It’s a Saturday morning in early December, which means I’m sitting at the kitchen table with the kids, a cup of coffee, and a discussion about all the Christmas gifts they want. I’m annoyed by all the asking—it seems a little materialistic—so I decide to rain on their parade:
I ask, “Which month do you like better—December or January?”
And of course they all scream, “December!”
So I ask, “Most of December, you don’t have any new gifts, but in January, you have all your new toys. If the gifts are so great, why do you like December more?”
They roll their eyes and ignore me and the stream of requests begins to flow again. As I listen, though, the stream of requests is my answer. What makes December so joyful for kids?
They are given the freedom to want and to ask.
The answer is your marriage, and the answer is your children. The answer is neither. The answer is both. The answer, actually, is to begin asking a different question altogether…
Two months ago, one of my posts about marriage was picked up by the Huffington Post and went viral. In it, I wrote, “Our kids should never be more important than our marriage, and they should never be less important…Family is about the constant on-going work of finding the balance.”
I expected it to be an unpopular statement.
But as the conversation unfolded some people said, “He’s right, your marriage is more important.” And others said, “He’s right, your children are more important.” My statement had become like a Rorschach inkblot test: everybody projected their own beliefs onto it.
Or, rather, everybody projected their way of thinking onto it.
Happy holidays! Joy to the world! Peace on earth! Happy Hannukah! Merry Christmas! This time of year, season’s greetings ring out everywhere. But as a therapist, they can ring a little hollow, because this is also the time of year when my phone starts ringing…
In the midst of a season advertised as joyful, a therapist knows the truth: suffering doesn’t go on hiatus for a season. In fact, it is often intensified by the season. But a therapist also knows:
We get to our happiness by admitting our crappiness.
Revealing is the beginning of redeeming.
Confession is the birthplace of connection.
What if, this holiday season, instead of trying to be extraordinary, we let ourselves admit, reveal, and confess the ordinary struggles of our human lives? This is easier said than done, because when we’ve been told our whole lives we should be a certain way, we sometimes need permission to be a new way. So, from a therapist’s office, here’s some eight-fold permission to be more fully human this holiday season:
Thank you, Faithful Friend. Thank you for the grace you give—the grace that reminds us we’re okay, good enough, even lovely. Thank you for being a space where we know we don’t have to do anything or impress anyone to be worthy of love and belonging. For being the embrace that doesn’t go away. For being the family we choose.
This world is a better place because of you.
Thank you, Exhausted Parent. Thank you for being bone tired because you care enough to pay attention. Thank you for remembering—no matter what the kids try to tell you—eye contact matters more to them than any iPad ever will. Thank you for looking them in the eyes, when all you want to do is close yours. Thank you for loving them enough to give them all of you, and then loving them enough to let them go.
This world is a better place because of you.
Thank you, Rebellious Spouses. Thank you for rebelling against the consumer disease. For refusing to treat your marriage as one more commodity in a world of purchased things. For refusing to make it a transactional place where you get what you you’ve always wanted and, instead, insisting it is a sacred place where two people learn to give what has always been needed.
This world is a better place because of you.
What if the thing we really need to protect our children from is our own protectiveness?
When my wife was pregnant with our first child, we were living in rural Pennsylvania. The nearest State Police headquarters was thirty miles away. I drove the distance to verify I’d installed our new car seat correctly. Two months before my son was born. As parents, our protective instinct is a good and essential thing. But three kids later, I’m wondering:
Is my protectiveness the very thing from which my kids need to be protected?
The Ways We Protect
Everything in our children’s lives is orchestrated for safety. We have genetic tests and multiple ultrasounds before they are born to ensure their health. We have side air bags, and high-tech car seats they’re supposed to sit in for the first four years. We have safety recalls on chewing devices and play toys and the cribs they sleep in. We have helmets to protect them against head injury. We’ve developed protocols to protect against school shootings. We don’t let them walk home from school alone for fear of an Amber Alert.
We’ve got their physical safety on lockdown.
So what do we do next with our protective instinct?
We try to perfect our children because, deep down, we believe perfection is protection. From each other. If we are flawless, we leave no chinks in the armor. The more perfect we are, the more likely we are to come out on top in the game of social comparison. If our kids are perfect, we hope it will protect them from peer rejection, poor self-esteem, disappointments in life, and the pain of being human.
The problem is, perfectionism itself is dangerous.
If you only had one day to hear, what would you listen to?
About four months ago, I began to lose my hearing.
Every few days, for about thirty seconds, I would lose my hearing completely in my right ear. The doctors couldn’t find an explanation. But then a chiropractic adjustment seemed to resolve it. For about six weeks. Then it happened again, in the other ear. And then it happened again and again and again. As I waited a day to see the chiropractor, my anxiety swelled. I thought of the music I love and the sound of wind in autumn trees and way you can hear my wife’s contagious laugh from two houses away.
And I started to panic.
The key to a joyful life often seems mysterious or unattainable. It doesn’t have to be. In fact, it may be as simple as listening and responding to five little words…
I’m drying dishes and putting them away when I see it once again.
I open a cabinet door, place a cup on the shelf, and I notice the unopened Star Wars video game nestled next to a stack of cups. I think to myself, “I really should do something with that video game.” I close the cabinet door. And then I stop. The video game was given to my son at his sixth birthday party. We already owned it so, amidst the chaos of the party, I’d decided to toss it in the cupboard and figure out what to do with it later.
My son is now eleven.
For five years I’ve opened the cabinet door, noticed the game every time, and then closed the door again, telling myself I should do something with the game. It’s a silly story when it’s about a video game. But it’s not such a silly story when we do the same thing to our relationships and our passions and our dreams…
The first time my oldest son went trick-or-treating, he was dressed up as a bumblebee, but he turned into a monster. Because, paradoxically, inundation always ends with a sense of deprivation…
My son was two-years-old when it happened. We dressed him up in a puffy black and yellow costume, and we rang his first Halloween doorbell. As the first pieces of candy disappeared into his bag, he was too overwhelmed with wonder to utter a word.
By the third house, he had recovered his speech, and he expressed his childlike gratitude. By the fifth house, he was doing drive-by trick-or-treating—the candy hadn’t hit the bottom of the bag before he was hitting the sidewalk for the next score. By the seventh house, I think he would have wrestled the loot from the woman’s hands if he’d been big enough to take her. And by the end of the evening, when we told him it was time to stop, he was angry, because even at his age, he knew we hadn’t turned over every rock in search of sugar.
From a sense of wonder to a sense of deprivation. In about thirty minutes.
It doesn’t take long for opulence to change our lives.
To blame or not to blame, that is the question. The answer is the difference between a life of resentment, and a life of hard but healing redemption…
My son’s eyeglasses disappeared.
It was a warm summer evening, just the right amount of breeze, just the right amount of conversation with good friends, and, as the Tiki torches burned and the burning sun set, I was feeling just the right amount of perfect. Then he told me he couldn’t find his eyeglasses. A quick search of the backyard produced a mangled, canine-scarred pair of spectacles. My perfect night had just gotten hundreds of dollars more expensive, which is to say, no longer perfect.
And I wanted someone to blame.
Because someone is always to blame, right?
So, I began to lecture my son about leaving his glasses lying around, until tears filled his eyes and he reminded me I had told him to leave his glasses in his shoes while on the trampoline so they wouldn’t break while jumping.
My son had done exactly what I asked.
So I reflexively turned on my dog, but I quickly remembered our unspoken agreement: he doesn’t chew anything in the house, and the back yard is fair game. He, too, was doing what I had trained him to do.
My night had broken bad, and there was no one to blame.
I felt like I was about to be publicly beaten, when it occurred to me: it’s way easier to give good words to others than it is to receive the good words they give to us…
The first staff meeting of the academic year at my clinical practice—more than twenty psychologists, therapists, and psychiatrists gathered in a circle.
And I felt like crawling into a hole.
Was I about to be reprimanded? No. I was about to be validated.
In order to emphasize the value each of us brings to the treatment team, we were going around the circle and, for thirty seconds, each clinician would be showered with words of affirmation by the rest of the group. I would be the fifth to go.
As the people ahead of me were blessed by good words about who they are, I discovered it was easy to call out affirmations for my colleagues. But as I prepared myself to receive affirmation from them, I began to steel myself for the experience. I wanted to put on armor. Crack a joke. Find a mask. I wanted to hide.
There’s a myth going around that we treat ourselves better than we treat everyone else. It is just that: a myth. Generally, it’s way easier to sincerely give a compliment than to sincerely receive one. It’s way easier to give others the good words they need than it is to show others how badly we need the good words they give us.