By Michael Kimmel
When you left your teenage years and entered your 20s, did you ever feel that you were falling apart? If so, you’re not alone. It’s also true for those of us in our 30s, 40s and upwards. Most of us head into “grown-up” life with so many hopes, dreams and desires, only to have them shatter and fall apart, no matter how hard we try. What to do? In this column, I want to show you how to not fall apart, but, instead, to fall upward.
Years ago, Richard Rohr, renegade Franciscan monk, writer and activist, wrote a book called “Falling Upward.” I just re-read it and there are so many good ideas in the book that I’d like to share some of them with you, in my own words.
According to Rohr, life is divided into two halves. The first half is spent building a container (education, career and identity) for our life. The second half is, hopefully, about filling that container with joy, depth and wisdom.
This second half of life — if done well — can bring a “wideness” to our life: We can see much more than before and aren’t afraid to see people/places/things that used to scare us. We can embrace the new, the different and the not-yet-understandable with humor and courage.
Not easy, is it? But, one thing in life we can all be certain of: Shit will come our way. What will we do about it? How do we fall upward and not apart?
Many of us feel that there’s an “emptiness” or “hole” in the center of our mind/heart. We try to fill it with romance, sex, alcohol/drugs, shopping, eating, working … anything to distract us from feeling it. The older we get, the more it’s clear that this strategy won’t work. The more we exclude and try to push people/things/experiences away, the more hellish and lonely our life becomes.
So we work toward inclusion … accepting ourselves and others as they are, finding ways to talk to people we don’t like, work with colleagues that we find obnoxious, forgive friends who unconsciously hurt us. Don’t get me wrong, we are not doormats, but we are no longer reactive people who act out and are easily upset.
Rohr says that the two halves of life are not chronologically determined: You can be young in years and fully into your wise, second half; or you can be an elder who still acts like a high-schooler.
What we might think of as falling down (e.g., failing at something, losing a job or home, a death or illness) can be experienced as “falling upward.”
We can explore the (counterintuitive) message that we grow in depth and wisdom more by doing things wrong more than by doing them right. As a psychotherapist, I see that most of us learn more from pain than pleasure; pleasure encourages us to relax and enjoy, which is great, but pain tells us, “Wake up! You’re making the same mistake over and over. It’s time to tell the truth and change how you’re living.”
This is falling upward.
As an LGBT elder (age 64), reading this book helped me to better understand why so many retired and older people are so angry. At a time when most of us can finally enjoy the time we have left, so many of us are still trying to live in the first half of life and let our ego-driven self keep us in an aggressive, driven mode.
We become, in essence, a slave to achievement. This is fine in the first half of life, when we are defining who we are and trying all kinds of new things to see what we want and how to get it. In the second half of life, however, it’s sad to see so many LGBT elders who are bitter, angry, resentful of younger people and full of regrets about their pasts.
Falling upward is about making peace with our past — whether we’re 21 or 81 — and finding ways to forgive ourselves, others and this crazy Trumpian world we’re living in.
Enjoy your 20s, 30s and 40s. Live it up! Have fun! Experiment and have adventures! But, once you’ve gone through all that good stuff, what’s next?
Maybe it’s time to start falling upward.
— Michael Kimmel is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in helping LGBT clients achieve their goals and deal with anxiety, depression, grief, sexually addictive behavior, coming out, relationship challenges and homophobia. Contact him at 619-955-3311 or visit lifebeyondtherapy.com.