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Center for Action and Contemplation

Midlife Musings | From ONEING: Falling Upward

How do we enter new phases in life rooted in love? Sometimes, as Erin Sanzero explains, it takes a leap of faith.
March 15th, 2024
Midlife Musings | From ONEING: Falling Upward

This article is from ONEING: Falling Upward, the Fall 2023 issue of the Center for Action and Contemplation’s biannual journal. Both the limited-print edition of ONEING: Falling Upward and the downloadable PDF version are available now in our online bookstore. 

In the musical The Wiz, Dorothy sings, “When I think of home, I think of a place where there’s love overflowing.” Dorothy’s odyssey through Oz taught her many things, raising questions, bringing changes in perspectives, and ultimately affirming her longing to return home. The driving force behind all human stories dwells in the theme of nostos, of what it means to journey home.  

According to scholar/philosopher Shoshana Zuboff, we yearn for “a place in which life has been known to flourish . . . where we know and where we are known, where we love and are beloved. Home is mastery, voice, relationship, and sanctuary; part freedom, part flourishing, part refuge.” Finding sanctuary, finding home, is a central part of our lives. There is no place like home. Like the life we lose to find, home and our journey to find it seem to be both alpha and omega.  

What does it mean to come home? How do you know when you’re home?

Erin Sanzero

But what does it mean to come home? How do you know when you’re home? Falling Upward entered my life when I was in my thirties, during a series of knock-you-to-your-knees life events—the kind where you realize you’ve exited your hard-charging youth and, along the way, have also lost your “orientation,” your internal compass. I could not quiet the gnawing suspicion that the ladder I was diligently climbing might very well be on the wrong wall.  

My rough-and-tumble twenties resembled the Bluesmobile car chase scene from The Blues Brothers movie. The script I had visualized for my life slowly evaporated before my eyes. What I thought was going to be was not. What I thought might happen did not, and my life had veered utterly off my aspired path. I was disordered and encumbered with heavy emotional baggage. My first container—the flimsy, frail foundations and finitudes of what I could control and what I thought I understood—had cracked and ruptured. I had lost my inner and outer sense of home. 

I groped for understanding in the chaos of my young adulthood, grappling with the often-unwanted invitations that life gives us to “wake up” and repurpose energies in a constructive manner. Falling Upward restored my compass, enabling me to transform my “first container” of turbulent times and constrained concepts. I realized I could reconstruct and retint the filters I use to see and experience both halves of my life.  

Falling Upward restored my compass, enabling me to transform my ‘first container’ of turbulent times and constrained concepts.

Erin Sanzero

The bewildering and divine blessing of aging has been that redirection yields insights that transcend binary notions. Falling Upward invited me to consider how I love and to lean into the things I wanted to change while giving me language to write a script that allowed the opposing forces shaping my life to coexist and serve a greater purpose beyond the chaos of my circumstances. My travails had brought me to a place of desire to deepen my knowledge of relationships, spirituality, and purpose in life—a metamorphosis into my second half of life and the reconstruction of my spiritual place of home. 

Fr. Richard articulates and names the binaries and boundaries that need to be queered and broken to leap into the second half of life. He gives our wrestlings, failures, and great suffering a liberative context that allows us to embrace events with a loving and non-anxious presence while cultivating grace and gentleness amid the reality of the circumstances, personalities, needs, and even limitations of the situations and sufferings.  

As I enter my forties, I often ponder his Falling Upward question, “How can I honor the legitimate needs of the first half of life, while creating space, vision, time, and grace for the second?”  As a tree is known by its fruit, I wonder how I can be faithfully present to the journey of my own becoming. Can I walk a spiritual path that encompasses both the vitality and enthusiasm of youth and the wisdom and depth of maturity, marrying what it is to be mystical and meditative while also being intensely practical and pragmatic?  

In our thirties and forties, we find ourselves trying to do it all, failing, and trying again. We are working, running businesses, parenting, attending an endless number of Zoom meetings during the day and sleeping in the hospital armchair at the bedside of a parent during the night, mentoring our junior employees or minding children in our care, all while also asking deep existential questions, reading spiritual books, and squeezing out space for spiritual practice.  

Working between loads of laundry and the endless litany of life’s demands, epiphanies emerge, offer insight, and illume our path as we inhabit the in-betweenness of our two halves of life.

Erin Sanzero

Middle age is a paradoxical delta, a liminal space where the waters of the two halves of our lives converge, commingle, and coalesce, creating something altogether new. The boundaries between youth and age are no longer easily discerned. Working between loads of laundry and the endless litany of life’s demands, epiphanies emerge, offer insight, and illume our path as we inhabit the in-betweenness of our two halves of life. 

But how shall we enter this new phase? We will need to opt in, to say yes to making sanctuary at the wound site of our pain, to laying down the need to prove or earn things, to sitting with questions, and to the lesson of love. When we leap, we indeed are falling upward.  

Leaping is truly an act of faith, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). In a moment of unfathomable uncertainty, Jesus prepared to die, and his disciples had to release their notions of who the Messiah was in order to accept his crucifixion. Jesus’ words to his disciples in the first part of the Farewell Discourse (John 14:1–16) were to prepare them for more than his death. They also revealed that on the other side of the crucifixion there would be resurrection and ultimately ascension. The work of God lives beyond death. This can be our reminder as Christ’s disciples when we struggle to see beyond life’s vicissitudes.  

This kind of invitational, second-half-of-life spirituality is threaded throughout the Gospels. The young rich man encounters Jesus (Matthew 19:16–22), inquires what he can do in and of himself to attain eternal life, but decides he isn’t ready to leap. Jesus has given him the invitation for when he’s ready. The prodigal hits rock bottom and is met with love and acceptance by his father, who welcomes him home (Luke 15:11–32). This spirituality allows us to transform knowledge into wisdom and either/or into both/and meaning making, where we love what we have and are left with something far more pure, far more real. Our love is the litmus. 

The surprising lesson of middle age is that control is not the solution; it’s often the problem.

Erin Sanzero

Evolutionarily, we know the purpose of pain. This pain, of course, is also a directive. It is to direct us, guide us, and encourage us to shift, promptly and permanently, because we are not designed to ignore pain. We are designed to react to it. When pain occurs in our musculoskeletal system, its purpose is to protect us from further damage and to aid healing by restricting our movement and activity. This parallel holds for spiritual and emotional pain. It protects us while it restricts us from attempting to exert control. It invites us to stop muscling through; to accept, “sit still,” and be with what is; to sit more gently with unknowing; and to wait to find grounding where grounding does not yet exist. The surprising lesson of middle age is that control is not the solution; it’s often the problem itself. 

The church of my marriage has been my greatest teacher, mirror, and transformative experience. My spouse’s gender transition burst binaries and invited me to embrace both halves of life at the same time. After nearly a decade of marriage, we grew the trust to start talking about deep inner truths that need fallow time to grow. This level of shapeshifting and unbecoming was terrifying and ultimately transformational.  

As they changed, I lacked familiar language for my spouse, for their body and their person. I had to let go of my notions of who my spouse was and what defined us, individually and as a couple. I was left to wonder what is truly essential and what is truly eternal. How much of a person can change and yet remain the same, both known and unknown to me? Could I say yes to that? Would I say yes to that? Could I choose to love what I didn’t wholly understand or define?  

Author adrienne maree brown affirms that  
we are never i  
even when we are lonely 
even when we distinctly suffer  
even when we distinctly succeed  
we are of lineage  
of collective  
of era   

Reminiscent of the priestly blessing which Aaron gives to his sons in the book of Numbers (6:22–27), the song “Forever Young” passes down blessings and good wishes from one generation to another, recognizing that youthfulness and wisdom are not mutually exclusive but rather complementary aspects of a fulfilling life.  

Our loved ones and lovers are the living cells in which we sit and learn, the nests we feather and soil and return to—changed.

Erin Sanzero

We carry this hope that our progeny will cleave to wonder and optimism, embracing life’s challenges with strength for the day and bright hope for the morrow. In the gloaming of our lives, we desire to pass along to them the wisdom, introspection, acceptance, and deep understanding of life’s complexities. Perhaps the culmination of a life well lived is the blending of two great archetypes, the person who is both eternally young and wise before their time. It is there, in that space, that elders dwell. 

As a Living School student, I was introduced to the profound wisdom of desert father Abba Moses, who taught, “Sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”  During a recent visit home, I sat on a mattress on the floor with three generations of my family. In the wee hours of the night, we struggled to soothe my visiting, wailing, three-year-old nephew in the midst of a bad dream. Legs tangled up with my aging parents and this inconsolable, thrashing child, I reflected on how, for many of us, our loved ones and lovers are the living cells in which we sit and learn, the nests we feather and soil and return to—changed. 

In this cell of relational contemplation, where we do the hard and messy work of being intertwined with other human beings in relationship with one another, we have the invitation to see the face of God through our love of one another. Far from singular, solitary pursuits, our relationships teach us how to love and invite us to consider how we embody and enact that love.  

The question for us now becomes, “What are you going to do in your second half of life?” As Fr. Richard writes, “True heroism serves the common good, or it is not really heroism at all.”  How does it look to love as action in our daily lives, to add love as contemplative activism?  

Through an embodied, relational approach to spirituality, we find wisdom in the embrace of physical relationships—with our physical world and with each other. We accept the unknown, and we wade into troubled waters, trusting that the queering of those waters and boundaries will offer us insights, transformation, and a love that springs from a depth we don’t fully comprehend, define, or control. We no longer need to be able to wrap our head around it, justify it, or even fully understand it.  

Our willingness to let go of attachments, expectations, and the need for control allows us to surrender to a greater truth.

Erin Sanzero

Second-half-of-life spirituality is not about control, certitude, or fixed notions. It is about remaining rooted in love; meeting people where they are, as they are; and embracing reality as it is. We must trust that in quietness and in rest we shall find our strength. In accepting that we don’t need to be right, we can make space for the other, choosing to be in loving relationship. This is, after all, what Jesus did. 

May we know we are made for love. We are loved, made to be loved, loved as we are. Love never abuses. Love is always nurturance and care. Our willingness to let go of attachments, expectations, and the need for control allows us to surrender to a greater truth, enabling us to embrace paradox and recognize the interconnectedness of all things. I once asked dear friend and queer author Katie J. Chiaramonte where she felt home, and she responded, “In the heart of my wife.”  

The Judds sing, “Love can build a bridge,” and our task is “not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” Let us learn from our failings, from a pedagogy of convening cracks in the cacophonous convocation that is life. As Báyò Akómoláfé posits, “Falling might very well be flying—without the tyranny of coordinates.”  

May we fall upward. May we fly . . . home. 

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