In his book, Falling Upward, Richard Rohr writes: “There… are at least two major tasks to the human life. The first task is to build a strong ‘container’ or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold” (Rohr, xiii). Both the first and second tasks of life are completely necessary for our development, but many of us never move beyond the first task. The first task of life involves forming a sense of selfhood through the various rules, rituals, and boundaries that form a foundation for our identity. The second task of life involves breaking apart our sense of self to foster a deeper spiritual connection with God. Together these two tasks form the “two halves of life” – Act One, in which we develop our ego identity, and Act Two, in which we cultivate our spiritual identity.
Since the first task of life focuses on worldly success and comfort in this life, our culture tends to embrace this task as the sole purpose for our existence. And the first task is essential. But in order to develop spiritually, Rohr argues that we need to accept and, when the time is right, embrace the second task of life. My hope in this article is to introduce the two tasks of life and to explain why each is completely necessary. If you find yourself in the first half of life, knowing ahead of time what it will mean to enter the second half of life may empower you to endure the transformation required to reach the second task. For those already in the second half of life, knowing what your journey through pain has meant may offer hope and perspective for your further spiritual journey.
The First Task: Establishing Safety and Selfhood
In the first half of life, Rohr asserts, we establish a sense of selfhood and safety—we develop our identity, home, relationships, and community as the foundation for our lives. Our goal in the first half is upward mobility, not spiritual maturity. This first stage allows us to construct a worldview which functions as a protective container, safeguarding us from the dangers of the wider world. We build the container using “externals, formulas, superficial emotions, flags and badges, correct rituals, Bible quotes and special clothing, all of which substitute for actual spirituality” (13). In other words, the first half of life involves early stages of religious experience: it is governed by rules such as listening only to Christian music and memorizing Bible verses. We can all think of times when this first task has been especially dominant in our own lives: high school youth group tends to be one such stage. By and large, our culture lives almost exclusively in this first half of life. It is a comfortable place from which we can focus on “surviving successfully” (xiii) inside our container.
The Second Task: Uncovering Your True Purpose
But is life really just about “surviving successfully”? The task of the first half of life is not the final goal, but simply lays the groundwork for the second half of life. According to Rohr, “The task of the second half of life is, quite simply, to find the actual contents that this container was meant to hold and deliver… In other words, the container is not an end in itself, but exists for the sake of your deeper and fullest life” (1). The second half of life is about spiritual maturity. We cannot choose spiritual maturity; we must allow God to transform us through suffering into spiritually mature beings. In other words, we do not enter the second half of life of our own accord, but must be brought into it by change, pain, risk, or failure. In the second half of life, we must fall, but Rohr maintains that we can fall into a spiritual depth that will transform our old containers into new wineskins.
Hope in the Midst of Suffering
Not only does this second half of life bring meaning and spiritual fulfillment; it also offers a promising way to cope with suffering and failure. In the second half of life, our failure and suffering become the grounds for our growth. As Rohr notes, “…authentic God experience is always “too much”! It consoles our True Self only after it has destroyed our false self” (13). In other words, when we feel our first half container being burned away by the Almighty, we can take comfort that this is a necessary step toward spiritual growth.
I find this an incredibly helpful way to understand suffering and pain. If we are able to view our trials through the lens of spiritual growth, we may be able to enter into the second half of life. From a psychological perspective, this means that our pain – when treated appropriately – can transform us into the person that God intends us to be.
Christian Counseling for Spiritual Growth
Over the next few articles, I will be exploring Rohr’s concept of the first and second tasks of life. In the meantime, if you are interested in understanding the first and second tasks of life more fully. Perhaps you are seeking to make sense of a difficult experience, or you would like some professional insight into your spiritual journey. Whatever issues you may be facing, Christian counseling can offer a way to gain perspective on your life and discern God’s intentions for you. With the help of a qualified Christian counselor, you can develop a healthy and holistic perspective that will prepare you to see how God is using your experience to shape your spiritual growth.
Freedigitalphotos.net “Old Hands” by Africa; “Man opening Cardboard Box” by Nuttakit
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