The Container

FAfter reading A Woman of Faith, Pondering the Nature of Man, my response to The Lonely Man of Faith, a friend recommended that I read Richard Rohr’s book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.  In The Lonely Man of Faith, Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote that we have two conflicting natures.  One part focuses its efforts on creating and achieving and the other part seeks spiritual fulfillment. In contrast, Rohr wrote that we have two major tasks in life. In the first half, we develop a strong sense of self-identity; in the second half we figure out “what we are really doing when we are doing what we are doing.”

Rohr described self-identity as a “container.” In the first half of life, we develop a strong container by identifying and using our skills, establishing relationships, etc. In the second half of life, we “find the contents that the container was meant to hold.” But we often don’t work on the inner task of self-examination until we fail at the external task.

I like the container analogy. Some containers, like vases, are merely decorative; others are not much to look at but are incredibly useful for holding, carrying, or storing our stuff. Some are fragile. Others, like a sturdy suitcase, take a beating and still keep the contents secure. Containers are often designed for a specialized purpose but creative and practical people envision another use. Some containers are transparent allowing you to see what is inside. Others keep their contents hidden under lock and key.

Rohr’s perspective hit me where I am now, in midlife. For several years now, I have been trying to figure out what my container is supposed to hold. It was encouraging to see how closely my journey follows the path to spiritual maturity that Rohr describes.

First Half

Learning Self-Discipline

Children are naturally egocentric. The tendency to focus on our own wants and needs, as if we are the center of the universe, must be challenged if we are to live in harmony with other people. The role of the family, schools, and other social institutions it to put limits on our “infantile grandiosity.” Having to butt up against someone else’s needs creates a “proper ego structure.” So in the first half of life, a structurally sound container is built when we learn to control our impulses, to respect the rights of others, to respect authority, to honor traditions, and to obey rules and laws.

As Rohr rightly points out, if you want someone to do a job well with no excuses, you want a person who has dealt with limits. Living with limits leads to self-discipline, time-management skills, problem-solving skills, a cooperative attitude, perseverance and reliability. On the other hand, a person who has been coddled and told they are special no matter what they do does not learn these important “soft” skills.

Rohr explains that there is a “creative tension” between laws and freedom. After all, we only internalize values if we have the freedom to test them. Sometimes people have to rebel and mess up to figure out that there are valid reasons for the rules that seemed so meaningless and restrictive before.

Developing Self-Esteem

In addition to limits, building strong self-esteem requires positive feedback and encouragement early in life. If you don’t have enough self-esteem, you will spend years trying to get approval from others, even begging for attention. When you have self-confidence, you don’t have to defend or assert your ego. In fact, having self-esteem enables you to let go of your ego and think about the needs of other people.

Rohr also noted that we need to experience failure to build a strong container for the self. Again, families and social institutions play a role in protecting children when they fall, preventing them from making the most harmful mistakes. They teach them how to fall (e.g. how to be a gracious loser) and how to learn from falling (what to do differently the next time).

Second Half

Falling Apart

The premise of Rohr’s book is that the achievements of the first part of life have to fall apart or be found wanting in some way for us to give them up. Examples of falling apart are job loss, divorce, death of a loved one, money issues, loss of reputation, addictions, etc. But I don’t think the trigger necessarily has to be a dramatic loss or an epic failure. It may be a series of small disappointments or a sense of disillusionment that grows over time.

I will never forget how I felt when my accomplishments came crashing down into a worthless heap. I had a job I enjoyed and was quite good at. I was the employee who did the job well with no excuses, proud of meeting deadlines and producing perfect reports. Then I had to work with a young man who had evidently been so coddled his whole life, he never had to follow through on his commitments. Excuses always worked for him. Conflict between the two of us was inevitable. My need for accountability clashed with his need for laxity. To make it worse for me, our boss treated him like an indulgent parent.

One day, my coworker told me that I was condescending. I knew it was true. I was ashamed of myself and felt terrible knowing that I had the power to be so hurtful. In my desire to hold up one set of good values (e.g. responsibility and trustworthiness) I stopped displaying other good values (kindness and respectfulness). I was becoming a person I did not want to be. So I quit a job I loved. I walked away. Moving forward meant letting go  – especially of my desire to fix things – and starting over.

Rohr notes that failure and suffering are great equalizers. They show how vulnerable and weak we really are. After I quit the job with the irresponsible coworker, I had trouble finding another job. It was humbling. I felt like I had really messed up. And then I recalled the words of Psalms 51:17: My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise. I came to God with a broken spirit and threw myself on his mercy.

As bad as failure and suffering seem on the surface, they often reveal strengths that aren’t evident when everything goes well. We learn more and grow more spiritually by failing than by doing things right. Failure and humiliation force you to look where you might not otherwise look – inside yourself. When we fail, we see ourselves more honestly; we see our limitations. Until we find our current situation lacking or even unbearable, we will not reach out to God. We won’t admit that we can’t do it alone. We won’t admit that we need help.

This is the paradox of spiritual growth: “the way up is the way down.” Rohr calls this way of growing a “spirituality of imperfection.” The apostle Paul also understood how beneficial imperfections are for spiritual growth. He explained that “in order for me to keep from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” We don’t know what the thorn was but Paul begged God to remove it (2 Corinthians 12: 9-10).

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Opening Up to Change

Many people my age or older are unwilling to change. In the second half of life, many people long to go back to “the good old days.” Familiar ways are comfortable and as Rohr says, “falsely reassuring.” So they fight to maintain the status quo. Instead of seeking growth, they stay stuck in a never-ending quest to protect the ego by attempting to prove their worth with what they have or what they do.

Many people don’t want to stop battling the forces of evil. Rohr writes, “most frontal attacks on evil just produce another kind of evil in yourself, along with a very inflated self-image to boot.” (I sure figured that out when I confronted my coworker about his poor work habits!) The person you attack or confront will meet you with a lot of resistance because the fight is nothing more than a battle of the ego.

Rohr says that people often do not go down the path to spiritual maturity willingly. Growing may mean using a different skill set. It may mean taking a risk or a giant leap of faith. Sometimes, as Rohr says, “God, life, destiny, suffering have to give us a push.” And some people feel a mysterious calling that leads them down a path they would have never taken otherwise.

Recognition of my failings and the desire to be a better person pushed me to seek spiritual growth. But I have also felt a pull at work too. Several years ago, I felt pulled to write, to use a completely different, undeveloped skill. And I found that the reflective practice I follow in writing kept leading me to God.

Surrendering the False Self

Rohr says that we each have a persona and a shadow self. Your persona encompasses other people’s expectations of you, how you choose to identify yourself, and the qualities that you are rewarded for having. Your shadow is the part of the self that you don’t want other people to see. We may not even admit the bad parts to ourselves. We work really hard to maintain and present the desired image of the self to other people – to pretend that we are something we are not.

As you mature spiritually, you figure out that your self-image is just an image. It is not worth protecting, hiding, promoting, or defending. Other people are good at pointing out or revealing our weaknesses. They see our shadow self no matter how carefully we try to hide it.

It is possible to find your true self if you engage in critical self-reflection. You have to surrender the false self to find the true self. Honest self-examination is a humbling exercise. It means facing your mistakes, failings, and contradictions. The benefit of facing your hidden self is that you no longer have to fear being exposed as a fraud.

“It’s a gift to joyfully recognize and accept our own smallness and ordinariness. Then you are free with nothing to live up to, nothing to prove, and nothing to protect. Such freedom is my best description of Christian maturity, because once you know that your “I” is great and one with God, you can ironically be quite content with a small and ordinary “I.” No grandstanding is necessary. Any question of your own importance or dignity has already been resolved once and for all and forever.”
― Richard Rohr

Finding Unity & Inclusiveness

Rohr describes spiritual maturity as reaching a level of unity and inclusiveness. Quoting Ken Wilber, “the classic spiritual journey always begins elitist and ends egalitarian.” In other words, you start off with a superior attitude towards those other sinners, then you figure out that all people are equally deserving of God’s grace. While the spiritually immature person looks down on sinners, the spiritually mature person stops with the self-righteousness. A person who is stuck at a lower level continues to be motivated by the ego, dividing the world into winners and losers. They may be religious but they practice a “tribal” form of religion that excludes people who are not like them.

What does it look like to be more inclusive? It means that you don’t waste your energy trying to prove that your way is right. You use your energy to find unity – common ground – with people who are different from you, especially those who are oppressed. You stop trying to change or fix people. You learn to be patient and understanding. You try to see things from the other person’s point of view. What challenges do they have that you don’t? What would it be like to walk in the other person’s shoes?

You stop practicing dualistic thinking. Dualistic thinkers see everything as good or bad, black or white. The mature person can see the shades of gray. You recognize that not everything is clear-cut, either this or that. You also learn to accept the “not knowing.” You don’t have to have an answer for everything.

“Wisdom happily lives with mystery, doubt, and “unknowing,” and in such living, ironically resolves that very mystery to some degree.”

One of the ways I’ve seen the spirit of grace and inclusiveness grow in me is in the evolution of my thinking about a hot button issue among many Evangelicals. Those who signed The Nashville Statement are hell-bent on resisting the growing cultural acceptance of gays and transgenders, battling what they see as evil, “a massive revision of what it means to be a human being.” I have wrestled with the issue because the Bible does say that homosexuality is a sin. But the Bible calls out many sins – murder, greed, dishonesty, adultery, cheating, slander, malice, etc. And I notice that Jesus reserved his strongest condemnation for hypocrites, for the greedy and self-serving.

I see my gay friends as multi-faceted human beings, not defined solely by their sexual orientation anymore than I am. But I wondered whether homosexuality is a choice or a genetic predisposition. Then I had the opportunity to hear a gay Christian, Christopher Yuan, speak at my church. He did not answer that question. But it was amazing to hear how God changed his life. He was expelled from dental school and imprisoned for dealing drugs. God didn’t fix Christopher’s sexual orientation just as he didn’t take away the thorn in Paul’s side. God loved him just as he is. I left his speech with the joy that comes from seeing the power of grace.

Grace is free and unmerited favor. To love your neighbor as you love yourself, you need to be gracious, particularly if your neighbor is not lovable. It takes even more grace to love your enemies and to bless those who curse you. Egocentric people would rather base the way they treat other people on merit; your neighbor has to deserve or earn your favor. But when you are filled with God’s grace, merit and worthiness have no meaning.

As you grow spiritually, you figure out that we are all in this thing called life together. We each have our own signature weaknesses or as Rohr points out, “we are all naked underneath our clothes.” When you have forgiven yourself for your own imperfections and failings, you have the capacity to forgive other people for their imperfections and failures. When you learn to accept yourself – both the good and the bad – you can do the same for others. You stop feeling the need to hang onto old hurts and resentments. You don’t see the point in wasting your time and energy on stupid fights and disagreements.

Jesus likened hypocrites to a container – to a dish that is clean on the inside but filthy on the outside. A spiritually mature person will focus on what should be inside the container and stop presenting a false image of the self.

I have come a long way in my spiritual journey, but I am still falling upward. I am still learning to joyfully accept my ordinariness and to let go of my fear of being exposed. I am still learning to be what Philip Yancey calls a grace-dispenser.

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