This Is the Truth About a Post-Truth World (Maybe)

The Oxford English Dictionary’s 2016 Word of the Year was post-truth, an adjective describing “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” 

uncertainty

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In the autumn of 2016, on an ordinary morning, my kids and their friends in the carpool told me all the schools in town should be closed down indefinitely because roving bands of murderous clowns were everywhere and no one was safe. They’d all heard exactly the same thing through social media, so they figured it must be true. They were genuinely terrified.

I asked them to take a breath.

I asked them to slow down and look at the world around them. They did so. They saw a typical autumn morning—sunlight slanting through leaves brightly dying, the world marching to its ancient rhythm. No clowns in sight. And yet. The world they were able to see couldn’t compete with the world they were able to Google. They still believed clowns were hiding behind every colorful tree.

I dropped them off at school and left them for dead.

Post-truth. Last year, what was actually happening around us became less relevant than what was happening inside us. Last year, our fear became our truth, regardless of our reality. Last year, facts finally and fully gave way to our Facebook fictions. The Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year runner-up was coulrophobia—an extreme or irrational fear of clowns. This is not a coincidence. My kids coulrophobia was a post-truth phenomenon.

Where are the clowns?

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Best of 2016 (The Annual UnTangled Top Ten Lists)

best of 2016

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I’m a big believer in holiday traditions.

From lighting fires in the fireplace, to watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, to decorating the tree while watching It’s a Wonderful Life, I ritualize everything. This year, we watched A Christmas Story on Christmas Day, and I suggested making it a tradition. My wife and kids all rolled their eyes. So we have a new tradition. I believe traditions are important, because rituals anchor us in an increasingly untethered world.

And one of my favorite annual rituals is the year end top ten lists that emerge between Christmas and New Year. This ritual is a way to integrate everything that has gone before. It’s a way to honor the year and then let it go, so we can welcome in a new year.

So, for the fifth year in a row here at UnTangled, here are the Top Ten UnTangled (and Artisan) posts of the year (according to Facebook shares), the best of the rest (according to me), and a list of the ten books I enjoyed most in the past year. I hope you enjoy, too. But it’s okay if you want to roll your eyes…

Top Ten Posts (according to Facebook):

  1. A Daddy’s Letter to His Little Girl (About How Fast She’s Walking Away)
  2. An Open Letter from a Therapist to His Clients
  3. I Can’t Believe Anyone Goes to Therapy (Says the Therapist)
  4. A Father’s Letter to His Little Ones (In the Wee Hours of the Election)
  5. Why Healing Our Hearts Might Be Simpler Than We Think
  6. How to Talk with Family About Politics This Holiday Season
  7. A Post About Marriage and What We’ve All Longed for Since the Crib
  8. The Simple (But Not Easy) Choice That Will Define All of Us
  9. Don’t Try to Make Your Life Better (Make It Beautiful-er)
  10. The Life Changing Difference Between Seeing Beauty and Seeing Beautifully

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What Is Christmas? (It’s When We Defiantly Choose the Light)

new year's resolution

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Last weekend, I hosted my first Christmas party as an employer.

Okay, the truth is, I didn’t host it. My business partner has the gift of hospitality, so he was in charge of organizing the party for our therapy practice. But I figured the evening’s toast would fall to me, so on the morning of the party I awoke early to write it, intending to record a few words about the beauty of the past year.

But the truth is, for each of us at the party, 2016 was not always beautiful. Mess, loss, hardship, grief, sorrow. Professionally, we’d sat with the pain of broken people for a whole year. Personally, we had been those people.

I don’t think we’re alone.

In the last month, I’ve heard countless people say they decorated early for Christmas this year because they needed a little more joy. Many of us, it seems, were deeply craving a season of lights. And of course we were—do you remember this Year of Our Lord 2016?

This was the year of Syria and Aleppo and four million bloodied and displaced refugees with no place to go; of lethal bombs in Brussels and Belgium, mass shootings in Paris and Miami, a deadly renegade truck in Nice, controversial police shootings, and countless quiet tragedies in places not important enough to make the headlines. This was the year of Zika and babies born mortally wounded; of thirteen disastrous fires in the parched state of California and a single devastating blaze in Tennessee; of hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis. This was the year that art died in the form of David Bowie and Prince and Leonard Cohen and Gene Wilder and Professor Snape, to name just a few.

This was the year of Brexit.

This was the year that hate speech and hate crimes went mainstream once again. This was the year in which a presidential election left half of a country celebrating and half of a country grieving and a whole country—the most powerful on the planet—wholly divided. This was the year even the news—that most reliable of things—became fake and questionable and untrustworthy. This was the year we tapped on our news apps and held our breath, waiting for the next tragedy.

And that is only a fraction of the heartache that happened in homes and around the globe.

Of course we need a little light.

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The Grace of Failure (Or, How to Avoid a Midlife Crisis)

midlife crisis

Photo Credit: Bigstock (Anna Nahabed)

Forty years ago today—on December 14, 1976—I was born.

Since then, nothing has worked out as planned.

And that, is a saving grace.

You see, if I had become what I planned to be on my fifth birthday, I’d be a firefighter right now. As a boy, I was enthralled by the heroism of it. But now, I have a bad back and I hate thrill-seeking and I go out of my way to avoid third degree burns.

Courage comes in many forms. Sometimes, we plan for one kind of courage, but we end up having to find forms of bravery more consistent with who we are.

By my tenth birthday, the Chicago Bears were reigning Super Bowl champions, and I planned to be a running back at Soldier Field, like Walter Payton. But I’m slow, relatively small, not very strong, and I don’t like people bumping into me. For me, bruises rank right up there with third degree burns.

Sometimes, it’s important to accept that our idealistic plans will be altered by our very realistic limitations.

If I’d become what I planned to be when I was fifteen, I’d be a trial lawyer right now, just like Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, hammering away at Jack Nicholson. The problem is, I don’t like conflict or courtrooms, and I’m not sure what I think about Tom Cruise anymore.

It’s easy to plan a Hollywood life, but it takes some growing up and a lot of self-acceptance to gladly choose a life that is a little more ordinary.

A decade ago, I planned to build a life in the bustling Chicago suburbs. The problem was, by the time I was thirty, I’d forgotten the little one inside of me who loves quiet and slowness and forested paths and towns where everyone waves to each other.

Often, when we’re young, we plan to grow up into something big and flashy, but sometimes growing up is really about growing young again, reclaiming who we’ve always been, and living the way we’re wired.

By the time I was thirty-five, I planned to write a little blog for a handful of therapy clients interested in working directly with me. It seemed arrogant to hope for anything more.

Sometimes our plans are too big. But just as often our shame makes our plans too small, admonishing us for dreaming big, calling it conceit. Yet, our plans get to be exactly as big as our love for our self, our people, and our world.

Now, here I am. The big 4-0.

Now, I’ve got new plans. Bigger plans. I’ve got a new book coming out in March, a second new book I’m going to give away for free to those who pre-order the first book, and I’ve got all sorts of hopes and plans for all of it.

Yes, I still make plans. We have to. Plans propel us forward.

Yet today, on my fortieth birthday, I find myself hoping none of my plans work out.

It would have been a disaster—particularly for people in burning buildings and the Chicago Bears—if I had become who I wanted to be when I was five and ten years old. Likewise, when I’m fifty, I don’t want to be who I planned to be at forty. A true self is a constantly emerging self.

A good life is an always evolving life.

Growing up isn’t about getting what we want; it’s about giving in to the best parts of who we are. Slowly. Over time. As we begin to glimpse them, cease to reject them, welcome them, embrace them, live them. Growing up is about learning how to listen to the voice of grace, which is whispering within each of us, all the time, nudging us in a particular direction for today.

That, I think, is the challenge of turning forty. This birthday makes you want to look backward or forward. However, the question it begs of you is, can you stay focused and look deeper into the now? Can you live today as authentically as possible, so your days will eventually take you somewhere you ultimately want to be?

A couple of weeks ago, my oldest son looked into the now, as we crossed a bridge in our hometown, far outside the bustling Chicago suburbs. Someone we didn’t know had just waved to us in passing, the sun had just set, and, with more than a little awe in his thirteen-year-old voice, he observed, “Twilight over the river here is beautiful.”

I’m not sure how many years I have left. But I have only one plan I’m planning on keeping: I’m going to keep looking at now, I’m going to keep listening for the voice of grace, and I’m going to keep trusting that, if we do this, the twilight over our lives can be beautiful, too.

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Pre-Order LOVEABLE Now! You are enough. You are not alone. And you matter. These are the three fundamental truths of your existence. The problem is there is a voice inside each of us relentlessly calling them into question. And yet the answer to that voice can be found within each of us, as well. Click here to find out more about my new book—Loveable: Embracing What Is Truest About You, So You Can Truly Embrace Your Life.

A Guide to Getting the Love You Never Knew You Wanted

We all want to be loved unconditionally, yet most of the love we give is conditional. Which means we’re all trying to get the love we think we want by giving the kind of love nobody really wants. But what if there is a third kind of love—one we deeply desire but don’t even know we want?

love

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It’s a Sunday night at the end of a busy weekend and shoehorning the kids back into a school week has been even more cumbersome than usual. We’re finally moving toward bedtime books, when I walk into the basement and see kid-sized, mud-colored footprints all over the carpet.

So, I decide to love my kids conditionally.

While pretending to love them unconditionally.

Without a raised voice or a complaint, I get down on my knees to clean the carpet—the selfless servant loving his family. Except with every spray of the stain remover, I heave a big-heavy sigh. Big enough and loud enough to be heard from my boys’ bedroom. Then, while the spray soaks in, I continue tucking them into bed. But I make sure my shoulders are slumped. I groan with fatigue. I sprinkle in a lot more sighing.

This is my favorite form of unconditional love:

While loving someone, let them know in subtle—and mostly deniable—ways how much that love is costing you. Indirectly communicate that they are a burden to you. Show them how hard they make your life. Of course, you aren’t actually expecting anything in return—you simply want them to feel as distraught as you do about the hard work of caring for them. If they don’t appear to be getting it, you might be disguising it too well. Sigh harder.

If sighing harder still doesn’t work, you might want to experiment with several other thinly-disguised forms of conditional love:

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How to Choose Your Friends in the Aftermath of the Election

The Presidential election has tested friendships and relationships of all kinds. In the wake of such a divisive contest, there may be only one truly healing way to choose your people…

empathy

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The day after the election, I had a scheduled phone call with a long-distance friend of mine. We live in very different parts of the country, have some overlap in our spiritual beliefs and even more overlap in our commitment to fatherhood and vocation, but my guess was that he voted for the other candidate. When he picked up, instead of saying hello, I asked him who he voted for.

I’m not very good at small talk.

Indeed, he had voted differently than me. We talked for thirty minutes about the election, our reasons for voting the way we did, and then we hung up the phone. After hanging up, I made a decision about the friendship: I decided he was one of my people. Because ideology and politics is not the most important criteria for choosing a friend.

Empathy is.

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How to Have a Mountaintop Experience (Right Where You Are)

You aren’t here to be extraordinary, to accomplish the extraordinary, or to experience the extraordinary. You are simply here to be fully you, limitations and all. Ironically, when you embrace that, something extraordinary happens…

true self

Photo Credit: Bigstock (Eldar Nurkovic)

It’s the eve of our fifteenth wedding anniversary and tomorrow morning, in the dark hours before the dawn, my wife and I are supposed to drive up the side of a volcano to watch the sun rise on our sixteenth year. It sounds perfect. Romantic. Beautiful. Awesome and inspiring. Indeed, awe-inspiring.

But there’s a problem.

I’m terrified of heights. And open spaces. And dying. My wife is afraid of none of those things, so she is the designated driver when we drive up mountains. However, her night vision is exceptionally poor. The blind leading the blind up ten thousand feet, around thirty-two switchbacks, with no guardrails and no streetlights in the dark? Well, it seems like a bad idea.

So, instead, the first act of our sixteenth year is to Yelp a really good local breakfast joint.

This is the worst blog post ever, isn’t it? I mean, I write about courage and growth and loving fiercely and living fully and taking chances and trusting grace and redeeming the mess. I write to inspire us—myself included—to more beautiful things. I’m supposed to drive up that volcano, have the mountaintop experience, and tell you about it.

Except, that’s not really what I’m supposed to do. That’s not really what any of us are supposed to do. We’re not here to be more inspiring. We’re here to be more ourselves. We’re here to embrace what we are—all of it—and to live our way fully into it.

This includes our limitations.

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How to Talk with Family About Politics This Holiday Season

What do you get when you mix family, the holidays, and politics? Gratitude and goodwill toward all, right? Well, actually…

election

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A number of years ago—when marijuana was still illegal everywhere—I stumbled into a particularly heated marijuana debate between two acquaintances. They weren’t a couple of half-baked high school kids raging against The Man; they were two highly educated professionals. One man was aggressively in favor of legalizing marijuana, the other man violently opposed to it.

They asked for my opinion.

I remember feeling a sense of dread, like I was wading into dangerous waters, with hungry things swimming beneath the murky surface. The debate did not go well.

They rarely do, do they?

Today, we find ourselves at the end of a season of unproductive debates, and at the beginning of a new season. We have important problems to solve and differing opinions about how to do so. Differences between people create tension, tension leads to conflict, and conflict usually results in gridlock at best and violence at worst. But it doesn’t have to.

In fact, sometimes, conflict can be the beginning of authentic community…

The marijuana debate had ended and I was in the car on the way home with my wife when I finally got a glimpse beneath the surface of the ideological waters I’d been swimming in. She explained that the legalization advocate had recently watched his father die a slow and painful death from cancer, while marijuana was the only thing that relieved his father’s suffering.

The man’s grief had given rise to his opinions.

In contrast, the marijuana opponent had been raised in a family torn apart by drug addiction. His brother had gone through repeated treatments and relapses and it had devastated the entire family. His pain, too, had given rise to his opinions. There was something floating beneath the surface of that contentious debate:

Stories.

The stories of two hurting people. Stories of fear and pain and anguish and loss. Stories that formed their ideas and opinions and beliefs. Stories that gave birth to natural conclusions about the way the world works best. It turns out, a person’s ideas are never simply their ideas. Opinions and beliefs are never born in a vacuum; they are always the logical result of our experiences.

Every opinion is a story in disguise.

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A Father’s Letter to His Little Ones (In the Wee Hours of the Election)

Dear Little Ones,

You are already asleep in your beds. It’s late, and I’m going to bed. It’s been a long election day.

election results

When this day began began, I woke up, and I walked to the corner coffee shop in the dim, predawn light, down streets already aglow with Christmas lights. Ordinarily, I would have been cynical about the early start to the holiday season. This morning, I was grateful for the reminder that there is light in the world and, soon, we will be celebrating it. I arrived at the coffee shop. It was more crowded than normal. Almost certainly, these were voters who had awoken earlier than usual. But for a moment, just one blessed moment, I didn’t see voters. I didn’t see politics; I saw people. Just human beings, trying to wake up to yet another day, trying in some more profound way to wake up to this one life. They weren’t, at that moment, casting votes; they were just breathing. Eating. Drinking.

Little Ones, we have far more in common than in conflict, and we would know this if, instead of seeing fear and anger and ideology, we could see beneath the surface: our beating hearts, the blood pulsing through our veins, lungs filling and emptying, joints aging and aching. This morning, for one peaceful moment, I saw all these people this way, and in that moment, the lights on the trees outside weren’t the only lights I could see in the world.

It is late, and I’m going to bed, and it’s not clear how this whole disgraceful American season is going to end. I don’t know who will be the leader of our land. I don’t know how that leader will influence the laws of our land. These are things we cannot control. But as I turn in, I can tell you what we can control: the law of our family’s land—the law of this land inside our four walls.

We will love everyone who crosses our path.

Those who are most in need, are those who are most in need of us.

Fear is fired. It doesn’t get to call the shots for us.

Anger is okay. But not when it harms, only when it redeems.

Arrogance is natural, but we will call upon something supernatural within us to put it down.

Grace is a way of seeing. It is Love seeing the beauty at the center of everything. We will see to the center.

All those things your kindergarten teacher told you to do? Be kind. Share. Include. Create……Do them. Be laughed at for doing them all the way into adulthood. Keep doing them.

Remember, each of you play an indispensable role in this family of ours. Remember, everyone plays an indispensable role in this great big family of ours called humanity.

Little Ones, like those lights on the trees of the street, and like those lights in the people in the coffee shop, there is a light inside each of you. Here is the most important law of our little land:

Let it shine.

Yours,

Daddy

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Why You Shouldn’t Waste Time Working on Your Marriage

It has been said so often it is now cliché: you have to work on your marriage. I wish I’d known fifteen years ago, when I got married, how false that truism actually is…

marriage advice

Our first honeymoon was a bust.

We arrived at the resort less than twenty-four hours after a minister declared, with a few words, that we now had this thing called a Marriage. A brand new Marriage. It felt perfect. Pristine. Like the first day of a new semester, when the teacher tells you everyone starts with an A+.

If our honeymoon was the first homework assignment, we seemed to flunked it badly.

We were graduate students at the time, so the all-inclusive resort we could afford was broken, crumbling, and unclean. We tried to compensate for its lack of style (and sanitation) by consuming its bottomless food and drink. Most days, I ended up either bloated or comatose. Sometimes both. A hurricane somewhere far away made our skies gray and drizzly.

Sometimes our moods were gray and drizzly, too.

Our brand new Marriage seemed to be falling apart as badly as the resort in which it was being celebrated. So, I did what you’re supposed to do. I started working on our Marriage, toiling to make it perfect again. I would do so for many years. Now though, after fifteen years of marriage—and almost fifteen years as a marital therapist—I realize:

A wedding ceremony doesn’t magically create a Marriage.

It doesn’t bring anything new into existence. When you walk back down that aisle, dodging rice, you may be married, but you don’t have a Marriage—you have only two people with all of their hopes and fears and expectations and desires and needs and wants and assumptions and cluelessness.

At least after the birth of your first child, when they send you out of the hospital, bewildered, you have something to bathe. When you get married, you have nothing to show for it. And you can’t work hard on nothing.

Rather, if you want a Marriage, you have to create something out of nothing.

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