Why Valentine’s Day Is Demonic

Valentine's Day

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Every year, on Christmas Eve, we gather with family and friends.

For a lip sync contest.

After dinner, the contest begins, with the kids typically performing their favorite hit song from the year. We adults, on the other hand, often perform a favorite song from our younger years—this year, that may or may not have included a song entirely about farting.

And this year, my younger son Quinn got up and put every ounce of his heart into a performance of “The Run and Go,” by twenty one pilots. The song’s refrain goes like this: “…don’t want to give you all my pieces, don’t want to hand you all my trouble, don’t want to give you all my demons…”

As the vocalist shouted the final refrain in anguish and Quinn silently shouted along, I looked at my wife.

I thought about how, at first, we both resisted giving each other our pieces, handing each other our troubles, and giving each other all our demons. I thought about how much we clung to the fantasy that love and marriage could somehow look like every pristine advertisement for Valentine’s Day. In those early years, by resisting our demons, pretending they didn’t exist, and refusing to reveal them to each other, we created so much unnecessary heartache.

To maintain the illusion we’re not broken, we have to break other people even worse.

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What No One Ever Told You About How to Live a Loveable Life

life

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Several weeks ago, at Artisan Clinical Associates, the sliding door that separates the waiting room from the therapy rooms fell apart. Literally. By the time we gave up on fixing it, the white door was covered in black, greasy handprints, and it hung open and askew at an awkward angle. Defeated, I printed out a sign.

Out of Order.

It looked a little tacky but, to tell you the truth, I think the sign was just right for a therapy office. Not because our clients are out of order, as in broken and broken down. But because our clients—and our therapists and all human beings for that matter—try to live life out of order, as in out of sequence.

What I mean is, our lives revolve around the search for three core human experiences: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. And we seek them for good reason, because when we don’t experience our worthiness we feel ashamed, when we don’t experience belonging we feel lonely, and when we fail to experience a purpose we feel meaningless. The problem is, at some point, most of us begin to seek these experiences of worthiness, belonging, and purpose out of order.

Worthiness, belonging, and purpose can only be truly experienced in that order.

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Dear Little One, Release Your Shame (A Letter from a Father to a Child)

shame

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Dear Little One,

You have not been perfect. Far from it.

Do you remember the time you crept downstairs while everyone was sleeping and snuck the Kool-Aid from the refrigerator? Do you remember how, when you got caught, you lied and said you didn’t do it? You’ve punished yourself for that transgression for long enough. You are forgiven. Release your shame.

You are not the poor decisions you sometimes make.

Do you remember the time you accidentally brought home someone else’s homework, feared getting into trouble for making a mistake, and stuffed the homework beneath our house, where you thought no one would find it? You’ve lived in fear long enough. Release your shame.

You are not the things you do when you are most afraid.

Do you remember the bullies on the playground? You were trying to figure out how to become a man, and with every bruise, you doubted more and more if you could become one. The bruises on your skin became bruises on your heart. Your skin has healed—it is time now for your heart to heal, too. Release your shame.

You are not defined by the bruises you’ve picked up along the way.

Do you remember when you became the bully? Do you remember how you teased that poor, sad, lonely kid on the playground? You’ve wounded people. This is true. But the shame you’ve felt about it is a wound that festers, infecting you and everyone around you. Release your shame.

You are not the desperate things you’ve done in order to belong.

Do you remember all the subtle ways you’ve arrogantly looked down upon your peers? I get it. You think you’re fighting for a spot in a very tiny winner’s circle. You’ve fallen into the same trap as the rest of us. You are forgiven. Release your arrogance, which is really just another guise for your shame.

You are not the games you’ve played and won, or lost.  

Little One, I pray you will release your shame, because the truth is, you are me. Though I’ve written many letters to my own children, this is a letter to you, the child I once was, the little one who still exists somewhere within me. In fact, I think all those letters to my kids have also been a letter to you—the scared, ashamed, confused, and desperate little kid I was and, in some ways, still am.

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Why Dreaming Small Is Way Better Than Dreaming Big (A Child’s Wisdom)

dreams

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I made my daughter’s dreams come true.

On an ordinary Thursday afternoon, Caitlin and I went to the drug store with her older brother Quinn to pick up a prescription. We had to wait for it and, surprisingly, the waiting wasn’t a total disaster. The kids went to the toy aisle and no one ended up in tears about plastic nonsense I refused to buy them. Then, we went to the candy aisle, and they endured my lecture about diabetes with preternatural patience.

I was so pleased, I bought them each a roll of Mentos.

As I drove home, prescription in hand, they opened the candy in the back seat. Caitlin gently unwrapped hers—first pulling out one Mento, then a second—before breathlessly saying to her brother, “Look, Quinn. The first one was yellow, and the second one is yellow too. It’s my dream come true.”

Conventional wisdom says that kids dream big and adults dream smaller and smaller until they quit dreaming altogether. But what if the opposite is true? What if, when we are young, we actually dream quite small, but as we grow up, our dreams get bigger and more grandiose and more unrealistic? What if that’s why we big people eventually give up on our dreams?

And what if we all started dreaming like a child once again?

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The One Thing We All Need (But Hate to Ask For)

help

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I was drowning.

For a couple of months last autumn, on Wednesday afternoons, my three kids had a meeting for the school newspaper, musical rehearsal, swim lessons, dance class, art class, and basketball practice. And my wife was working. While I like to pretend that I can do everything, sometimes all it takes is a Wednesday afternoon to remind you that you are not, actually, God.

So, on a Wednesday afternoon, I asked for help.

I asked one of our new friends in town—whose kids also attend some of the same activities as our kids—if he could take our daughters to dance class together. An hour later, we were both picking up kids at art class when I offered to get the girls from dance. He declined. For some reason, it made me feel anxious, so I asked again. He looked back at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “No thanks, I want you in my debt.”

I want you in my debt.

Poet and author David Whyte writes,

Help is strangely, something we want to do without, as if the very idea disturbs and blurs the boundaries of our individual endeavors, as if we cannot face how much we need in order to go on.

To need help is to be human. To embrace our need for help is to embrace our worthiness—to know that while we are not strong enough to be without needs, we are still good enough when we are in need.

But to ask for help?

To ask for help is to be vulnerable—to hand our fragile sense of worthiness to someone else and entrust them with it. To ask for help is to test the foundation of our belonging—to trust that our people will keep us around, not only when we are helpful to them, but also when we are helpless before them.

To ask for help is to be indebted to others for the life we are trying to live.

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The Simple Trick to Finding True Belonging This Year

belonging

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On New Year’s Eve, my Facebook feed was transformed.

For an hour or two, politics went away and people focused on what is, underneath it all, most important to all of us. Suddenly, at midnight, my feed was filled with images of family and friends gathered together, releasing one year and welcoming a new one—people marking the passage of time by remembering what is most valuable to each of us: belonging.

We all just want a place to belong.

Life is almost that simple. We all just want a place we can call home—a place of belonging where a few people know who we truly are and cherish us because of that rather than in spite of that. We all want to love and be loved and, in doing so, to become more fully human. After all, in the words of Frederick Buechner, “You can survive on your own; you can grow strong on your own; you can prevail on your own, but you cannot become human on your own.”

We all just want a place to belong.

Of course, what we want is simple, but getting what we want doesn’t seem simple at all. Relationships are fraught with conflict and tension and disappointment and disillusionment. What’s the trick to finding at least one safe place to truly belong?

It’s the trick of the coffee mug and the gym shoes.

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This Is the Truth About a Post-Truth World (Maybe)

The Oxford English Dictionary’s 2016 Word of the Year was post-truth, an adjective describing “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” 

uncertainty

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In the autumn of 2016, on an ordinary morning, my kids and their friends in the carpool told me all the schools in town should be closed down indefinitely because roving bands of murderous clowns were everywhere and no one was safe. They’d all heard exactly the same thing through social media, so they figured it must be true. They were genuinely terrified.

I asked them to take a breath.

I asked them to slow down and look at the world around them. They did so. They saw a typical autumn morning—sunlight slanting through leaves brightly dying, the world marching to its ancient rhythm. No clowns in sight. And yet. The world they were able to see couldn’t compete with the world they were able to Google. They still believed clowns were hiding behind every colorful tree.

I dropped them off at school and left them for dead.

Post-truth. Last year, what was actually happening around us became less relevant than what was happening inside us. Last year, our fear became our truth, regardless of our reality. Last year, facts finally and fully gave way to our Facebook fictions. The Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year runner-up was coulrophobia—an extreme or irrational fear of clowns. This is not a coincidence. My kids coulrophobia was a post-truth phenomenon.

Where are the clowns?

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Best of 2016 (The Annual UnTangled Top Ten Lists)

best of 2016

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I’m a big believer in holiday traditions.

From lighting fires in the fireplace, to watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, to decorating the tree while watching It’s a Wonderful Life, I ritualize everything. This year, we watched A Christmas Story on Christmas Day, and I suggested making it a tradition. My wife and kids all rolled their eyes. So we have a new tradition. I believe traditions are important, because rituals anchor us in an increasingly untethered world.

And one of my favorite annual rituals is the year end top ten lists that emerge between Christmas and New Year. This ritual is a way to integrate everything that has gone before. It’s a way to honor the year and then let it go, so we can welcome in a new year.

So, for the fifth year in a row here at UnTangled, here are the Top Ten UnTangled (and Artisan) posts of the year (according to Facebook shares), the best of the rest (according to me), and a list of the ten books I enjoyed most in the past year. I hope you enjoy, too. But it’s okay if you want to roll your eyes…

Top Ten Posts (according to Facebook):

  1. A Daddy’s Letter to His Little Girl (About How Fast She’s Walking Away)
  2. An Open Letter from a Therapist to His Clients
  3. I Can’t Believe Anyone Goes to Therapy (Says the Therapist)
  4. A Father’s Letter to His Little Ones (In the Wee Hours of the Election)
  5. Why Healing Our Hearts Might Be Simpler Than We Think
  6. How to Talk with Family About Politics This Holiday Season
  7. A Post About Marriage and What We’ve All Longed for Since the Crib
  8. The Simple (But Not Easy) Choice That Will Define All of Us
  9. Don’t Try to Make Your Life Better (Make It Beautiful-er)
  10. The Life Changing Difference Between Seeing Beauty and Seeing Beautifully

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What Is Christmas? (It’s When We Defiantly Choose the Light)

new year's resolution

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Last weekend, I hosted my first Christmas party as an employer.

Okay, the truth is, I didn’t host it. My business partner has the gift of hospitality, so he was in charge of organizing the party for our therapy practice. But I figured the evening’s toast would fall to me, so on the morning of the party I awoke early to write it, intending to record a few words about the beauty of the past year.

But the truth is, for each of us at the party, 2016 was not always beautiful. Mess, loss, hardship, grief, sorrow. Professionally, we’d sat with the pain of broken people for a whole year. Personally, we had been those people.

I don’t think we’re alone.

In the last month, I’ve heard countless people say they decorated early for Christmas this year because they needed a little more joy. Many of us, it seems, were deeply craving a season of lights. And of course we were—do you remember this Year of Our Lord 2016?

This was the year of Syria and Aleppo and four million bloodied and displaced refugees with no place to go; of lethal bombs in Brussels and Belgium, mass shootings in Paris and Miami, a deadly renegade truck in Nice, controversial police shootings, and countless quiet tragedies in places not important enough to make the headlines. This was the year of Zika and babies born mortally wounded; of thirteen disastrous fires in the parched state of California and a single devastating blaze in Tennessee; of hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis. This was the year that art died in the form of David Bowie and Prince and Leonard Cohen and Gene Wilder and Professor Snape, to name just a few.

This was the year of Brexit.

This was the year that hate speech and hate crimes went mainstream once again. This was the year in which a presidential election left half of a country celebrating and half of a country grieving and a whole country—the most powerful on the planet—wholly divided. This was the year even the news—that most reliable of things—became fake and questionable and untrustworthy. This was the year we tapped on our news apps and held our breath, waiting for the next tragedy.

And that is only a fraction of the heartache that happened in homes and around the globe.

Of course we need a little light.

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The Grace of Failure (Or, How to Avoid a Midlife Crisis)

midlife crisis

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Forty years ago today—on December 14, 1976—I was born.

Since then, nothing has worked out as planned.

And that, is a saving grace.

You see, if I had become what I planned to be on my fifth birthday, I’d be a firefighter right now. As a boy, I was enthralled by the heroism of it. But now, I have a bad back and I hate thrill-seeking and I go out of my way to avoid third degree burns.

Courage comes in many forms. Sometimes, we plan for one kind of courage, but we end up having to find forms of bravery more consistent with who we are.

By my tenth birthday, the Chicago Bears were reigning Super Bowl champions, and I planned to be a running back at Soldier Field, like Walter Payton. But I’m slow, relatively small, not very strong, and I don’t like people bumping into me. For me, bruises rank right up there with third degree burns.

Sometimes, it’s important to accept that our idealistic plans will be altered by our very realistic limitations.

If I’d become what I planned to be when I was fifteen, I’d be a trial lawyer right now, just like Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, hammering away at Jack Nicholson. The problem is, I don’t like conflict or courtrooms, and I’m not sure what I think about Tom Cruise anymore.

It’s easy to plan a Hollywood life, but it takes some growing up and a lot of self-acceptance to gladly choose a life that is a little more ordinary.

A decade ago, I planned to build a life in the bustling Chicago suburbs. The problem was, by the time I was thirty, I’d forgotten the little one inside of me who loves quiet and slowness and forested paths and towns where everyone waves to each other.

Often, when we’re young, we plan to grow up into something big and flashy, but sometimes growing up is really about growing young again, reclaiming who we’ve always been, and living the way we’re wired.

By the time I was thirty-five, I planned to write a little blog for a handful of therapy clients interested in working directly with me. It seemed arrogant to hope for anything more.

Sometimes our plans are too big. But just as often our shame makes our plans too small, admonishing us for dreaming big, calling it conceit. Yet, our plans get to be exactly as big as our love for our self, our people, and our world.

Now, here I am. The big 4-0.

Now, I’ve got new plans. Bigger plans. I’ve got a new book coming out in March, a second new book I’m going to give away for free to those who pre-order the first book, and I’ve got all sorts of hopes and plans for all of it.

Yes, I still make plans. We have to. Plans propel us forward.

Yet today, on my fortieth birthday, I find myself hoping none of my plans work out.

It would have been a disaster—particularly for people in burning buildings and the Chicago Bears—if I had become who I wanted to be when I was five and ten years old. Likewise, when I’m fifty, I don’t want to be who I planned to be at forty. A true self is a constantly emerging self.

A good life is an always evolving life.

Growing up isn’t about getting what we want; it’s about giving in to the best parts of who we are. Slowly. Over time. As we begin to glimpse them, cease to reject them, welcome them, embrace them, live them. Growing up is about learning how to listen to the voice of grace, which is whispering within each of us, all the time, nudging us in a particular direction for today.

That, I think, is the challenge of turning forty. This birthday makes you want to look backward or forward. However, the question it begs of you is, can you stay focused and look deeper into the now? Can you live today as authentically as possible, so your days will eventually take you somewhere you ultimately want to be?

A couple of weeks ago, my oldest son looked into the now, as we crossed a bridge in our hometown, far outside the bustling Chicago suburbs. Someone we didn’t know had just waved to us in passing, the sun had just set, and, with more than a little awe in his thirteen-year-old voice, he observed, “Twilight over the river here is beautiful.”

I’m not sure how many years I have left. But I have only one plan I’m planning on keeping: I’m going to keep looking at now, I’m going to keep listening for the voice of grace, and I’m going to keep trusting that, if we do this, the twilight over our lives can be beautiful, too.

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Pre-Order LOVEABLE Now! You are enough. You are not alone. And you matter. These are the three fundamental truths of your existence. The problem is there is a voice inside each of us relentlessly calling them into question. And yet the answer to that voice can be found within each of us, as well. Click here to find out more about my new book—Loveable: Embracing What Is Truest About You, So You Can Truly Embrace Your Life.