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

Photo Credit: Bigstock (avemario)

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.

Continue Reading »

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

hope

Photo Credit: Richard Ricciardi via Compfight cc

“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?

Continue Reading »

Tuesday Tip: Your Story Starts NOW

Whether we realize it or not, most of us look at life through the lens of story. And deep down, many of us believe our story is pretty much over. We have life-yet-to-live, but we feel the writing is already on the wall.

One of the first goals of psychotherapy is to recover a sense of hope for our lives. If hope can be reclaimed in the early sessions of therapy, the goals of the therapy are more likely to be achieved.

In my psychotherapy practice, I will often ask new clients to engage in an exercise, in which they view their lives through the lens of story:

  1. Imagine your life as a movie.
  2. Imagine the painful experiences in your life as the early scenes of the movie, developing the character for the audience, showing the viewers what must be overcome and how the character must change in order to do so.
  3. Imagine your character’s decision to begin therapy as a pivotal point in the plot, a turning point for your character.
  4. In your favorite kind of movie—the kind that moves you and inspires you—what would your character do next? What must they overcome? How would they do it? How would you want the character to be shaped and formed in the process?
  5. Write out a movie proposal, using your experiences as the plot development and yourself as the main character. Make the script as detailed as you would like, but write a coherent story about how your character overcomes what you have been through.

Sometimes, when we are close to the pain, it’s hard to step outside of it and imagine a different story for ourselves. But by casting ourselves as a character in our own story, we may experience a more objective reaction to our circumstances, and we may be inspired to become the kind of character we would love and cheer for.

The bottom-line of the exercise is this: in a good movie, all the junk that brought you to therapy would happen in the opening scenes. The therapy scene would be the beginning of an inspiring movie, not the end of it.

And you get to decide how the rest of your story is written.

Tuesday Tip Disclaimer: The Tuesday Tip is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association website.

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Why the U.S. is Losing the Olympics by Winning Them

Oscar PistoriusI love my country. I cheered for every American athlete and followed the medal count. But last Saturday I got choked up by a South African man running 400 meters on carbon-fiber legs and it made me wonder…

Why do we watch the Olympics?

Why do people who only watch the Super Bowl for the commercials suddenly sit entranced by synchronized diving and floor routines? Why do we suddenly care about Missy Franklin and Michael Phelps and Ryan Who? How can a major network get away with programming three consecutive hours of marathon running? Seriously, marathon running?

An old friend recently remarked that men tune in for the “geographic tribalism.” For two weeks, we are given something bigger to belong to—a country, a cause, an event that we all have in common. And we watch the medal count because we all want our tribe to be victorious, especially when the triumph is over the entire world.

But I think, deep down, we all sense tribal clashes and epic victories aren’t enough.

We may live our lives like getting on top is the most important thing—like winning will give us a sense of purpose—but in our heart of hearts, we know it isn’t true. Because once you climb to the mountaintop, you still have to climb down. And there’s always another summit.

But if the medal count isn’t enough to keep us focused on the Games, what is?

The NBC producers know the answer.

They know we are all captivated by a good story, and they know a good story is not defined by a character’s outcome, but by what that character has overcome. If an athlete hasn’t overcome a major obstacle, if they haven’t sacrificed and endured to get where they are, they know the athlete will not capture our attention.

So, the producers of the Olympics go out of their way to uncover hardship, to illustrate conflicted characters and their resilience in overcoming.

During the first week of the Games, I saw a commercial in which American athletes talked about the sacrifices of training—not watching television for a year, or not reading the popular book that everyone else is reading (thank God—the image of Michael Phelps reading 50 Shades of Grey might be enough to end my Olympics-watching career).

I’ll be honest, though: the discipline described was impressive, but it didn’t move me.

Because it doesn’t make for a good story.

If I went to a movie, and the protagonist was seeking an Olympic gold medal, and the entire movie was scene after scene of him looking longingly at the blank television screen, or standing outside the window of a bookstore (if one still exists) with tears in his eyes, I’m not sure I would love that character.

But last Saturday, I was reminded of the power of a redemptive story.

When I watched a South African man run on carbon-fiber legs.

Oscar Pistorius was born without fibulas—the bone running from knee to foot—and his parents made the painful decision at the age of one to have both legs amputated below the knees. And then his family spent a lifetime living the redemption of it. He was encouraged to join his brother in every activity. If his brother climbed a tree, so did he. And if you can climb a tree with no legs, why not become an Olympic runner, right?

As my eight-year-old son and I watched Oscar prepare for his first Olympic heat, and as the announcers narrated his story, my son turned to me and exclaimed, “I’m rooting for him!”

I’m rooting for him.

Oscar had almost no chance of winning. Yet, it was the first non-American my son had cheered for. Suddenly, tribalism and triumph had been thrown out the window, and both of us were captured by the power of a story that is not about outcome, but about overcoming.

As Oscar came in second place in the heat, achieving his goal of reaching the semifinal, something was caught in my throat. Something that wasn’t there when I watched a commercial about sacrificing television for a year.

You see, in a good story, we pull for a character because we are drawn to a soul bent on overcoming. If they persist and endure and move through the conflict and pain and struggle, we love them. The outcome itself no longer matters. Rocky’s victory was to stay on his feet for fifteen rounds. Aron Ralston’s victory was to simply remain alive with one less arm than before. And a thousand beloved romance films end simply with the character finding love. These are not extraordinarily triumphant outcomes. They are actually quite mundane. But we love the characters all the more, for what they overcame in the story.

And I think the same may be true for the stories you and I are living:

If we focus on triumphant, glorious outcomes in our lives, we will be impressed with ourselves, but we won’t love the character we are becoming.

If we spend our lives seeking safety and minimizing conflict and hardship, we will leave ourselves with little to overcome, and the love we feel for the characters we are living will be just as little.

If we want to love ourselves—if we want to carry within us a deeply-seated, unshakeable sense of value and worth and belovedness—we will need, finally, to make our lives about overcoming.

If we became people surrendered to the task of overcoming, I think we would look in the mirror and see a character we can root for. I think we would write the final scenes of our lives with a sense of peace and freedom. And I think our final scenes might be characterized by an entirely different kind of glory.

Perhaps, we would even write a scene like this:

When Oscar Pistorius’s semifinal heat was over, he had finished dead last. Eighth out of eight. But in the midst of runners celebrating the joy of victory, and other runners hunched over in the agony of loss, the man who had won the race—Kerani James of Grenada—searched out a last-place amputee on manufactured feet. Kerani James found Oscar, and he traded racing bibs with him. He gave Oscar the identity of the winner.

Not because he won, but because he overcame.

Your thoughts? What Olympic stories of overcoming have moved you? What characters did you root for? Remind us what a good story is, and give us hope for living one in our own lives.

About the Blog: My very first post, back in January, focused on story and redemption. Then, I credited Don Miller with impressing upon me the value of using story as an organizing principle in our lives. Once again, with this post, I am grateful for his writing. You can read that first post of mine by clicking here.

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Who’s Editing Your Life Story?

Every writer needs an editor. Rough drafts are rough, and writers need another set of eyes to create something beautiful and meaningful. 

We need this in life, as well.

Each of us needs an editor, someone we trust enough to tell us what needs to be revised about the story we are living…

Last March, around the time the river (and beer) in Chicago were turning green, and the leprechauns had replaced Cupid in the seasonal section at Target, I was stealing a quiet hour on a Saturday afternoon. I lay on the couch, reading Father Fiction by Don Miller, when the idea for a blog post hit me.

I sat upright. I grabbed my phone to record the idea. And I told my wife I was going to write a post about how important it is for people to be assured they are strong.

She looked at me and told me it was a horrible idea.

She does that. A lot.

She told me some people do need to hear they are strong, but other people know they’re strong—they have spent most of their lives being strong and courageous—and what they need to hear is it’s okay to be weak sometimes and to not have it all together.

Deep down, a part of me knew she was right. But I’ll be honest, there was a little kid in me who wanted to talk back. I can’t remember how exactly I responded, but I’m pretty sure there was pouting and grumbling involved. Because I love ideas—I love forming them on the page—and I like to get them right the first time.

But I don’t like to revise.

In the same way, writing our life-stories with passion and abandon can feel electric. Telling a good story with our lives—one written in flesh and blood on the paper of time—is giddiness and joy. But revising the story of our lives is especially difficult work.

Because we have to admit we may have been wrong the first time around.

And we are not used to doing so.

So often, we are raised in homes in which authority was maintained with a heavy emphasis on right and wrong. And the big-people always seemed to end up on the “right side” of the divide. So, life became like an education in courtroom procedure: the terrible twos were like an opening argument, adolescence the tedious process of cross-examination and defense, and we live the rest of our lives like one long closing argument.

So we populate every corner of the world with people unwilling to revise the stories we are living. Daddies overreact and it feels like pulling teeth to get them to reverse the kneejerk punishment. Waiters rarely fess up to an error: they get the manager instead, and the patron gets a free appetizer. If a doctor confesses to a mistake, she exposes herself to lawsuits that may crush her career and steal her livelihood. If a politician admits to an error, he risks plummeting poll numbers. And people of faith take centuries to admit they acted out of hatred born of certitude rather than grace born of love.

Why is it so painful to embrace our errors?

I think facing our mistakes can feel like a condemnation of all the good things and best intentions in us. It can shake our confidence in ourselves. It can crack the lens through which we view the world. It can mess with our heads and make us wonder what is real.

But most of all, it equalizes us.

Whatever pedestals we sit on in the trophy-room-of-our-minds get kicked out from underneath us when we embrace our mistakes and start to make revisions.

Suffice it to say, most of us will not claim our errors happily and willingly. We will tend to go on writing our lives, stubbornly confident in our authority and authorship.

That’s why every single one of us needs a trustworthy editor.

In the spring of 1998, I had just wrapped up my junior year at the University of Illinois. The day after finals found me and two of my closest friends sprawled out on the quad, soaking up the soothing rays of a spring-sun and dodging wayward Frisbees.

And we were debating.

At that time in the University’s history, it was in vogue for students in Urbana-Champaign to exercise their budding liberal-arts-analytical-skills by debating whether or not Chief Illiniwek was a racist mascot.

And I loved to debate.

As I pounded away at the argument, I sensed I was wearing my friends down.

I knew I was going to win.

And then my good friend looked me in the eye (I saw sadness in hers) and she said, “You know, Kelly, it’s not fun to talk about this stuff with you.”

Outwardly, I think I smirked, pretending she was talking about losing an argument. But inwardly, I felt like I’d been punched in the gut.

Because I knew I could be brutal. I knew I usually put being right before treating people right.

Yet, her “edit” was so powerful not just because it was true, but because I trusted her.

We had met three years before on the very same quad, during freshman orientation. When my freshman homesickness had been bad, she was the one who showed up and invited me to parties. She was the one I ate dinner with in the cafeteria, and the one who gave me dating advice, and the one I set up with my best buddy. She was the one who I could trust really, truly cared for me.

And she was telling me I needed to change.

Stephen King says, “Write the first draft with the door closed and the second draft with the door open.”

As we write our life-stories, everything is a first draft, and we need to open the doors of our hearts to people we trust enough to tell us where we have gone wrong and how we need to be changed. We need people who will say the hard things, people who will serve up the hard medicine, people for whom we will swallow it because we know they are serving it out of love and caring and respect.

And there is healing in the medicine.

Because, when we open ourselves up to our errors, when we invite someone into our mistakes and release the need to be right the first time, we are no longer alone. We discover it is better to embrace our faults—and to be embraced by a caring other—than to sit steadfastly on our certitude, and to sit alone. As we become open books, open to revision, we open ourselves to editors who are loyal and true.

We walk through the world a bunch of rough drafts, making mistakes as we go, and we desperately need to surround ourselves with people who love us enough to live with our mistakes, who value us enough to tell us the truth, and who believe in us enough to know we have a “revision” living somewhere in our hearts.*

You have a beautiful story to tell with your life. It has purpose and meaning, and it needs to be told to a world confused by noisy, numbing narratives. But the beauty of your story will only be complete, and its purpose will only be fully realized, when you have submitted it for editing.

So.

Go! Find your editor. A spouse, a friend, a pastor, a therapist. Find a safe and trustworthy space where you are not alone. And find a place where beauty and meaning can erupt out of your errors.

*About the Blog: I had planned to write about “editors” and “revisions” (e.g., apologies) in a single post. But I sent out a query on Twitter and Facebook regarding the nature of apologies, and I got so much great feedback I decided to give it its own post. It’ll be coming sometime soon.

Share Your Comment! Has anyone ever suggested a “revision” that made an important difference in your life?

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The UnTangled community is always growing and the blog is constantly changing. Click here to visit the website, where you can also subscribe by email, share the post with the share buttons at the bottom of each page, and comment on any post. 

Interested in more content?

“Like” the UnTangled Facebook page to follow more conversation and hear some of the backstory behind each post. This week, I relate an intervention I do with clients to encourage the development of “editors” in the lives of my clients.

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And always, thank you for reading. It’s a gift.

Photo Credit: Photo taken from this website.

Life Is A Mistake (And So Is This Title)

I’ve never met anyone who didn’t want to write a brilliant story with the one life they’ve been given.

So why do so many of us fail to put down on the pages of existence the kind of lives we aspire to? Perhaps we are caught up in the paralyzing prison of our minds, analyzing each action before it is lived, trying to avoid any mistakes. Maybe our life-stories end up stranded between our ears.

We need to write the stories of our lives now, and save the editing for later…

When I began UnTangled in January, I discovered the posts tumbled out of me. When I sat at the computer, it was like a dam burst, and a flood of words would pour forth.

But in recent weeks, the writing slowed down. Each post materialized like a slow trickle. I still enjoyed the writing. But deep down, I wondered if my words were drying up.

Last week, I realized what was happening.

I was editing as I wrote.

And I was reminded writing and editing are two separate processes. Trying to edit while you write is fatal to the creative event. It’s like a white-hot sun drying up the river of generativity and spontaneity and passion. Editing is critical to producing things of beauty in the world.* But its place is after the writing.

Yet, I think many of us are writing our life-stories, and trying to edit them as we go.

I think we harbor the misconception that our lives get messed up by bad choices. But I think most of us with stories still-waiting-to-be-told have not made bad choices—we’ve made no choices. We aren’t writing crummy stories—we’re simply not writing our life-stories at all. Because our existential pens are frozen in midair, with a kind of paralysis by analysis.

And our lives are drying up because of it.

So, why do we continue to edit? Why don’t we just brazenly write the stories of our lives and save the editing for later?

I think we are constantly guarding against making mistakes.

We wake each morning, and we begin planning, rather than living. We become like directors of our life-stories, rather than actors in them. We try to orchestrate the perfect day for ourselves and our families and our co-workers. We balance work and kids and finances and we constantly second-guess our choices, wondering who we are hurting and which person in our life will end up holding a permanent grudge.

We are afraid of offending anyone, so we sift through our thoughts, and we settle on the safest words—the dialogue least likely to attract negative attention. Having been taught we must not upset others, we edit out anything visceral and real.

We avoid mistakes, because they may reveal parts of us we wish to keep hidden. Because, you see, our mistakes make us vulnerable.

Our mistakes reveal the cracks in our armor. They reveal our imperfections. They advertise us as broken, fallible creatures. And we are terrified others will decide our mistaken actions mean we are a mistake.

Instead of being in error, we are afraid others will think we are an error.

Even the dictionary tries to shame us for our mistakes, defining mistake as “an error in action, calculation, opinion, or judgment caused by poor reasoning, carelessness, insufficient knowledge, etc.”

Really?

Can you argue with a dictionary?

Maybe it’s a mistake, but I think I will.

I think the vast majority of mistakes we make have nothing to do with crappy reasoning, acting careless, or being ignorant. I think we make mistakes because mistakes happen.

They just happen.

So, we must end the ceaseless editing of our lives. We must enter into writing an incredibly rough draft, mistakes and typos and all. If we can do so, we will make mistakes, but we will learn from them, and our stories will come alive with fallible creatures living redemptive stories in a crazy world.

In his song, “Alive In The World,” Jackson Browne writes:

I want to live in the world,

Not inside my head.

I want to live in the world,

I want to stand and be counted…

I want to live in the world,

Not behind some wall.

I want to live in the world,

Where I will hear if another voice should call

To the prisoner inside me,

To the captive of my doubt,

Who among his fantasies

Harbors the dream of breaking out,

And taking his chances

Alive in the world…

With its beauty and its cruelty,

With its heartbreak and its joy,

With it constantly giving birth to life

And to forces that destroy,

And the infinite power of change

Alive in the world

I started editing while I was writing, because I suddenly felt like my words mattered. You were telling me they matter. And I don’t want to steer you wrong. I don’t want to make a mistake.

But there’s something I want even more than avoiding my own mistakes.

I want to live. I want to write my life story with passion and hopeful abandon.

And I want you to do so as well.

I want you to stop editing as you go. I want you to live in the world, instead of inside your own head. I want you to find freedom from the captivity of your doubt, and I want you to walk tall into a world crying out for a good story. I want you to live a life fully immersed in a world rich with both heartache and joy.

If you are ready to begin writing your story, if you are ready to begin the joyful making-of-mistakes that any life contains, you will join the army of courageous souls who march through my office every day, deciding the worthwhile cost of really living is the vulnerability of mistakes:

Couples who finally, tenderly, share the heartache of a honeymoon that wounded them rather than exhilarating them.

Young men who publish their thoughts in the school newspaper and smile peacefully as the taunts roll in, because it feels so good to be swept up in the river of really living.

Young ladies who eat thick sandwiches, no longer worrying about the thickness of their waist, because life tastes good and its time to eat it up.

Elderly men who have waited for years to say “I love you” to their children—because for some reason no one ever said it to them, and the idea makes them queasy—finally saying the words and feeling their hearts throb with life in an entirely new way.

Join us.

Stop trying to live your lives just right. Instead, just write.

And when you end up needing to make edits, when you end up needing to apologize for a mistake—and you will—do that with your whole heart, as well.

 

*About the Blog: The next post will focus on the process of editing, especially surrounding ourselves with good “editors,” who we can trust when they tell us we messed up, and entering into the “editing” of an apology with our whole hearts.

 Share Your Comment! Did I make any mistakes in this post today? I hope so, and I’m wide open to hearing what you think! Please feel free to share your ideas. And don’t worry about making a mistake!

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The UnTangled community is always growing and the blog is constantly changing. Click here to visit the website, where you can also subscribe by email, share the post with the share buttons at the bottom of each page, and comment on any post. 

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“Like” the UnTangled Facebook page to follow more conversation and hear some of the backstory behind each post.

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Photo Credit: Taken from this website.

The Deep Magic Is Everywhere

For years, in the month of May, as the fickle Chicago-spring was giving way to sweltering Chicago-summer, my wife and I would drive by the park district soccer fields on Saturday morning, smirking at the army of suckers watching as roaming packs of children suffocated tiny soccer balls.

Several weeks ago, we became the suckers.

And last Saturday, summer had arrived early—by 9am the thermostat was pushing eighty degrees. Studies show sustained heat increases irritability and conflict.

My family was a case study.

Aidan hid, scowling, in the shade of a far-off tree, tiny spindle-legs pulled to his chest. Aidan loves to read about tropical climates—he does not like to live in one. Quinn’s shin guards were particularly sweaty and itchy. In the midst of his lament, I wondered if we might have to amputate something. And Caitlin, in all her two-year-old, flopping-curls rebellion, eyed the orange out-of-bounds line like it was the river Jordan separating her from the Promised Land. She wanted in.

I suppose there are a lot words to describe the morning we were having. But the truth is, one word probably captures it best:

Normal.

We were having a normal morning.

I write a lot about tragedies that give birth to pain and suffering. But I think for most of us, the daily grind of normal, we-have-to-do-this-all-over-again-tomorrow living is far more oppressive.

Normal life fixates us on tedium and discomfort and our dissatisfaction. Normal keeps us focused on the heat. Normal keeps us focused on who cut us off in traffic. Normal keeps us focused on spilled milk and pizza tossed across the kitchen. Normal keeps us focused on co-workers who won’t stop talking. Normal keeps us focused on everything our spouses aren’t doing for us and how the waiter got our order wrong and how the appliances need to be repaired and how little money is in the savings account.

Normal can feel awfully oppressive.

Normal blurs our vision for anything more.

C.S. Lewis wrote a little book called “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.” In his tale, four siblings happen upon a magical world, Narnia, in which the evil White Witch has cast a spell, resulting in one hundred years of continuous winter. In Narnia, normal is cold and uncomfortable and oppressive. The Witch discovers one of the siblings, Edmund, and seduces him into slavery by appealing to his normal appetites for pastry and superiority. Edmund’s fate seems certain.

Until Aslan arrives.

Aslan is the great, mythic lion, rumored for centuries to be the only one powerful enough to break the winter-spell of the White Witch. However, instead of destroying the Witch, Aslan does something peculiar: he offers his life in exchange for Edmund’s freedom. The Witch scoffs with delight at her easy victory.

But the Witch doesn’t know the whole story. The Witch believes she has cornered the market on magic, but she is unaware that there exists another kind of magic, an even “deeper magic.”

The Deep Magic is not performed with a wand.

The Deep Magic is unleashed in the willing, loving sacrifice of one being for another.

And The Deep Magic redeems everything.

More recently, J.K. Rowling harnessed the same theme. In the epic tale of Harry Potter, the evil magician, Voldemort, is ultimately defeated because, although he thought he had mastered all forms of magic in the service of his domination, he had remained ignorant of an even deeper magic:

Love.

It was the deep magic of a sacrificial love that protected Harry, when his mother shielded him from Voldemort’s killing curse, trading her life for his. And at the climax of the saga, Harry’s willingness to sacrifice himself for his friends ultimately destroys the evil Voldemort.

In both of these stories, we encounter a deeply broken world, one in which normal, day-to-day life is characterized by fear and frustration and discomfort and conflict, a world in which the characters have resigned themselves to the oppressive norm. And each time, the loving sacrifice of one for another unleashes a deep magic that the evil cannot anticipate nor withstand.

The deep magic overturns everything.

I am not writing today with some kind of romantic, visionary exhortation to engage in the heroic. I am writing today as a reporter, sharing the news of what’s already happening on the ground.

I believe that we live in a world absolutely saturated by the deep magic. We don’t need to read our most cherished stories like escapist fiction. We need to read them like revelations.

Because the deep magic is already being unleashed in the world around us, and everywhere I go I see its redemptive power erupting into the normality of our daily lives:

Somewhere, right now, a little boy is pouring the last of the cereal for his little sister, not because he isn’t hungry, but because she is.

The deep magic is everywhere.

Somewhere, right now, there is a young man waving his friends on, so he can stop and talk with the man on the corner who is begging for change, because the young man knows he is also begging for a tender ear.

The deep magic is everywhere.

Somewhere, right now, there is a mother waving someone else into line ahead of her, not because she wants to spend extra time in line with her two little ones, but because she wants to affirm the dignity and worth of every person with whom she shares this planet and this life.

The deep magic is everywhere.

Somewhere, right now, there is a husband in a marital therapy office, and he’s choking on tears and he’s admitting that he has been unfair and cruel. Because he loves that young lady he married so many years ago enough to sacrifice his pride and ego and all the safety that comes with it.

The deep magic is everywhere.

Somewhere, right now, there is a woman opening her doors to the lost children in her neighborhood, not because she’s bored or her kids need something to do, but because everyone needs a home and she has one to sacrifice.

The deep magic is everywhere.

Normal blurs our vision for it, but it is there, brilliant and breath-taking and erupting in the midst of the normal. To see the deep magic, we must be willing to stop, to slow down, and to gratefully breathe in everything that is happening in the midst of our normal drudgery.

Last Saturday, I took a few deep breaths. I stared up into the vast expanse of cloudless, deep-blue sky. I closed my eyes, and I was thankful for the warm breeze on my skin.

And when I opened my eyes again, there was a magic show on display.

I looked off to my left, where Aidan had emerged from the shade onto an empty soccer field. He had invited his little sister to kick a spare soccer ball with him. His scowl was gone, replaced by a wide-sweet grin. And each gentle, kind tap of the ball to his sister was an explosion of the deepest magic.

And the deep magic had washed away Caitlin’s rebellion in peels of giddy laughter. Completely forgetting herself and her demands, she toppled and fell and landed on Aidan’s chest, tucking her head under his chin with fierce gratitude.

And on the other field, Quinn stopped with a wide-open path to the goal. He waited for a teammate to catch up, and he passed the ball off in an act of sacrifice, passing with it the glory and the cheers.

And moments later, Quinn’s youngest and smallest teammate, who normally hides himself from the ball, emerged from the roaming pack and booted the ball through the net. And everyone, parents on both sidelines, screamed and cheered, because the deep magic compels surprising joy for the resilience of others, no matter what side they’re on.

I had opened my eyes, and nothing had changed and everything had changed, all at once. The veil of the normal was lifted, and people all around were magicians, casting quiet spells of the deepest magic. With eyes to see it and a heart longing for it, the deep magic turned a normal, suburban Saturday morning into a rebellious scene of willing, even joyful, sacrifice.

The deep magic is changing the world—we need only have the eyes to see it.

And I believe that once we have glimpsed the deep magic, we will be drawn to it like a siren song.

We will be drawn to it because the deep magic heals and restores a broken world. And we will be drawn to it because casting spells of the deepest magic changes everything about us. Living in the deep magic unshackles us from the chains of the everyday, and we become creatures free to live wildly and to love extravagantly, in a world saturated with redemption.


 

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Dangerous, Rebellious Hope (Part 3 of 3)

“Why do we have a winner? Hope. Hope. Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is a good thing. A lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, as long as it’s contained.” —President Snow, “The Hunger Games” Movie

The Hope series (Cheap, Crappy Hope; Passive, Boring Hope) actually grew out of the idea for this third post—the idea of dangerous hope. I was sitting in a theater, watching The Hunger Games, watching the ruthless President Snow reflect on how “a little hope” keeps people subjugated  but too much hope brings the danger of rebellion. I started thinking about how so many great stories begin with (noun)hope, a hope that changes the protagonist, giving the character the courage to fight for freedom from tyranny and oppression. In the best stories, hope gives rise to a rebellion. In the best stories, hope is dangerous to the powers-that-be. And it occurred to me that in our most cherished stories, the rebellion is always fueled by one particular kind of flame: Love. It doesn’t matter if you’re reading about Narnia, or Mordor, or Hogwarts, or Panem, or the Dark Tower, or Jerusalem—love is always the final word in hope-full, transformational, redemptive rebellion…

You may have heard of The Hunger Games?

The story depicts a post-apocalyptic world in which a fragment of the population—the Capitol, led by President Snow—rules the rest of the population in twelve outlying districts. The Capitol appears to rule by brute force, but President Snow understands the true secret of the Capitol’s tenuous hold upon the districts: a delicate balance of hope. Each year, the balance of hope is maintained by staging the Hunger Games—a televised death-game in which two children from each district compete to survive, with only one coming home alive. This one child maintains the balance of hope, representing to the people the most meager hope of survival. Meanwhile, in the opulent Capitol, the people are anesthetized by the cheap hope of abundance and trends and entertainment. President Snow understands that the extremes of human experience—bare survival and gross prosperity—can be used to subjugate people and to maintain power.

You see, cheap-little hope keeps us oblivious to the possibility of big, brilliant hope, the kind that brings transformation and a hunger for freedom. So, numb the people with the pursuit of comfort and trinkets and thoughtless happiness. Give some of them drugs to make life more pleasurable, to help them escape the pain, to make the confusion of existence feel a bit more manageable. Give others philosophy and theology, so they can satisfy themselves with thinking about hope, rather than living it. Give them a little hope, yes, that is a good thing, a feeble spark by which to warm their souls, because the soul needs at least a little warmth. But keep it contained, because the flame of real hope is dangerous to the status quo.

When we are transformed by hope into a people who forsake the shackles of self-preservation for the freedom of a redemptive life, we give rise to a rebellion against a world hell-bent on keeping us preoccupied with survival, and competition, and wealth, and power. As it turns out, hope isn’t an escape from the dangers of living; hope creates dangerous living.

To live hopefully is to live heroically.

What does this act of heroism look like? How do we rebel against a world in which the very ingredients of rebellion—strength, power, wealth, influence, and violence—are the strings upon which we already dance? Has the game been rigged? Is any kind of authentic rebellion even possible?

Near the end of her first year, my daughter reminded me there is one other ingredient of rebellion, and it’s more powerful than all others combined.

We were sitting at the breakfast table. She had just thrown a bowl of oatmeal on the floor, not out of malice but, I think, simply to watch it splatter. Nevertheless, for the first time in her new life, I was angry at her. I picked her up, looked her in the eye, and I harshly communicated my anger. I tried to subjugate her with fear and shame. (I’m not proud of this.) And that’s when my precious little thing looked at me, and she staged a rebellion. She didn’t slap at my face, or start crying, or let out a rebel-scream. Instead, her eyes shimmered with tears, and she leaned into me. She slid her head underneath my chin, she gently squeezed the back of my neck, and she sighed softly.

My daughter leaned in with love.

She gently declined my game of power and selfishness and violent escalation.

Is this how daddies end up wrapped around little fingers? Is this how a world might end up wrapped around the little finger of a love-rebellion? Is this kind of love—the kind that is not about romance but about sacrifice and given-ness, not about warm feelings but about the dangerous life opened up to hardship and pain—the hot-flame of rebellion?

In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen is a threat to the balance of crummy hope. She threatens to give the people a burning hope, not because she’s a survivor (although she is), and not because she is immune to the seduction of opulence. She is a threat because she loves. Not romantically, but sacrificially. She loves her sister enough to take her place in the Games. She has an abiding gratitude for the sacrifice of her companions, which cracks open a sacrificial love for them, as well. And she loves freedom enough to defy the Capitol through her own death and destruction. President Snow has stumbled upon a young girl whose character has been transformed in such a way that she is free of the Capitol’s system of oppressive hope, and her freedom gives her the power to love.

Don’t we live in a kind of Hunger Games? Isn’t the world organized around a competition for survival and wealth? Might we become a people so transformed by hope that we forsake the oppressive hope of meager survival or abundant wealth for the rebellion of a sacrificial kind of love? When the angry man in the car next to us has spittle flying and middle fingers waving, might we lean in with love—a gentle smile and a slowing down and a yielding to him? When the cashier in the checkout lane is treating us like trash, might we lean in with love—wondering about her story, expressing our appreciation for her life and her service? When our children are ready for a showdown about the broccoli, might we lean in with love—giving them a choice and aching with them when they don’t get dessert? When our spouses are ready to duel about upright toilet seats or how to celebrate the holidays or who is contributing more to the relationship, might we lean in with love—opening our ears and our hearts to the pain too deep to express? When we feel shame, and all of our doubts and insecurities are churned up and everything in us says to run and hide, might we lean in with love—entering into the vulnerability of our brokenness and finding connection there?

Lean in with love.

And fan the flames of rebellion against a world determined to keep you preoccupied with survival and prosperity. Lean in with love, knowing the danger of it, knowing you may not get any love in return, knowing the world will try to put down your rebellion with strength and power and violence. But lean in, knowing your hope has prepared your character for all of it, and knowing the freedom you have been seeking can be realized only in the arms of a sacrificial, self-forsaking, open-armed kind of rebel-blaze.

What’s Your Story: Have you ever leaned in with love, when you were tempted to do violence? Or has anyone every surprised you by leaning in with love? What did that act of rebellion look like? Please feel free to share your story, or any other thoughts, in the comments below. If you are reading this by e-mail or RSS feed, and you would like to comment on, or share, this post, click here to go to the blog. 

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Photo Credit: Photo taken from the following website, http://wallpapersa.blogspot.com/p/fire-wallpapers.html

Conflict Kills Community (But It Doesn’t Have To)

The most extreme conflicts conclude with bullets flying and bombs dropping. But the vast majority of conflicts in our world don’t make the CNN scroll. They begin with far more subtle differences of opinion, and they destroy relationships and community. Siblings fight over, well, everything. Teenagers fight over the best ways to feel liberated. In marriages, we constantly disagree about who is giving more to the relationship, and the peaceful community within our four walls is splintered. In our churches, we disagree about how to worship or which people deserve to be loved—we wear our smiles like armor but nothing is redeemed or reconciled, and eventually a group of us start a new church community down the block. In our workplaces, we disagree about how frequently to meet or whose project should get funded, and the cubicle walls become like prison cells, everyone in their own solitary confinement. In our nation, we slander anyone with a different political ideology—we do it via commercials, telephone campaigns, debates, and dinner table conversations, and we become a national community in gridlock.

Differences between people create tension, discomfort, and fear. Tension leads to conflict, and conflict results in distance at best and violence at worst. All of it becomes fatal to relationships and connectedness and the community we so badly need. Conflict kills community. But it doesn’t have to.

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

Several years ago, I stumbled into a particularly heated marijuana debate between two acquaintances—not a couple of half-baked high school kids raging against “the man,” but two highly educated professionals. One man was militantly in favor of legalizing marijuana, the other man violently opposed to it. And they wanted 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 never do.

Only later, on the way home, did I get a glimpse beneath the surface of those ideological waters. My wife explained that the legalization advocate had recently watched his father die a slow and excruciating death from cancer, while marijuana was the only thing that relieved his father’s pain. And, as it turns out, the marijuana opponent had been raised in a family torn apart by drug addiction. That’s when I realized what was floating beneath the surface of these competing ideas.

Stories.

The stories of two hurting people. Stories of pain and anguish and loss. Stories that have formed their ideas and opinions and beliefs. Stories that have delivered them to a natural conclusion about the way the world should work. A person’s ideas are never simply their ideas. Opinions and beliefs are never born in a vacuum. They are the logical result of a story. The intensity of any given opinion usually depends upon the intensity of the story that gave rise to it. If you want to understand a person’s ideas, you need to understand who they are and the story that has been told with their lives.

The therapeutic space is a small and hidden community of two. And it may be our first experience of a relationship that can graciously bear the burden of disagreement, without distance or violence. In this space, we may express an opinion or value that directly opposes the beliefs of our therapist. Yet, the therapist does not respond defensively, or with a desire to change or alter. Instead, the therapist responds with a gentle curiosity, with a desire to understand the story that gave birth to your belief.

This spirit of curiosity and gentle exploration is disarming. We no longer have to respond with reflexive defensiveness. In the safe space that is created, we can piece together the origins of our beliefs. Whereas before, the need to quickly and effectively defend ourselves obscured our life-story, we now develop a deep, wise understanding of the ways that we were formed. We discover that we can have opinions, and so can others—we don’t need to hide them fearfully, but we also don’t need to wield them violently.

And in doing so, we become a people inviting others into the fullness of their own stories. We become walking storybooks, differently-shaped and differently-believing, but nonetheless writing new chapters of our lives together. We discover that conflict need not be the death of relationship and community. It can be the birth.

I think we assume communities are comprised of like-minded people, so we believe in order to preserve community—a marriage, a friendship, a collegiality, a church—we must be like putty, changing our beliefs to match the beliefs of others, or conversely, convincing everyone to believe what we believe. But perhaps an authentic community is a group of people with a vast array of opinions and differences that range from semantics to fundamental incompatibilities in worldview. Yet they are a people committed to living in the tension, refusing the temptation to do violence to the other’s philosophy or worldview. They have decided they will value people and the stories those people are telling, above feeling perfectly at ease, or right, or validated.

If this is true, when people disagree with us, or when we disagree with them, we don’t need to immediately eliminate those people from our lives or escape their community. Instead, the decision to be (or not to be) in relationship with that person can be based on other questions. Are they willing to step graciously into disagreement with us? Do they have the courage to break the surface of their opinions and enter into the danger of knowing and sharing their own stories? Do they have the patience and tenderness to be an audience for our story? Because there will be some people who use their opinions like a shell, like impenetrable armor. You can offer them the opportunity to engage their own story and yours, but they may not be willing to do so. If they have locked their own story away somewhere inside of them, they may not even be able to offer it to you. And you can’t make them. Others, you will find, share your hunger for authentic community.

Are you hungering for genuine relationship and authentic community? Why not begin today? Start by disagreeing with someone for whom you care deeply. But do so graciously, with the desire to understand who they are and why they believe the way they do, and with a loose-enough grasp on your own opinions. And if they are ready for community with you, they won’t run and they won’t fight back.

You might even see a look of relief flooding their eyes, because they may share your hunger for something new and healing and beautiful.They, too, may be eager to put down the weapons of opinion and ideaology. Eager to trade them in for the soothing balm of an attentive ear. Eager for a relationship in which their story has infinite value. Eager to forsake the isolation of the winner’s circle for the complicated fellowship of authentic community.

I hope we settle for no less in our friendships and families and neighborhoods, and in our communities of faith and townspeople and countrymen. I hope we disagree, and I hope our stories are told.

What’s Your Story:  Do you disagree with anything that I have written? If so, feel free to do the courageous, community-making thing and participate in the UnTangled community by graciously sharing your disagreement in the comments below.  Or perhaps you agree with what I have written, and your story testifies to the reasons why. Please feel free to share your story in the comments. If you are reading this by e-mail or RSS feed, click here to comment.

Note: If you would like to be notified of future posts, you can subscribe by e-mail in the sidebar. You can also receive notification by joining me on Twitter or Facebook. And, as always, thanks for reading. It’s a gift.

I Wish I Was Clark Kent (And I Wish You Were Too)

Every blog post should be written like a love letter.

Donald Miller implores every blogger to remember that you are writing to a real reader, with a real life, a life that may actually be impacted by what you write. According to Miller, every writer should fix the reader in mind, by loving them (http://donaldmilleris.com, September 16, 2011). In that sense, I suppose, every blog post is like a love letter. However, love letters are never written only for their intended reader. Philosopher and theologian, Peter Rollins, reminds us that love letters have another purpose, as well: 

“Love letters always get to their destination. Love letters always get to the person they’re addressed to, because, in a sense, love letters are addressed to the one who’s writing them. That’s why we often write love letters that we don’t even send…they’re there for us to work through our feelings, to work through our emotions… the one who is speaking it is the one who really needs to hear it” (February 20, 2011).

I think that is true of my blog posts so far: I am writing to you, but I am also writing to myself. (Even shrinks need to be reminded that life is a story, that redemption is slow, that shame undermines our story, and that we all need new, fresh voices to help us narrate our lives.) But I think that is especially true of today’s post. You see, I’m a cautious person. I was the kid who avoided the cracks on the sidewalk, not for fun, but because, “Who knows?” I figured my mother really needed her back, and I wasn’t about to mess it up for her. My nickname in my church wilderness group was “Shy Fox,” and my Sunday school teacher once told my parents that she was concerned about my mental capacity because I never talked. For a kid like that, it’s very hard to imagine yourself growing up into a hero. I mean, Clark Kent may wear his glasses askew for effect, but let’s be honest, when you’ve been jumping over buildings for most of your life, it’s not much of stretch to imagine yourself a grown hero. However, when you’re a third-grade boy named Kelly, in your third new school in three years, and on the first day of class when your name is called the boy next to you says, “She’s not here,” and you shrink down and can’t imagine correcting him, well, being a hero seems like a serious longshot.

Yet, I’m convinced that deep down, we all yearn to play the role of a hero in our own story. I think we want it, not to satisfy our narcissistic need for attention and acclaim, but because heroes save and protect and leave the world a better place. Somewhere in us, we know that if our story can be about those things, then when the credits roll, we can be at peace with ourselves and the stories we have told.

But I wonder if we have given up on real-life, I’m-living-it-out-in-the-world-of-flesh-and-blood heroism? If the young people I meet with in my office every day are any indication, the answer is a resounding “Yes.” The kids that I’m talking to are insightful and articulate, and they have something to say: They look around their world, and they see parents whose stories are about scrambling to make mortgage payments and fighting to protect their fragile egos (by the way, I’m guilty as charged), and they wonder why, if that is the story awaiting them in adulthood, they should try so hard to grow up. They have parents and teachers who are telling them that life is all about being in the top quarter of their graduating class and getting a step ahead of their competition, and they sense that their authority figures have lost the plot. They see the aimless stories being lived out around them, and no one is giving them a better story to join. So, many of them have given up on being someone meaningful in their own story. The consequence is that they are bored to death. Most of the kids I talk to are not delinquent or rebellious or disturbed—they are bored. Question: “What would life be like if you quit smoking pot?” Answer: “Boring.” Question: “What would life be like if you quit having sex with random people?” Answer: “Boring.” You get the idea.

But it isn’t all the drugs and sex that has me thinking about this as a crisis of heroism. After all, teenagers have been having sex and doing drugs for a very long time. Rather, it’s the video games. It’s the games the kids are playing that have made me realize how much our kids are hungering for a story in which to be a hero. The majority of the most popular video games being played today are called role-playing games (RPGs for short, or “first-person shooter games;” think Call of Duty and Halo), in which the gamer is playing the role of a hero within the context of the game’s “story.” The stories themselves are not particularly creative: the world is in danger of annihilation, whether at the hands of zombies or aliens or some other sinister force, and it is your job to almost single-handedly save the world from destruction. Now that’s a hero. They play for hours, because with controller in hand, they can step into the role of a hero and save something big, whenever they want. And with no other alternatives being offered in their real lives, a generation of adolescents is abdicating heroism and sacrifice to the video game console and the movie screen.

This is tragic, because we need real-life, flesh-and-blood heroes. We need them badly. We need the obvious heroes: the police officers who dedicate their lives to making sure that drugs don’t find their way into our children’s veins, the firefighters who will climb up burning towers while those towers are falling down, or the men and women in uniform who believe so deeply in the value of freedom that they are willing to die for it. But we need the quiet and hidden heroes just as badly. We need the pre-school brother who grabs his sister’s hand so she doesn’t step in front of a moving car. We need the first grade boy who is reading books to raise money for orphans in Rwanda. We need the second grade girl who is collecting pennies for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. We need the middle school girl who spends all of her social collateral by standing between the mean girls and the girl with big glasses and braces, because that girl’s tears rupture her heart. We need high school almost-men who resist the advances of confused young women, because they care more for her heart than for her body. We need leaders who leave work early to tutor disadvantaged children in after school reading programs. We need men and women who watch the snow falling and think first about the elderly woman across the street who will need her front walk shoveled. We need business people and homemakers who drop what they are doing and flock to disaster areas after hurricanes and tsunamis hit. We need people who are willing to sacrifice a season to build wells for parched tongues in West Africa.

I want you to know, I have seen the look in a kid’s eyes when he realizes that he doesn’t have to sit in front of a television to be a hero, and it thrills me to my core. Girls who choose a summer trip to the inner city over cheerleading camp. Boys who write poetry, despite the taunts of the masses, because that is what their heart is saying and they think it might make their friends better people. I have seen middle-aged men, just fired from a job that was supposed to be unloseable, decide that their stories stink and that they’re going to do something that matters in the world, even if it means cancelling a cable subscription and chewing up a 401k, and it makes me want to sing. I have seen women who have spent decades lying down while their husbands dictate everything begin to stand up straight and place themselves between him and the kids, and it makes me want to be a better person.

Thank you, to all of you who are insisting that your story be meaningful and that you play the role of a hero in this world. You give me hope.