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

blessings

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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

sexism

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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…

courage

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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?

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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