What We’ve All Been Searching for Since Childhood (A Post About Belonging)

At first, it sounded like nonsense.

A few weeks ago we picked up my son, Aidan, from two weeks of residential wilderness camp. He’d attended the camp with a friend from our town, and we were taking them back to the hotel for a decent shower before the long journey home. The two boys filled the thirty-minute drive to the hotel with a seemingly infinite stream of inside jokes born from their two-week adventure together.

Most of what they said made no sense to us. Yet, listening to them, you got the feeling something magical had happened between them—a bond forged in the midst of trials and tribulation and overcoming and rejoicing. Listening to them, you realized the code words they were using were the natural bubbling up of this deep magic. What is this deep magic?

belonging

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It is called belonging.

Closeness. Togetherness. Unity. The merging of two stories into a common language, a common vernacular. Each code word and each inside joke an icon of something greater, something bigger that cannot be completely articulated. Each retold story the retelling of some ineffable connection, the likes of which cannot be grasped but only pointed toward in laughter and delight.

At camp, Aidan and his friend put their phones away and took their hearts out. Instead of watching YouTube videos and sharing someone else’s stories, they created their own stories. Instead of learning someone else’s language, they developed a language all their own. At camp, they found a little bit of what they will continue to search for in middle school and beyond. Indeed, it’s what we’re all searching for all the time.

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Why I’m Glad It’s Back-to-School Time (and Not Ashamed to Admit It)

It is time for the kids to go back to school.

For the last three years, in late August, I’ve written with nostalgia and grief about the passing of their youth, with trepidation about what they will learn on the playground, with empathy about the fear of a new school and new teachers and new friends, and with heartbreak about the inevitability of it all.

This is not that kind of post.

back-to-school

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This year, when I say it is time for the kids to go back to school, I mean it is time for the kids to go back to school, as in, the joy of summer is all used up. As in, either they leave for school, or my sanity is going to leave me. I’m not sure which will happen first. It could be a photo finish.

What is the difference between this year and the last three years?

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The Truth (and the Surprisingly Good News) About Who We Really Marry

The truth is, no two adults have ever gotten married. When you get married, you don’t marry a grownup, you marry a time capsule in grownup clothes. This is what I mean by that…

marriage

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I’ve developed a new intervention as a marital therapist.

At some point in the therapy, I walk over to my book shelf, I pick up a framed picture of my son and a framed picture of my daughter, and I set them down next to the couple. And I say, “This is who is married here—on the outside you are grown, but on the inside you are, like the rest of us, still little ones looking to be loved. You are free to quit pretending you are adults with reasonable requests, rational arguments, and selfless love.”

We marry time capsules—aging skin and bones harboring a much younger self.

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The Blessing of Living Unfinished

priorities

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It happens almost every Monday morning.

Somewhere in the midst of my commute to the office, I start to review the weekend. Occasionally, I’m richly satisfied by the collection of moments and memories bridging the gap between work weeks. But the truth is, most Mondays, I end up asking myself, “How did I begin the weekend with such good intentions, and how did my priorities get so out of whack so quickly?”

A couple of months ago, on a holiday Monday, I received an answer to the question.

For several weeks, we’d been assembling a trailer for our van. My wife and I are not particularly talented mechanics, so the going had been slow. But old friends had come to town for the weekend, and they were helping us put the finishing touches on it.

Finally, the last wire was spliced and the last nut was turned.

My friend rolled the trailer to the rear of our van to attach it but stopped short when he got there. “You don’t have a hitch on your van,” he said, ‘’you’ll need to buy one and have it installed.” This had not occurred to us. Like I said, we are not exactly mechanical geniuses. Our shoulders were slumping in defeat, when our other friend observed, “Well, that’s the way of projects. They’re never finished.”

That’s the way of projects, and that’s the way of life.

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The Life Changing Difference Between Seeing Beauty and Seeing Beautifully

“Dad.” Pause. “Daddy.” Shorter pause. “Dad!” Almost imperceptible pause. “Daaaadddddyyyyy!”

My eyes remain locked on my computer screen.

In other words, I first respond to my youngest son, Quinn, the way most of us respond to most of life—with distraction. Life is asking us to look at it, but our eyes remain locked on our screens, our minds remain locked on the past or the future, and our hearts remain locked on our nagging obsessions—food and drink, shopping and media, gossip and gripe.

Eventually, though, Quinn surpasses a decibel threshold that gets my attention. I finally lock my eyes on him.

“Dad,” he says, a little breathlessly, “come see the bathroom.”

mindfulness

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I immediately picture an overflowing toilet or toothpaste smeared on a mirror or a trashcan torn asunder by the dog. I sigh heavily and ask with trepidation, “What’s wrong? Is it a mess?”

My second response to Quinn is dread. When life finally gets a little of our attention, we tend to be reluctant to look at it. After all, in the daily news, everything seems to be falling apart, so everything everywhere must be falling apart, right? We pay attention to the problems, and then we come to expect them. We start dreading life instead of looking at it.

But Quinn responds, “No, Dad, it’s not a mess. It’s beautiful.”

We walk into the bathroom. The toilet isn’t overflowing, but there is trash on the floor and the cap has been left off a leaking tube of toothpaste. I see nothing particularly remarkable, let alone beautiful. Quinn steps back. Crosses his arms. Smiles. And says, “The light, Daddy, look at the light.”

Slowly, I begin to see what he’s seeing. The bathroom is subtly illuminated by slanting early morning summer sunlight. I’m no longer distracted or dreading, and I can see what I would have missed only moments before: the bathroom is glowing.

It’s luminous.

Beauty, it turns out, isn’t in the eye of the beholder; beauty is in the eye of the watchful beholder. Unless we are present, even beauty becomes invisible. But if we watch this life attentively, which is to say beautifully, we might just experience the beauty that has been there all along:

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Our Best Hope(s) in a Summer of Violence

hope

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An hour before gunshots rang out in Dallas, I was playing a game of basketball with my kids in the driveway—a game called Around the World, in which it’s every man, boy, and little girl for themselves. The game started pleasantly enough but quickly devolved. Cruel words flew back and forth. A ball was thrown, not at a hoop, but at a head.

Around the World, violence begets violence.

And in America, it has been a summer of violence. Orlando. The summertime killing fields in south Chicago. In Louisiana and Minnesota, two more black lives senselessly ended. In Dallas, five policemen executed for crimes they didn’t commit. And the next violent tragedy, whatever it may be, just waiting in the wings.

Like so many, I’m grieving.

Grief can take many forms.

Indeed, this summer, grief has taken many forms in me. Immediately, I want to get right up on my pulpit and pontificate about people and policy and politics. Immediately, I want to talk about solutions, because sometimes solving is a way of not feeling. Sometimes, quick solutions are denial in disguise. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, denial is the first stage of grief. I see this form of grief inside of me and all around me.

Yet, I know, my solutions are just a slightly more dignified form of my anger.

Anger is the second stage of grief, and I’m in a rage. I read the headlines and I want to scream until my throat is scorched. I saw an image of a sign held high at the Dallas protest: Know justice, know peace, f**k the racist police. I’m as conflicted as that sign:

My yearning for peace mutates into the very anger by which peace is slaughtered.

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What Will People Think of the New Me? (A Post About Courage)

This week, I made a change.

For almost four years, I’ve been sending my weekly blog post to subscribers in the form of a stylish email, replete with my website banner, the featured image, and the full content of the post. However, because such emails are increasingly being filtered by email services as advertisements, this week, I changed my method. I sent a more barebones email, and subscribers had to click a link to read the post right here, where everyone else reads it.

And it made me a little anxious.

courage

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Actually, it made me more than a little anxious—it made me so anxious I almost couldn’t bring myself to make the change. But make the change I did. Instead of running from the anxiety, I decided to pay attention to it. To let it teach me. And this is what I learned:

I feel exactly what my therapy clients feel.

Over the years, I’ve observed that one of the biggest barriers to change isn’t our lack of desire for change or our inability to change; the biggest barrier to change is the potential reaction to our changes. We fear how people will react if we don’t give them what they’ve come to expect from us.

They like who I am, but will they like who I’m becoming?

People seem to be okay with Me 1.0, but how will they react to Me 2.0?

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How Good Habits Break Bad (and How to Make Them Good Again)

A year ago this week, our family moved to a new town, and a lot changed.

But my lunchtime didn’t.

Even though it should have.

In our old town, the kids’ school started at 9am, which meant our family ate breakfast around 8 o’clock. Then, I’d get hungry for lunch around noon. In our new town, however, the school bell rings at 7:35am, so our whole morning schedule got bumped up almost 90 minutes.

For weeks, 11am would roll around, and I’d get ravenous.

bad habits

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For weeks, I wondered what was wrong with me. Had my metabolism somehow sped up in this new place? Had my stomach grown? For weeks, I wondered and I hungered—for at least an hour—until my habitual lunch time rolled around. The problem, it turns out, wasn’t my hunger; it was my habit.

Sometimes reality changes, but our habits don’t.

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The Parable of the Mass Shooting That Didn’t Happen

The gun sits on the car seat beside him.

He watches the people lined up outside the club. People? More like swine. Robotic pigs, programmed to get into lines, to work and to sweat all day and then, at night, to rub their sweaty bodies together on a dance floor.

The gun sits on the car seat beside him.

But it’s not just a weapon; it’s a promise that will finally be kept.

No one has ever kept their promises to him.

mass shootings

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His parents always told him they were interested in him, but when he tried to talk to them, he could see the faraway-glassy look in their eyes. And they told him they’d love him no matter what. But he overheard what they condemned in everyone else. Would they really love him if they knew the things he really thought, the things he really did, and the things he really wanted to do? He thought not.

The gun isn’t a weapon; it’s a promise that will finally be kept.

His girlfriend had promised him forever. In return, he’d promised her everything. Then, after all that promising, she’d had the nerve to tell him her feelings had “changed.” That she no longer loved him. That it was over. One more promise broken.

The gun isn’t a weapon; it’s a promise that will finally be kept.

The politicians promised prosperity. They said there was a formula to things: honest work, blood, sweat, tears, a house, a marriage, kids, and retirement accounts were supposed to add up to the American dream. But his father had worked like a slave for the company, and then the company abandoned him for cheap, overseas labor. The banks had robbed people blind on bad mortgages, and now his parents’ house was worth nothing. His parents weren’t dreaming; they were scraping by.

The gun isn’t a weapon; it’s a promise that will finally be kept.

The church promised him peace. They’d told him if he went every Sunday, gave his energy to their programs, his money to their building, and his heart to their Jesus, then he could be assured of eternity. But his problem wasn’t fear of the afterlife; his problem was despair about this life. He’d hoped the church would open the trap door, showing him the way to a deeper, more meaningful level of this life. Instead, they’d just kept making empty promises about the next one.

The gun isn’t a weapon; it’s a promise that will finally be kept.

So, as it sits on the car seat beside him, he wonders, why am I hesitating?

Why am I sitting instead of shooting?

Yet, he knows the answer. The man.

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A Dad’s Letter to His Kids (About the Perfect Father’s Day Gift)

Dear Little Ones,

The Kohl’s catalogue arrived in the mail again.

Another Father’s Day, another 20% off coupon, and another volume of masculine-looking gifts: lots of sports stuff, grilling stuff, and gadgety stuff. But I’m not writing to tell you about the gift I want you to give me.

I’m writing to tell you about the gifts you’ve already given me.

Father's Day gift

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You’ve helped me give up control.

From the moment I found out you were in your momma’s belly, the most important thing in my life was also the thing over which I had the least control. For thirteen years now—through birth and growth and temper tantrums and increasing independence—I’ve had to learn how to be caring without being controlling. As you know, I’m still learning, but the lesson is one of the most valuable gifts a man can receive.

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