“Religious” Leaders Are Ignoring
Sooner or later, it happens to each of us. There always will be at least one situation in our lives that we cannot fix, control, explain, change or even understand. Maybe you’ve been laid off from a job you held for years. Perhaps you’ve experienced a nasty divorce. Or maybe the crisis is more subtle: You suddenly realized that you’ll never have the life you dreamed of living. Any life-changing moment can knock a person down. But it can also open doors if a person learns how to “fall upward.”
Older Americans like myself face a problem: Religious leaders aren’t paying much attention to us. Much of contemporary religion is geared toward teaching people how to navigate the first half of their lives, when they’re building careers and families, a kind of “goal-oriented” spirituality. Yet there’s less help for people dealing with the challenges of aging: the loss of health, the death of friends, and coming to terms with mistakes that cannot be undone.
God can sometimes also function as a spiritual survival guide for hard times as millions of Americans young and old struggle to cope with “falling”: losing their homes, careers and status. The phrase “falling upward” describes a paradox. Nearly everybody will fall in life because they’ll be confronted with some type of catastrophic loss or abject failure. Yet failure can lead to growth if a person makes the right decisions. I’ve met people who, because of the loss of things and security, have been able to find grace, freedom and new horizons.
If you’re falling in any area of your life, one of the first skills to learn is accepting surprises. It’s easy for people to turn bitter when things don’t go as planned. He sees such people all the time, whether throwing tantrums at the airport because of long lines or flocking to angry rallies in opposition to some form of social change. If you don’t know how to deal with exceptions, surprise and spontaneity by the time you’re my age, you become a predictable series of responses of paranoia, blame and defensiveness. These circumstances often teach similar lessons about hard times:  Suffering is necessary,  the “false self” must be abandoned, and  everything belongs, even the sad, absurd and futile parts. People have learned these hard lessons for centuries, sometimes through myth, but most of the time by trial and error. They must first experience humiliation, loss and suffering before finding enlightenment. They are often forced on their journey by a crisis.
Events like the evaporation of a retirement fund or the death of a spouse can force you to summon strength you didn’t know you had. Forced liquidations of businesses that were once thriving enterprises is another example that comes to mind. The key is not resisting the crisis. Allow the circumstances of God and life to break you out of your egocentric responses to everything. If you allow ‘the other’ — other people, other events, other religions or cultures — to influence you, you just keep growing. That growth, though, is accompanied by death — the death of the “false self,” The false self is the part of your self tied to your achievements and possessions. When your false self dies, you start learning how to base your happiness on more eternal sources. You start drawing from your walk with Christ. You learn to distinguish from the essential self and the self that’s only window dressing.
Those who break through the crisis and lose their false selves become different people: Less judgmental, more generous and better able to ignore evil, selfish or stupid deeds of others. It may sound esoteric, but many of us have met older people like this. They possess what I call “a bright sadness”: they’ve suffered but they still smile and give. I’ve seen that in the wonderful older people in my life. There’s a kind of gravitas they have. There’s an easy smile on their faces. These are the people who laugh, who heal, who build bridges, who don’t turn bitter. This “bright sadness” shouldn’t be confined to older people. 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.
I challenge the notion that success is a natural result of being religious. Our culture is prone to imagine that growth takes place in a sort of constant, upward movement. Even our religious culture tends to focus on success and stability as ideals for religious growth, while overlooking the grace of failure, from which far more growth originates. In the Christian tradition, loss, collapse and failure have always been seen as not only unavoidable, but even necessary on the path to wisdom, freedom and personal maturity. I know older people like myself, all of whom have vast work experience, who struggled to rebuild their identities after they poured much of their earlier lives’ energies into professional and personal success. That is what happened to me after 2008, when I found myself forced out of IT after an 18-month absence due to several health issues.
Our culture tends to be youth-oriented, and a lot of spirituality is youth oriented. But our elders are the embodiment of the wisdom that life matters at a much deeper level than what we can achieve and produce. Imperfect people are sometimes more equipped than perfect people to help those who are struggling. The person who never makes a mistake and always manages to obey the rules is often a person devoid of compassion. He or she sees people for whom the wheels have fallen off and they wonder ‘what’s wrong with them’. But the person who feels that he or she has ruined their life often has more capacity for humility and compassion. I’m embarrassed as I’m getting older about how much of my energy and vitality as a younger man was driven by ego and a win-lose mentality.
As I’ve gotten older I find myself driven by something altogether different: The need for rest, and a need for more time for contemplation. As a teacher once told me, “The first half of life, you write the text,” he said. “The second half of your life is when you write the commentary. You have to process what it all meant.” I will be challenged to follow his and my own advice. I will spend less energy on my “false self” as his old identity dissolves. It will be a relief to me when the process is over. I am ready, though, to fall upward. If I lose my position as a web minister, author and respected church member, I would still feel secure. Most of us don’t learn this until it is taken away, like losing the security of your 401K as your entire career evaporates before your eyes. Then the learning either starts or you circle the wagons.