How to Look Fear in the Face and Say, “I Just Don’t Care”

“The art of living is to enjoy what we can see and not complain about what remains in the dark. When we are able to take the next step with trust that we will have enough light for the step that follows, we can walk through life with joy and be surprised at how far we go.”

–Henri Nouwen

gratitude

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On the morning we boarded a plane for the TODAY Show, I woke up in a panic. The house was February cold and the morning was February dark. I sat alone in my office and shivered.

I wasn’t shivering because of the cold.

I was wondering what I’d gotten myself into and how I might turn back time and not agree to go on national television. I meditated. I prayed. I couldn’t find peace. But then my prayers were answered by a still, small voice inside saying the strangest of things:

Glitter in the air.

I reached for my phone, played the song of that title, and the lyrics I’d forgotten were a blessed reassurance: 

Have you ever thrown a fistful of glitter in the air?

Have you ever looked fear in the face and said, “I just don’t care”?

It’s only half past the point of no return,

The tip of the iceberg,

The sun before the burn,

The thunder before the lightning,

And the breath before the phrase.

Have you ever felt this way?

For the rest of that surreal weekend in New York and at 30 Rock, as the fear would creep back in, I’d imagine our family with fistfuls of glitter thrown into the air and floating down around us. Crazy. Messy. A little bit out of control. But beautiful. Alive. Awake.

The Power of Friendship (When Friendship is a Verb)

The word “friend” is a derivative of the verb “freon,” which means, “To love.” A friend is a person. And a friend is a verb

friendship

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Two years ago, as my daughter was sprouting up through her fourth year of life, I was helping her put on a pair of jeans, and the waistband strained mightily. I asked her if she would like me to loosen it. She looked at me with puzzlement and asked, “Why?” So I found the stretchy strap inside the waistband and loosened it several notches.  I looked at her and asked, “Better?” This time, she looked at me with awe and she sighed,

“Oh my, that’s a lot of better.”

My daughter didn’t know how uncomfortable her pants were, because she didn’t know how comfortable they could feel. When dis-ease sets in like a slowly dripping faucet, we don’t notice it. We unconsciously adapt to it. This can happen to our pants. But it can also happen to our hearts.

We steadily, quietly get flooded by the almost imperceptible drip-drip of disinterest.

How to Know Who Loves You Best

The people who love us best can’t read our mind. They don’t know what we’re going to say or do next. But when we say something or do something clumsy, they trust the goodness of who we are. They can read our heart

community

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It’s spring again in Illinois, and that means a lot of things—green-soft grass, pollen everywhere, thunderstorms, soccer games, and the countdown to summer. It also means a big empty box sitting in the foyer of my daughter’s preschool, advertising the countdown until the chicks hatch. We arrive at the school on day zero and peer over the edge of the box.

Nothing yet.

I ask her where the eggs are.

My daughter looks at me somberly and says, “The chicks didn’t have a momma, so we needed to keep them warm in an escalator.”

I think about telling her it’s called an incubator, but I know what she means and not every moment needs to be a teaching moment. I smile. She smiles and grabs my hand and we walk into her class together.

How do we know when we belong?

The people we belong to know what we mean.

The Beauty of Being a Quitter

true self

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Six years ago, my wife and I had reached a pinnacle.

We’d just had our third and last child, my wife had become the director of her graduate psychology program, my clinical practice was thriving, and we’d just purchased a house in the right neighborhood with the best schools.

We had arrived.

Before long, though, we realized the place we’d arrived was like a hamster wheel. With a motor. That couldn’t be turned off. We had a mountain of debt, mountains of responsibility, and mountains of stress. We had worked tirelessly for two decades to get to the top and, upon arriving, we were greeted with this disappointing news:

There is no top.

Slowly, it dawned upon us: you don’t find peace by reaching the peak of all good things; you find peace by getting a peek at the good thing you’ve always been. You don’t reach happiness by climbing; you settle into happiness by settling into who you truly are.

The Point of Life Isn’t to Be More Happy (It’s to Be More You)

“Today you are you! That is truer than true! There is no one alive who is you-er than you!”

–Dr. Seuss

identity

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Seven years ago, my wife was the recipient of her college’s Junior Faculty Achievement Award, a symbol of a promising academic career in bloom. It was awarded for excellence in research, teaching, and every other skill of the academy. She hung the placard on her office wall. She went on to run international research projects, head her program, write a textbook, and mentor twenty-four students through their dissertations, amongst countless other achievements, both large and small.

Now, seven years later, shortly after reaching the summit of the academic life—tenure—my wife is resigning from her professorship. Now, she will be working in a small, rural health center, providing services to families who need help, but usually can’t get it. Her decision, on the surface of it, is perplexing at best and crazy at worst. I’ve tried to explain it many times in the last six months, but this is the closest I can get:

She’s a little closer to knowing who she is.

Why It’s Exhausting to Hide

It’s exhausting to hide who we truly are, because the true self is like a beach ball. It wants to float, and it takes an awful lot of work and energy to keep it pushed beneath the waves…

true self

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The cold brick dug into my forehead.

Spring 2005. Early morning. I’d walked out the back door of our small, third-floor apartment, and I was leaning my head against the brick wall on the outside landing. I was exhausted and I had all sorts of good excuses for that—a clinical internship, a young and struggling marriage, a sick baby—but the truth was, my false self was slowly killing me.

Or, rather, the work of maintaining my false self was killing me.

Building an image. Preserving a reputation. Appearing confident and competent. Keeping everyone happy with me. Feeling like I was never enough but always looking like I was more than enough. Falling apart but acting like I had it all together.

Utterly draining.

It’s tiring to hide your true self.

The Fault in Our Scars

How often do we protest, “It’s not my fault,” both loudly with our tongues and silently in our hearts? Why do we hide our faults? And what if we quit protecting them, and started celebrating them?

intimacy

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“It’s not my fault!”

The most popular phrase in our house.

My son has just accidentally opened the refrigerator door into the dishwasher door, which was hanging ajar, knocking the dishwasher backward, off the hardwood and onto the subflooring. It becomes a box of crashing porcelain and before I have a chance to say anything, he is denying responsibility.

I stare at him blankly, at a loss for words. I watched it happen. I saw him throw one door into another. Either he thinks I’m blind, or there’s more to his denial than meets the eye.

There’s more to his denial than meets the eye.

He’s seven and, already, he has scars.

When he declares, “It’s not my fault!” with his chin out and his eyes a little scared, he’s not saying he didn’t do it. Of course he did it. What he’s doing is fighting not to be wounded again. He’s asking to be absolved of the emotional consequences of his mistake. He’s saying, “I didn’t do it on purpose, so please don’t blame me or shame me or reject me or leave me feeling alone.”

The thesaurus lists these synonyms for fault: defect, error, evil doing, failing, flaw, frailty, guilt, liability, misconduct, misdeed, negligence, offence, transgression, vice, wrongdoing. Is it any wonder our kids deny responsibility for their innocent mistakes?

Is it any wonder we adults do the same?

Is it any wonder no one wants to be at fault for anything?

It’s About Time (To Make Peace in Your Most Important Relationship)

“Know your fight is not within; yours is with your time here.” 

–John Mayer

mindfulness

Why would four generations of formally dressed people gather in a pub on a Thursday afternoon? If you can picture it, you can probably guess.

A funeral.

Two toddlers are alternately laughing about nothing and wailing about French fries. Their mother looks tired and sad. I wonder if it’s because of the person she lost or the little people she still has. Their father wrangles one of the kids while trying to carry on a conversation. A baby boomer eats quietly, while another gives her attention to her phone and the digital distractions it contains. And sitting at the end of the table is a married couple from the greatest generation. They trade the kind of sparse but loving conversation only possible after sixty years of marriage.

I came to the pub to take a break. I invited my wife, but she told me I needed some time alone. Wise woman. Life has been moving fast. Faster than I can handle, I think, and I entered the pub hoping time would slow down a little bit.

Instead, it expanded.

Into four generations.

As I watched them, I realized: time isn’t racing by; time is marching on, at the same slow and steady cadence it has since it exploded into existence. And, as I watched the subtle and sacred exchange of love and relationship amongst four generations, I realized: there is at least one relationship in my life with which I still need to make peace.

My relationship to time.

I’m always fighting with her.

How to Turn Pro at Relationships (By Keeping It Simple)

“The difference between an amateur and a professional is in their habits. An amateur has amateur habits. A professional has professional habits.”

–Stephen Pressfield

marriage

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Sometime last year, my seven year-old son decided to turn pro at apologizing.

We sent him to his room after some egregious act toward somebody in the house, and he emerged fifteen minutes later with an apology note, scribbled with a black Sharpie marker and first-grade jaggedness.

Several days later, we went through the same scenario. But not quite. This time, when he came out of his room, he was carrying an apology note written in multi-colored crayon. The letters were less jagged, written with more care.

The next time it happened, he used glitter glue and waited for it to dry. He tried to write it in cursive he’s never been taught, and the words were tender and sincere. The note was hard to read, but love always translates, doesn’t it?

I’ve been a marital therapist for over a decade. Sitting in the therapy room, with two people who have two sets of histories, wounds, and resentments can feel complicated and confusing. I have a big bag of therapeutic interventions, and some days, I almost empty it out.

But as I held my son’s sparkling work of love and remorse, it occurred to me: maybe it’s not as complicated as I’m trying to make it. Maybe it’s about turning pro at one thing, and dedicating our lives to it. Maybe I just need to remember the old Navy engineering adage, KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Maybe we all just need to KISS.

Why Kindness Multiplies, Joy Rebounds, and Generosity Goes Viral

Last week, I wrote about a pub in Colorado, where you don’t have to pay your tab when you eat. If you don’t have cash, they send you home with a Karma Envelope, and they trust you’ll send your payment in when you can. Because they believe kindness multiplies, joy rebounds, community is contagious, and generosity goes viral.

They claim a 97% collection rate via Karma Envelopes.

Joy rebounds, indeed.

charity

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Readers around the world wrote in, saying the post made their day and restored some of their hope for humanity. The Channel 9 News in Denver called to ask for details about the story, and I did an interview with a radio station in Montreal. But my favorite part of the week, by far, was hearing about other businesses around the world who operate on the assumption there is something good at the center of people.

Here are just a few:

There’s a sandwich bar in Basel, Switzerland that works on the honor system—you eat as much as you want and declare at the register how much you ate. About a decade ago, the owner ran an ad in the local paper, granting “amnesty” to everyone who “forgot” to pay for sandwiches when they were young and broke. And he offered this: if you now wanted to settle your tab, you could contribute anonymously to a fund, and the money was then donated to a local association for the blind.

The sandwich bar donated a lot of money.

Because kindness multiplies.