Let’s QWERTY Like It’s 1999 (An Experiment in Presence)


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I met my wife in the autumn of 1999.

That was also the year I bought my first cell phone.

It was a big Nokia the size of a candy bar on steroids, with a little flip cover that had two purposes: to cover the buttons so they wouldn’t be accidentally pushed, and to make me feel somehow cooler while talking on it.

It had an orange, backlit screen, with black, blocky numbers. It was heavy, so instead of carrying it in my pocket, I bought a holster and attached it to my belt. Oddly, this made me feel cooler as well.

When making calls within my network, it worked about half the time. When making calls while roaming…well, I didn’t make calls while roaming. I couldn’t afford the fees. In 1999, texting was unfathomable. Email on the phone seemed like a good idea, but impossible. I couldn’t imagine a smarter phone.

Social media wasn’t even a glint in our eye.

Next week, my wife and I will travel to celebrate our fifteenth wedding anniversary, and I will be taking a very different kind of mobile phone with me. Now, it is difficult to imagine something I can’t do while on my phone. Except that’s not entirely true. There is one thing I can’t do while on my phone:

I can’t be present to the one I’m with.

I can’t be truly here.

I can’t be fully now.

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Miracles Happen Everyday (and This Is How to Experience One)


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I wake up to an alarm and darkness and, behind eyelids too heavy to lift, my first thought is how good it will feel to get back into bed tonight. Eventually, I muster the will to lift my legs over the side of the mattress. I stand. My joints pop like rheumatic fireworks. I move toward the bathroom. More fireworks. It didn’t used to be this way. Waking didn’t always feel like resurrecting. And yet.

I still choose to be here.

(A miracle isn’t a moment.)

I stand at the sink, remove my mouth guard. Another night of clenching, but no cracked tooth, no chipped crown. I brush my teeth while looking into the mirror, while looking into almost forty years of time, while looking into dark circles, thinning hair, greying whiskers. I look into the future and see where time is taking me. And yet.

I still choose to be here.

(A miracle is a collection of moments.)

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How to Dream a Better Dream Than This Nightmare We’re Living In

Have you been feeling a little more afraid than usual? You know, just a little more…uneasy? I have. So have many people I know. I couldn’t make any sense of it, though, until I started having a recurring nightmare…

black and white thinking

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I haven’t had a recurring nightmare since childhood.

Until three months ago.

It begins with me standing in our kitchen, looking out upon our front yard. Then, suddenly, a large black-and-white conversion van comes barreling recklessly up our driveway toward the house. It narrowly misses the kitchen and passes out of sight, presumably to crash directly into the office next to the kitchen. I cringe and wait for the explosion.

But I hear only silence.

I peer around the corner into the study and, magically, the black-and-white van is sitting in the middle of our house. There is no one in it. It’s hazard lights are blinking ominously. Everything is dead silent. I approach the black-and-white van and, with trepidation, throw open its two rear doors. It is empty with the exception of a large box. Somehow, I know there is an old VHS tape in the box.

Somehow, I know the contents of the tape will be terrifying.

The nightmare dissolves at this point, and then resumes with me watching the tape on an old television screen. The images on the tape are like the most horrifying horror movie ever made. Death. Destruction and pain. Tragedy to the nth degree. And intermingled with all of it, a terrifying foreboding.

I always wake up at this point.

I avoided thinking about the nightmare for months. However, like all recurring dreams, until you get the message, it is unlikely to go away. So, I spent an hour fully immersing myself in the imagery of the nightmare. When I did so, the tragic images from the videotape receded and two other images from the nightmare became more prominent.

The first was the image of the tape itself, sitting in the black-and-white van.

As I meditated upon the image of the tape, a phrase kept coming to mind: “The tapes we play in our head.” Suddenly, I knew with relative certainty the tape represented my mental thought patterns—all the habitual narratives and stories I tell myself about myself, about other people, and about the world. My nightmare was telling me I’d been rehearsing some pretty crummy narratives about life. Then I realized: the images on that television screen weren’t of a horror movie; they were of the news channels.

My nightmare was telling me it’s time to turn off the news. 

My nightmare was telling me that the news is running only images of horror and destruction, death and tragedy, and that they are fomenting my—our—fear. Because the mental tapes we play over and over become our reality, regardless of what is really happening in the world. I’ve been watching too much news, and my mental world is being filled with the fear of it, while in the meantime, the good news is written all over the actual world, and I’m missing out.

The reality is, the world is also filled with beauty and wonder and joy and love and kindness and grace and charity and compassion.

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The 71 Most Effective Ways to Avoid Feeling What You’re Feeling


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When I first became a therapist, I thought I had to work a magic trick every hour to get people to feel what they feel.

Then I had kids, and I saw what is true of every human being: we are, each of us, bursting with feelings. Until we grow up and start trapping them inside. Until we start suppressing them. Now I know, as a psychologist, my job isn’t to get people to start feeling; my job is to help people stop avoiding what they are feeling. Then feelings just happen. Naturally. Healingly.

What follows is a list of perfectly ordinary things most of us do from time to time in order to avoid feeling what we’re feeling. Most of them are serious. Some of them are humorous. They are all quite effective…

  1. Write a blog post about how to avoid feeling your feelings.
  2. Work too hard.
  3. Netflix binge.
  4. Buy something. Anything. Scratch that. Shop first. Then buy. Buy three versions of the same thing. Try them all out. Return two. Start shopping again.
  5. Download a new app. Preferably a game. In which you can earn achievements. Bonus avoidance points if it features in-app purchases.
  6. Check email.
  7. Click on spam instead of unsubscribing from it.
  8. Check Facebook.
  9. Check it again.
  10. Get into a Facebook argument. The topic doesn’t matter. Just oppose something.
  11. Shame somebody. Again, anyone will do, though the less likely they are to shame you back, the better.
  12. Send a text message. Make it a group text. Wait for responses.
  13. Eat.
  14. Work harder.
  15. Eat more.
  16. Try to figure out what everyone else is feeling.
  17. When you think you’ve figured out what they’re thinking, focus on how to influence their emotions. If you are so inclined, become a therapist so you can get paid for doing so.
  18. Decide anger is bad, dangerous, perhaps even evil.
  19. Decide fear is shameful.
  20. Decide sadness is weak.
  21. Watch 24/7 cable news. Watch it 24/7.
  22. Criticize someone. Anyone will do—friends, strangers, and of course, those with different political views than you.
  23. Fix someone. Fix something. Once again, any problem will do.
  24. Drink.
  25. Smoke something.
  26. Fill every silence with a joke.
  27. Grab the nearest device as soon as you wake up in the morning.
  28. Don’t ask questions about your family-of-origin.
  29. Idealize your parents.
  30. Or tell yourself your parents did the best they could and you have no right to be disappointed.
  31. Chide yourself for taking the time to feel something. Tell yourself that’s a luxury. A privilege.
  32. Tell yourself other people have it worse, so who are you to complain?
  33. Set no boundaries on your time or commitments, so there is no room for stillness.
  34. Tell yourself stillness is a waste of time.
  35. Live vicariously through your children. Or celebrities.
  36. Blame the ones you love for not making your crummy feelings go away.
  37. Pretend you’re an adult and that you have it all together. Ignore the sad, lonely, confused little kid inside of you.
  38. Try to save the world (a.k.a., work harder).
  39. Eliminate all silence from your life.
  40. Look at porn.
  41. Look at more porn.
  42. Work on your abs.
  43. Fantasize about the ideal lover whose ideal love will take away your loneliness.
  44. Gossip.
  45. Be absolutely certain about everything.
  46. Go faster.
  47. Work harder.
  48. Turn meditation into an effort to “feel more peaceful” rather than a surrender to feeling what is.
  49. Fill up your Sabbath with church services, church activities, soccer games, video games, shopping, and preparations for tomorrow.
  50. Debate theology.
  51. Choose to believe faith has nothing to offer you.
  52. Choose to believe faith will solve all your problems.
  53. Pick one person or group of people to blame for most all of your problems.
  54. Swipe mindlessly through your phone until you come across an app that you haven’t fiddled with in a month.
  55. Avoid eye contact.
  56. Chase perfection.
  57. Chase trophies. They can be real or metaphorical. It doesn’t matter. Same effect.
  58. Work harder.
  59. Figure out what other people want to hear and then say it to them.
  60. Focus on the ways you are better than someone else.
  61. Stay focused on the things in the future that promise to take away all your suffering.
  62. Serial dating.
  63. Almost everything that happens between Black Friday and Christmas morning.
  64. Ice cream.
  65. Oreos.
  66. Ice cream and Oreos.
  67. Do anything that releases dopamine. Non-criminal options include: Snapchat, YouTube, drinking too much caffeine, casual sex, sugar in any form, earning applause, etc.
  68. Decide your story is uninteresting and choose never to tell it to anyone.
  69. Do whatever it takes to avoid evidence of your aging.
  70. Pretend everything is permanent. Ignore the inevitability of your passing.
  71. And last but not least, focus on how clever you are for having written a blog post about how to avoid feeling your feelings.

Feelings are big things. Messy things. Often painful things. So we try to avoid feeling them. And our opportunities for avoidance are multiplying on a daily basis. Consequently, humanity is becoming like one big blocked tear duct, irritated and irritable. We need to clean out our blockages—clean out our lives—and let our feelings flow again. So we can be childlike once again. Vulnerable. Playful. Joyful.

So we can be, once again, who we really are.

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The Simplest Way to Find a Blessing in Every Moment

“To bless means to say good things. We have to bless one another constantly. Parents need to bless their children, children their parents, husbands their wives, wives their husbands, friends their friends. In our society, so full of curses, we must fill each place we enter with our blessings.” 

—Henri Nouwen


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Usually, my wife is the recipient of my teenage son’s recommended reading list. So, a couple of weeks ago, when he handed me a book and said, “You’ve got to read this,” I didn’t ask any questions. I just started reading.

One-hundred and forty pages later, I came to this scene:

A Native American elder is standing in an icy-cold lake with a delinquent youth—a kid so consumed with rage that he is destroying his life and the lives of many others. Though the kid has tried to control his anger, he has had little success. The elder hands the boy a stick and tells him the left side of the stick represents his anger and the right side represents his happiness. Then, he instructs the boy to break off the left end of the stick. The boy does so, and the elder points out that the stick still has a left end. He instructs the boy to break it off again. And, once again, the elder points out the stick still has a left end.

The book reminded me of three essential lessons I’ve learned about anger and resentment during my last two decades as a psychologist and my last four decades as a human being:

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The Unfolding of Your Soul (A Post About Becoming Your Truest Self)

Life is about becoming who you already are. How can you be something and also become it, all at the same time? I usually have to answer that question with a metaphor. A piece of paper, for instance…   

true self

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The myth: you can’t fold a piece of paper in half more than seven times.

In fifth grade, a friend challenged me to debunk it. We sat in the back of the classroom, wasting trees, trying to fold sheets of notebook paper at least eight times. We couldn’t do it.

Recently, though, Mythbusters accepted the challenge. They started with a sheet of paper the size of a football field. A team of people—along with a steamroller and a fork lift—folded the piece of paper eleven times. It turns out, if a piece of paper is big enough, you can fold it more than seven times. The real problem is, ironically, its growing thickness and weight.

Yet, there is one piece of paper that does not get thicker as it gets folded. There is a piece of paper that feels thinner and smaller and less consequential with each crease. Sometimes, it seems to disappear altogether.

This particular piece of paper is your soul, or, if you prefer, your true self.

Each soul enters the world inside several pounds of wrinkled skin, tiny bones, and wispy hair. However, though our body may initially be wrinkled, our soul is birthed as smooth and as unwrinkled as a crisp, new piece of paper.

Your soul is your truest you.

It harbors your eternal identity, your most beautiful self. It possesses all the love you have to give, and it has the courage to risk actually giving it. It has an energy that feels like passion. It has dreams preparing to be lived. Its temperament is redemptive. Its personality is inclusive. Carried within the tininess of a body, your soul is a living mystery as big as the universe.

Yet, souls get folded in upon themselves. Repeatedly.

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The Subliminal Sexism Both Men and Women Are Still Listening To


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Sexism often hides in plain sight.

Sometimes it even hides in our most romantic music.

At the beginning of the summer, I heard a great new summertime anthem, so I decided to stream the entire album. I was pleasantly surprised by its mixture of carefree rock and thoughtful love songs. Then, in a duet, I heard these lyrics:

Her: What if I fall?

Him: I won’t let you fall.

Her: What if I cry?

Him: I’ll never let you cry.

Her: And if I get scared?

Him: I’ll hold you tighter. When they try to get to you, baby, I’ll be the fighter.

During the first chorus, I thought, Well, that’s sweet. Good for that imaginary couple. But sometime during the second verse, I found myself getting angry. By the third chorus, I wanted to hear a very different response from him. Something like, “Don’t worry, I fall too, so let’s fall together.” Or, “Go ahead and cry; I’ll cry with you.” Or, “I’m scared too, so let’s hold each other and fight for something that looks less like Tarzan and Jane and little more like true intimacy.”

Then the next song came on, and it went like this:

Break on me, shatter like glass, come apart in my hands, take as long as it takes. Girl, break on me. Put your head on my chest. Let me help you forget. When your heart needs to break, just break on me.

By that point, I was beside myself, but I tried to be patient. I waited for a lyric like, “And then someday, baby, I’ll break on you, too.” But of course, it wasn’t coming.

Why was I so fired up, you ask?

Because sexism dressed up as romance drives me a little crazy. It drives me crazy, in part, because I have a daughter, and I want her to know she doesn’t need to rely upon a man to protect her, because she has a strength all her own. I want her to know she no longer lives in a world where she has to go limp to find love. I want her to know she doesn’t have to be dependent to be adored. 

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How to Find Your Brave Place (and the Good Thing Waiting for You There)

What is the key ingredient in bravery? The answer may surprise you. And what is bravery the key ingredient in? The answer to that one might surprise you even more…


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I put it off as long as I could.

Last spring, my kids each earned a free pass to Six Flags Great America by meeting a reading quota at school, so we promised them a summer trip to the theme park. I’m not a huge fan of shelling out silly amounts of money to fight crowds and wait in long lines under a blazing sun. But a promise is a promise. So, finally, on a Friday in late July, we’d run out of excuses and we went to the park. My kids had never ridden a roller coaster.

I wasn’t sure how brave they’d be.

My youngest, Caitlin, at six years old, didn’t think she could handle the coaster with the big drop, two loops, and four inversions in total. But she rode it, and she said it was the most terrifying thing she’d ever done.

Our middle guy, Quinn, at eight years old, didn’t think he could handle the high velocity wooden coaster with the teeth-rattling turns and eleven stomach-churning drops. But he rode it, and he said it was the most terrifying thing he’d ever done.

And our oldest son, Aidan, a twelve-year-old adrenaline junky, didn’t know if he could handle the biggest coaster in the park, The Goliath. It’s the world’s fastest, tallest, and steepest wooden coaster—boasting a 180 foot drop at a nearly vertical, 85-degree angle, while flying 72mph. But he rode it, and he said it was the most terrifying thing he’d ever done.

It turns out my kids are brave, because bravery isn’t the absence of fear.

Bravery is going one step farther than you think you can.

It’s not being fearless during that step. It is simply taking it. In fact, fear is a necessary ingredient for bravery. If you aren’t afraid, there is nothing, really, to be brave about.

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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?


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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.


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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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