Two Halves of Life – a question on ‘Other’

I wanted to respond to a question that came through Twitter – always welcome, by the way – about the ‘two halves of life’ thesis I mention in Other.

“I’ve just finished the section on ‘Loving the Other with the Self.’ Would you say that our lives are lived in two halves, and that these two halves repeat evermore? In other words, is there an endless evolving look that we go through?’

The salient section from the book is this:

The monk Richard Rohr has spent a great deal of time exploring this idea of life having two halves. To condense his hypothesis dramatically: the first half of life is ideally spent training for the journey that will be undertaken and, as such, will be bound by all sorts of rules and regimes and drills. It is only once these rules have been internalized that we can begin the journey, to step outside of the drills into the real world and become responsible adults.

I see this process happening all the time in my teaching. When students first arrive at the school in my classes, I am very strict about punctuality, about handing homework in on time, about ruling each page with a margin and being precise working things out. It is a very different story for my older classes. Of course, I fully expect them to be on time and to produce high quality work, but by the time they are entering the final couple of years of school, I expect them to have internalized these rules and understand why they are important, in ways that younger students simply cannot do. In this sense, if they then chose to break them, then the responsibility for the consequences is fully theirs: poor grades. But they cannot be given this responsibility from day one.

Every parent knows this is true. We begin with hard and fast rules: never play with knives, never speak to strangers, never run across the road – and rightly so. But it would be idiocy to claim these as unchangeable laws that should go on forever. All adults need to be able to handle knives, speak to strangers, and dodge cars in the city traffic.

Rohr notes that Paul takes chapters upon chapters in Romans to say the same thing, while the Dalai Lama is more succinct: ‘we must learn the Law very well, in order to know how to break it properly.’

The first halve of life is spent learning the law; the second moving outside of the restrictions of that law and into the fuller spirit of it. We need the law in the first half in order to create secure structures, but we also have to move into breaking those laws if we are to be healthy adults. You can buy an MP3 of Richard speaking on this here.

The question then is, is this a one-off cycle, or something that repeats? I actually wrote a piece for Richard Rohr in his Radical Grace magazine a couple of months back, which looked at this very question. My answer there was that there is a grand cycle, the period which stretches over our lifetime, but there are also smaller cycles that exist within this too:

If Rohr is right and one axes of our lives is that they can be seen as having two halves, then my work in education has hinted that this principle can be true for each of the ‘little lives’ we lead too. When we enter the life-cycle of years in school or college we might find that our time naturally falls into ‘two halves’: the first where we create a structure and learn the law, the second where we have internalised those laws and begin to live beyond them. All this is preparation for us to move on from this part of our life to the next, where we may enter the first half again. As the grand sweep of our lives has two halves, so perhaps the little lives that make up our life have two halves too. And it is when we begin to live within this rhythm of learning the law of where we are very well – college, church, job, mission – so that might break them properly, that we will begin to become healthy and wise.

Whenever we begin a job, a project or a community, there will be elements of ‘first’ and ‘second’ halves to it. We will need to begin with more rules in order that we might establish security for people, and safe boundaries. But we must then learn to live outside of them if we are to see them mature. And one of my concerns is that many many churches – and the people who lead them – never get beyond the first half of life, but remain convinced that everything is cowboys and indians, good and bad, black and white. And that’s really very damaging for people.

You can read the whole article here.

Hope that helps.


2 responses to “Two Halves of Life – a question on ‘Other’”

  1. Thank you… As I read this I found myself identifying both halves already (in my short 30 years) however I find that the second I feel I have arrived at the “heir” half I am once again battling the ego and pride and thus starts a new cycle. PerhaPs this is what was meant by the “daily dying to self”. What if, if broken down to it’s smallestpart, each day is a life broken into two halves…. What would the implications of this mean for our daily interactions with the other? Could this be seen as a new sort of spiritual discipline? Daily mOving from our childish dreams of “doing something grand today” to the more mature approach of being a helping presence and helping others move towards that shift as well. Just thoughts on this… Thank you so much for your response!

  2. This is really interesting. It’s making me think of the stages of skill acquisition. When you learn something new (think of learning to drive, for example), you learn the rules, the right way to do it (say, when to press the clutch down, when to change gear) – and you do it by consciously following the rules. As you get better at it, you internalise those rules and they start to become unconscious. Eventually you automatically do the right thing without thinking about it. At this point you’ve become expert.

    What’s really interesting about this model is when you then come to teach someone else. What you teach them is the rules – what you got taught when you were learning – because that’s all you’re consciously aware of. But if someone were to observe you, they’d see you aren’t actually following the rules at all – you’ve unconsciously progressed far beyond that. Passing on that unconscious expertise is hard. This is probably why we value apprenticeship and one-on-one teaching so highly.