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Adolescent Culture

Richard Rohr

Like many other musing of late, this question began with what was almost a throw-away line in a Richard Rohr book. After explaining, in his Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (2011), that in the first half of life we seek success, security and a legitimate ego identity, “’looking good’ to ourselves and others,” Rohr wrote the following:

In a culture like ours, still preoccupied with security issues, enormously high military budgets are never seriously questioned by Congress or by the people, while appropriations reflecting later stages in the hierarchy of needs, like those for education, health care for the poor, and the arts, are quickly cut, if even considered. The message is clear that we are largely an adolescent culture.

Wow! Never a dull moment with old Richard, one of the most thoughtful in-house critic the Roman Catholic church has to offer these days! Just when you think you are on the verge of a pleasant talk on stages of life or even mystical awareness—God is One and we are one with God and all that—up pops a cogent insight that explains why I find the behavior of political leaders in the United States so frustrating. They just aren’t really grown up yet!

I suppose that I have really known that for some time. What else would explain why George W. Bush (some of us called him Shrub in the old days) would have invaded Iraq without thinking through the consequences? Or why Barack Obama would say “Yes we Can!” without telling us in any detail how we can, or why we should, and then continuing—contrary to campaign promises—to spy on millions of people, friends and foes alike, in order to keep us “secure.” These are adolescent behaviors.

Our leaders just aren’t really grown up yet, are they? And what does that say about those of us who voted for them, or who go around “liking” all sorts of trivial things on Facebook? I am willing to admit to being pretty gullible during my life (which is about as long as Richard Rohr’s), but I never thought about my behavior as a stage of life issue. Heavy sigh! Gee, Richard, you could have just kept that comment about adolescence to yourself?

I must be careful here, of course. I have nothing against adolescents, having been one myself for a number of years. This is, as Rohr recognizes, a time of great insecurity, when one seeks what one cannot have—in my case that was a beautiful eighth grade girl named Angela. It is also, as Rohr notes, with his usual wisdom, a necessary period “in the first half of life.”

And perhaps it is understandable that the United States is still in a period of adolescence, if stages of life and growth can be transferred from humans to cultures. After all, the USA isn’t even 250 years old yet, if we count from the war of independence. By Roman standards, we are mere children; Rome was over 500 years old when it entered its autocratic stage with the Emperor Augustus, so we do have a ways to go before we have suffered enough to leave adolescence behind.

Of course, things do move faster these days, what with the Internet, climate change, and all, so our date with autocracy may well occur before America as a nation reaches its fourth or fifth century. We do seem to be entering a period of suffering as a nation, given the slowing of our economy, an increase in natural disasters (an interesting term itself?) such as floods, fires, hurricanes and “super-storms,” not to mention our chagrin at the fact that other countries, even friendly ones, no longer seem to care much about what we think. Actually, this itself might be an incipient sign of maturity, since the inability or unwillingness to threaten others might meant that our adolescence is drawing to a close—whether we like it our not. One can only hope.

I am attracted to Rohr’s philosophy/psychology/spirituality because I have felt since my teens a desire to “get things right” and a conviction that truth (by definition) must be easier to find in the middle rather than on the farther edges of any personal or political philosophy or ideology.

Falling Upward may be an ideal book for any of us who deplore the current “gridlock” in our political system. Since Rohr is trying to describe the differing forces that drive us during the “two halves of life,” his book should be attractive to thoughtful liberals as well as conservatives, if there are any thoughtful people left who are willing to claim those designations.

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The first half of life is a time to do what we are expected to do: follow the rules, respect authority in church and state, identify yourself as a loyal member of your “tribe,” whether that be your church, your family, your ethnic group, your country, or all of the above. It is time to build security through financial and psychological success (“self-actualization”). All this seems to “resonate” (I can’t resist using an old 70s word now and then) with much of what is called “conservative values” today.

Rohr says that our job in the “first half of life,” (not just a chronological period but rather a form of consciousness) is to build “a very strong container to hold the contents and contradictions that arrive later in life.” (26) And those contradictions begin to appear when we begin to see—ideally after age forty, but much later in my case—that we are not really the person that we have been presenting to others, or the person others think us to be based upon how we have behaved in our careers, family life, or even in public roles. As we age, we slowly come to question our own self-image or Persona (mask) and, to use a religious image, we become less interested in the Ten Commandments, which have been very important in our earlier life, and more interested in the eight Beatitudes! (119) “Think about that,” as Rohr occasionally says when grabbing the reader with an unexpected comment.

Adolescent Culture

In this “second half” of life, whenever it begins, we need to muster out or give an honorable discharge to the “loyal soldier” who represents the “the voice of all your early authority figures,” or what Freud called the superego (46-7). As we begin the process of falling upward, we have to give up some of our attempts to “fix, control, explain, change, or even understand” (68) because only this can take us beyond our selfishness and ego needs.

In sum, Rohr says, we can’t hear God’s voice so long as we are listening to our own. We must forsake what has been our comfort zone and embrace a journey into the unknown. This is not something that is easy to do; it does generally involve suffering, and this journey is not something that the institutions that have comforted us through the first half of life, be they church or state, for example, want us to do. Both our churches and our countries want us to continue to rely on them, and not to question them. Rohr speaks eloquently about the “inherent tension” in his own Catholic Church:

Both the church’s practice and its Platonic pronouncements create tragic gaps for any person with an operative head and a beating heart. But remember, even a little bit of God is well worth loving and even a little bit of truth and love goes a long way. The church has given me much more than a little bit. Like all limited parents, it has been a ‘good enough’ church. . . .But in the end, ‘Only God is good,’ as Jesus said to the rich young man. So the church is both my greatest intellectual and moral problem and my most consoling home. She is both pathetic whore anD Frequent bride. (80)

Were an American leader to say that it is time to look beyond our own comfortable lives long enough to put the welfare of others on the planet on a level with ours by addressing some of the problems created by climate change, the result would be predictable.

And if Rohr can speak with such honest ambivalence about a religious institution to which he has dedicated his life, why should we be less honest in evaluating the adolescent nature of our national culture? Both churches and nation-states are necessarily “first half of life” institutions. They both allow us to feed our ego by letting us delight in being part of such a large and important community of people. There is security, we think, in numbers, and so we naturally want our church or our nation to be the best and most important. When our leaders on rare occasions try to act like grown-ups by solving serious problems instead of posturing as toughs, we accuse them of being weak, giving up ground to our enemies.

Were an American leader to say that it is time to look beyond our own comfortable lives long enough to put the welfare of others on the planet on a level with ours by addressing some of the problems created by climate change, the result would be predictable. He or she would be scorned, belittled and even rejected as a traitor to our country and to “our way of life.” In fact, I seem to recall that former President Jimmy Carter gingerly hinted at such an approach during his term in office and was, for that (and other reasons of course), decisively rejected in his bid for reelection.

And that is what makes Falling Upward such an insightful and challenging book. In the second half of life, we begin, Rohr writes, to “accept and transcend” our culturally inbred “either-or” approach to life. As we grow away from our need for certainty and what we might call “ego achievement,” we begin to see things less dualistically and more unified, part of a greater whole (146-50). We become, he says, “less and less . . . interested in eliminating the negative or fearful, making again those old rash judgments, holding on to old hurts, or feeling any need to punish other people. Your superiority complexes have gradually departed in all directions. You do not fight those things any more. . . . You learn to positively ignore and withdraw your energy from evil or stupid things rather than fight them directly.” (118)

Now just think how unsettling this last sentence would be to your typical liberal or progressive politician. That is the frustrating and challenging part of Falling Upward. Are you coping out on the need for or even the possibility of meaningful change, Richard? Are you saying, in a perversely mystical but still spiritually self-serving way, that we should just abandon the fight to improve our culture or political and religious institutions and leave the mess to our grandchildren?

Well, no, not exactly, he says. Rather, “by the second half of life, you have learned ever so slowly, and with much resistance, that most frontal attacks on evil just produce another kind of evil in yourself, along with a very inflated self-image to book. . . .Daily life now requires prayer and discernment more than knee-jerk responses toward either the conservative or liberal end of the spectrum. You have a spectrum of responses now, and they are not all predictable, as is too often the case with most knee-jerk responses. . . . Law is still necessary, of course, but it is not your guiding star, or even close. It has been wrong and cruel too many times.” (118-19).

Can you feel the frustratingly ambiguous tone of this response? Can you embrace it and thereby “fall upward. . .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?” That is Rohr’s challenge, as well as his prescription for discovering and living out the divinity within ourselves.


Ken Wolf