Karma Envelopes

karma

Last week, I got ambushed by hope in a pub in Boulder, Colorado.

My wife and I had just gotten into town for a conference. Our flight out of O’Hare had been delayed for hours by thunderstorms, so by the time we landed, traveled to the hotel, checked in, and set out with friends to look for our first food since breakfast, it was 6pm. We walked through the doors of the Mountain Sun Pub with empty stomachs and frayed nerves. We were seated quickly, given our menus, and were just about to open them when my friend noticed, in small type at the bottom of the menu, these words:

Cash only.

Our empty stomachs dropped, and we got up to go. A waitress stopped us and asked why we were leaving. We explained we were from Chicago and were only carrying credit cards. She smiled wide and told us not to worry.

Then she told us about Karma Envelopes.

Home Is Where the Grace Is

grace

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It’s a Saturday evening and my oldest son and I are working the dinner shift at a homeless shelter. We’re staffing the beverage table with friends, enjoying the challenge of keeping up with the demand for drinks, working hard, and laughing even harder. And then I see him.

Or, rather, I see the back of him.

I see the back of a young boy—about my son’s age—already walking away from the table. While we were trading jokes and jabs, he had quietly approached us, picked up a soda, and is now returning to his seat in the crowd. I watch him rejoin his family—two parents and two younger siblings. I’d been at the shelter for ninety minutes, and I hadn’t even noticed them. While serving them, I hadn’t seen them.

There’s more than one way to be homeless, isn’t there?

Being houseless is one thing; being unseen and lonely is another thing altogether.

The 5 Empathy Fails in Marriage (And How to Avoid Them)

Empathy is the foundation of any authentic connection. It’s the bedrock of togetherness, the fuel of compassion, and the mortar of grace. We must hone our ability to feel it and to give it. But empathy can be elusive, for at least five reasons…

empathy

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Dusk is closing in when I arrive home from work and walk in the back door.

Some nights, all is well when I get home—my wife is happy and the kids are smiling. But some nights, my wife is tired and worn thin after a long day at work and the onslaught of demands for food and attention. Some nights, my oldest son is anxious and fretting about homework and standardized testing. Some nights, my younger son is distraught about the inevitable injustices of a middle child. Some nights, my daughter will settle for nothing less than a Daddy mirror—a father who will show his interest by reflecting all her energy and joy.

Some nights, everyone wants a little empathy and, some nights, I don’t want to give it.

Some nights, I get home, and I want someone to notice how tired I am, to soothe my anxiety, to correct the injustices done to me, and to mirror me. I could embrace my fatigue, fear, anger, and neediness as common emotional ground and I could reach out and connect in the midst of that shared experience.  But, some nights, I don’t.

Because even for psychologists, empathizing with the people we love is hard to do. And it’s particularly hard to empathize with the person we’ve promised to love for better or worse, for at least five reasons:

A Father’s Bucket List

Two-thousand, seven-hundred, and eleven days.

About a month ago, I downloaded an app for my iPhone that is counting down the number of days until my oldest son leaves for college, assuming he goes off to college and assuming he goes when most kids go. I put the app on the first screen of my phone, and I check it every morning.

I know this is a little maudlin.

high school graduation

But I’m really tired of arriving at monumental moments in my life, and in the lives of the people I love, looking backward, and asking, “How did we get here so quickly, and why wasn’t I more intentional about the journey?”

And, actually, I’m not sure I’m being maudlin enough. Because when I installed the app on my phone, 2,738 days seemed like an eternity. But I have a feeling, in twelve days, when it ticks down to 2,699, it’s going to feel like time has actually passed.

How quickly will the hundreds fly by?

How quickly will the thousands race by?

Quickly, I think, because life gets busy and priorities get out of whack and I end up tyrannized by the urgent while neglecting the important and I can spend years on autopilot if I’m not careful.

The app has made me realize: just being aware of time passing isn’t enough. I need to be doing it differently, not just thinking about it differently. Living it more, not dwelling on it more.

I’m a father who needs a bucket list.

By August 20, 2022, there are a few things I want to do with my son:

I’ve Got Bad News and I’ve Got Good News (Which Will You Choose?)

hope

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“Daddy, I’ve got bad news!”

I’m getting into the car after making the mistake of sending my youngest two children out to the garage on their own. I finish getting in and I look in the rearview mirror. My son’s face is contorted by righteous fury. “She called me stupid two times!”

On this particular morning, I simply don’t have the energy to sort out discrepant eyewitness testimonies, request the appropriate apologies, and mediate forgiveness. So, instead, I say, “Do you have any good news for me?”

His face turns thoughtful and then a smile breaks out upon it. “I found my fleece under the seat!” He holds up a ball of something blue that looks vaguely like the fleece he lost last autumn. I smile, too.

The world is full of bad news.

And the world is full of good news.

Which will you choose?

Manning Up and Leaning In to Marriage

egalitarian marriage

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It’s a Sunday afternoon, I’m a suburban dad, and my oldest son has a double-header scheduled in his indoor baseball league. I line up in the bleachers with the other dads, and we all shout tough, competitive, guy things to our boys on the field.

But then I pull out my wife’s scrapbooking materials, and I begin to cut Christmas trees out of green construction paper. The other dads glance at me sideways. I swear a couple of them cough-laugh.

I breathe deeply and I remind myself I’m still a man.

I’m a man married to a tenured professor of psychology. I fell in love with her tenacity and her deep sense of vocation and when we stood on our wedding altar, I knew what I was getting into — an egalitarian marriage. Which means, if we’re two weeks away from Christmas and she’s grading final exams and our kids’ Christmas party craft needs to be prepared, I’m toting the scrapbooking supplies to baseball. I’ll also be the only dad at the Christmas party.

And all of that can feel a little…emasculating.

But thirteen years of striving for true equality in our marriage has convinced me of at least one thing: having your manhood called into question can be a good thing, perhaps even an essential thing. And ten years as a psychologist has confirmed it: the number one obstacle for men to personal healing, emotional health, and loving marriages is what most of us call masculinity — this idea that to be men we have to be strong, unflappable, and invulnerable. When I ask the question, “What would you have to give up to be vulnerable and honest, to be forgiving and gracious, to be empathic and caring?” the most common answer I get is, “My manhood.”

When men talk about manhood — and when most of us talk about masculinity — those words and ideas and experiences can all be code words for something else: ego.

This is the beginning of a guest post I wrote for Disney’s Babble.com, in conjunction with the #LeanInTogether campaign. To read the rest of this post, click here.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Next Post: I’ve Got Bad News and I’ve Got Good News (Which Will You Choose?)

Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Curiosity May Have Killed the Cat But It Saves Relationships

Good communication is easy, but curious communication is anything but easy. And it may be the difference maker in every relationship. Because words matter, but they mean something different to everybody…

marriage

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It’s about a hundred degrees below zero, as my daughter and I get out of the car at her preschool on a winter Wednesday morning. She grabs my hand, I look at her, and I say, “Let’s run into the warm building!”

She won’t budge.

She looks at me like I’m crazy.

“That’s not a building,” she says in a severe teacherly tone, as if she’s the one who’s almost forty and I’m the one who’s just getting started.

I’ve already lost feeling in my toes and I’m pretty sure the skin on my face will never be the same, but I’m curious about how her little brain works, so instead of arguing and pulling her along like a fish on a line, I ask, “If that’s not a building, what is it?”

“Daddy,” she says, “that’s not a building; that’s a school.”

Now all feeling is gone from my fingers, too, but my curiosity gets the best of me again.

“So, what is a building?”

A lopsided smile appears on her face. She doesn’t say, “Duh,” but it’s implied. “Daddy, a building is a place you go to work.”

Oh.

Then she drags me inside like a fish on a line.

Words matter. But they mean something different to each of us. Which can be a small problem in a parking lot, but a much bigger problem in a marriage or partnership or friendship or any meaningful relationship of any kind.

Why We Should All Just Give Up

In the dark hours of a Wednesday morning, I sat at a railroad crossing. Red caution lights flashed silently as a train roared by. I was in the middle of a crummy week. And I finally gave up…

true self

The carpet guys had found asbestos tile under the decade-old carpet in our bedroom. The hazardous waste guys wanted a lot of money to remove it. A window sash had rotted through. The window people couldn’t find a replacement and wanted to replace the whole window. More money.

I took my son to the wrong gym for his first basketball game and I dropped the ball on something at work and the future of my book manuscript seemed uncertain and I got angry at my family—more than once—because when things start falling apart it’s awfully tempting to alienate the very people who hold you together.

And, finally, I had awoken at 4am on this particular Wednesday morning to discover the technical solution I had implemented for a problem with blog emails had broken the email service altogether. My weekly email wouldn’t send to anyone. So, I spent ninety minutes with customer service—to no avail—before racing out the door to drive two hours to an appointment for which I was already running late.

My travels needed to go perfectly for me to arrive on time.

Remember that train I mentioned?

As I approached the railroad crossing only a few blocks from home, the arms descended, blocking my way. I was becoming a little unhinged, wondering what could go wrong next when, as the end of the train approached, another light began to flash and a robotic voice declared repeatedly, “Another train coming.”

Which is when I finally I gave up.

What if we all just gave up?

Why Siblings Fight (and Why We All Fight Like Siblings)

Siblings fight because they assume love is a limited resource. They assume they have to compete for caring. In other words, siblings are just like the rest of us…

family conflict

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I was brutal to my siblings.

I beat up on my little brother’s shoulder and I beat up on my little sister’s heart. When we were all grown and had gone our separate ways, I realized what I’d done, and I started to beat up on myself. I felt guilty about being a bully and sad about the lost opportunity to be their friend.

Even after they accepted my apology, I couldn’t forgive myself.

So, instead, I decided to redeem it. By cultivating a sense of companionship amongst my own children. It seemed simple enough. But encouraging mutuality and tenderness between siblings is way easier said than done. Siblings swing quickly upon a pendulum from caring for each other to competing with each other.

What are they constantly competing for?

Love.

They assume it’s a limited resource.

The One True Thing About the Perfect Valentine’s Date

Is that it doesn’t exist. Because the perfect Valentine’s date doesn’t seek perfection. It seeks reality. It acknowledges who we are as individuals and where we are as couples. Which means, the most loving Valentine’s date could happen in a restaurant. Or in a therapist’s office…

perfect Valentine's date

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I’m a marital therapist

And I’ve worked on Valentine’s night.

While couples across the world were dining by candlelight, riding in carriages, and sprinkling rose petals—attempting to orchestrate the perfect evening and the most romantic moment—I’ve sat with couples in the midst of their pain and sorrow. On the most romantic night of the year, I’ve sat with lovers while they got as honest as possible about who they are, turned over rocks most people won’t even look at, fought to forgive, and dug deep to find empathy and intimacy.

On the most romantic night of the year, I’ve sat with couples while they got real.

In other words, I’ve been a witness to the most Romantic Valentine’s dates of all.

Yes, that’s Romance with a capital R.