Since I retired nearly two years ago, I have been finding more opportunities to work from home and not just in the way the term is usually meant. Unless you see patients in your home office, working from home is not the way clinical psychologists typically do business. Professionals in other fields can always work from home during snowstorms, transit strikes or even during the odd hours left over after a long business trip. For me, this was never an option, at least not until I retired.
So now here I am at my desk, reflecting on what has been an unsettling few weeks filled with unwanted reminders of mortality. There was the death of a friend’s mother, the continuing decline of my mother-in-law as she approaches her 101st birthday, another friend’s surprising discovery of a serious illness and the news from two other retired friends who recently learned that their dogs were dying.
Oh, and did I mention that my reading material during these weeks consisted of a book about the second half of life, a long magazine article about scientific efforts to reverse the aging process and a historical novel about the torture and martyrdom of seventeenth-century Christian missionaries in Japan?
Maybe my wife was right and what I needed was an infusion of happier stories, so we started with what we thought would be a feel-good movie with a happy ending. It was and it wasn’t. Life is complicated.
Of course, as a psychologist and a senior citizen, I know this and I’m not complaining. I am actually learning a great deal about the next phase of life’s journey that Richard Rohr describes in his book, “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.”
Drawing on more than 40 years of experience as a priest, prison chaplain and founding director of the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico, Rohr blends the lessons of his experience with ancient myth, religious texts and the ideas of Carl Jung and Erik Erikson to produce a rough guide for the road ahead.
It is an old, familiar road for most of us in the thick of our careers and beyond, but because it always leads through new terrain, I hoped Rohr’s book would provide just the kind of map I needed.
Referencing Carl Jung’s idea that we cannot live our mature years according to the program of our youth, Rohr goes on to explain that while our early years are focused on building our persona and professional identity, the task of our later years is to recover our soul.
It is the problem of the container and the contents, the raft and the shore that beckons us onward. We spend our youth building a solid container, a seaworthy raft, using the materials of good enough parenting, positive role models and the institutions and rules that help us develop good character, a moral compass, and the skills we need to contribute to the human community.
The second half of life is all about filling the container with what matters most and sailing our raft through troubled seas toward the shore of our dreams.
These ideas remind me of something a wise professor told our class at the beginning of our graduate studies. He said that we had all decided to become clinical psychologists because we cared about people and had a knack for relating to others.
He warned us that in the next four years, our heads would be filled with theories and techniques about what makes people tick and how to fix them. And then he implored us never to forget who we are and why we had made this career choice. Don’t confuse the container with the contents, the raft with the shore, your education with your soul.
So, I can’t say I hadn’t been warned and I have tried to follow my teacher’s advice. Keep up with the literature, learn the latest assessment techniques and treatment strategies and then modify them as needed to fit the circumstances of the people you are trying to help.
Satisfy the reporting requirements of the large institutions where you work, gather the information you are told other people need, but keep your priorities straight. Focus first on the person sitting across the desk from you, their needs, their challenges, their goals. Work on your raft but don’t lose sight of the shore. Get comfortable breaking lesser rules to serve a higher rule and learn how to tell the difference.
My teacher had prepared me well and, if I hadn’t already noticed, Richard Rohr reminded me that the journey is never easy. The seas are troubled, the raft breaks, the container splits.
Suffering and loss are not only inevitable but also necessary to move us forward toward the promise of mature adulthood. What awaits us there is a greater capacity for inclusiveness and for sharing the joys and sorrows of others, an improved ability to tolerate paradox, to hold the sadness and brightness of things at once, to know and pursue our passion in life, to know ourselves including our darkest shadows and to accept it all with humility and gratitude.
These are not so much goals that we work to achieve as changes that happen when we recognize that life is nudging us toward our true selves, our souls, the only home we will ever know.
Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is a psychologist formerly at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.