When I had an episode of depression several years ago, a friend of mine sent me the book Falling Upward, by Richard Rohr, to lift my spirits. That book probably transformed how I view life and helped me to see depression as a gift.
For many, Richard Rohr is the finest theologian writing today. His views are not traditional for they challenge many of the conventions of religiosity. But his insights are remarkable. The premise of Falling Upward is that life consists of two parts. The first is about striving, acquiring, ambition, career, status, material things. A world which is black and white, binary, certain. The second stage is recognising how superficial these things are, that the world is uncertain, ambiguous, paradoxical and complex, and that what matters are relationships, interconnectedness, putting others before self. The former approach, Rohr suggests, is unsustainable long term.
Rohr contends that many of us need to go through a life-changing experience to understand and embrace the second stage. This, he says, applies particularly to men of a certain age who may need to experience a sense of brokenness to wake up to the realities of life. We need to fall before moving upward.
It struck me recently that maybe this is what is happening – and indeed may be needed – on a global, societal level. We live collectively as if we must continue to strive, acquire, build careers and empires, gain more and more material wealth and increase our influence. We look at issues as if they were black and white. Leave/remain; yes/no; right/wrong; China and Russia bad/the West good; and so on.
But, in reality, the world is complex and volatile, events are uncertain, paradoxes abound, living as if the planet has unlimited resources is unsustainable. Do we all need to go through a life-changing experience to appreciate this? To be broken in a collective sense? Is this now happening to us as a species, with the pandemic?
As with those who have individual experiences of ill health, the warning signs are often obvious in advance of any breakdown. The pandemic experience is unprecedented. Is it a collective warning of breakdown as well as an example of it? The signals from the planet could not be clearer – breakdown is occurring already.
Perhaps, then, we need to take stock, build relationships, acknowledge our interconnectedness and inescapable reliance on each other at many levels whether we like it or not, put aside our own selfish narrow interests and work hard to find a way to co-exist with those we neither like nor approve of, maintain our courage and humility, and show willingness to take responsibility when we get things wrong. A tall order? Yes, but our futures may depend on it.
John Sturrock, February 2021
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