying for her to have peace and quiet in her mental state; she knows peace in her soul. Hey, I think that is what you know too. Peace in your soul, even when the head and emotions don’t get it, that peace comes through.
    I love you dearly, and enjoyed this blog in particular, as I feel so much of this in my 50’s; we are facing the retirement years soon!
    Leah in Florida!!

    1. Thank you, Leah. I so appreciate all of your kind words. I could use additional “mommy’s” out there, although you sound more like a sister :) Interesting that your journey is similar to mine. Thanks much, Therese

    2. Leah,
      I just read your post to Therese and echo your thoughts and comments so closely (but could never express them so beautifully). You should also write for a living!
      I too know Jesus as my Lord and Savior, but try as hard as I can, when my depression is so deep, having no peace and quiet in my mind, I often struggle to continue with peace and quiet and joy in my soul. I feel so ashamed of that; I so want to know how to continue with the joy of Christ, but this disease seems to take even that from me. Sometimes all I can do is lie in bed crying “Jesus help me! I love you and I know your Word tells me you love me but my FEELINGS say it can’t be so”. I know God wants me to have joy in Him, but I fail so miserably. I’m seeing my therapist Monday and this is the thing I most want to discuss. I need the WHY and the HOW. Any insight would be appreciated and prayers coveted.

      Thanks,
      Sheri Chandler

  3. Therese,
    I love your sense of humor! You make me smile often and sometimes laugh. And although I seem to take “30 minutes to say what I could have said in 2” according to my 29 yo son just yesterday…
    I must agree with him and wish I could be more succinct and not “vomit” out every thought that comes into my busy head.
    I so love your writing, and have read both of your published books twice. I’m envious of your communication skills!

    Sheri

  4. Therese,

    I always enjoy reading your articles, posts, etc. Your words bring inspiration and hope as I am fighting treatment resistant depression, severe anxiety and the new addition to my life: anhedonia.

    I don’t know why things are getting worse. I was starting to feel better and it came, wham!
    When things such as going to church and seeing our grandson do not bring any positive emotions, just feeling like nothing matters, it is scary.

    I read and hear that other sufferers have hope and believe that God will open a door or window for me.

    I just ordered the book and can’t wait to read it

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