The Real Reason Back-to-School Makes Us So Emotional

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The summer is fading—and the sun is rising—as I drive my son to his summer job.

At thirteen-years-old, Aidan has spent his summer riding a bus into the cornfields, along with other teenagers, walking row after row of corn, and pulling the tassel from each stalk, so the rows can pollinate each other. As we cross a river, he looks to the west, where the night is slowly giving way to day. He says it’s beautiful how you can see the layers of night disappearing in the sky. We talk about how, even farther west, there are people still sleeping in the dark, unaware of the passage of time.

This image haunts me.

It haunts me long after Aidan boards the bus, long after the sun climbs into the sky. Because that’s how most of us live—myself included—asleep in the dark, unaware of the passage of time. Or running to and fro under a midday sun that hangs so high and steady in the sky you can almost convince yourself it isn’t moving. Hurry is its own kind of sleepwalking. The noisy bustle obscures the ticking of the clock.

The passage of time is only unmasked in the boundary lands.

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What Anxiety Steals from Us (and How to Steal It Back)

mindfulness

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My pockets are empty, and it’s disconcerting.

We’re at a church picnic in a local city park. The sun is shining and it conspires with summer foliage and a gentle breeze to dapple the grass in dancing light and shadow. The children do their dance, bouncing and playing amongst it all. But thunderstorms are predicted and I’ve left my iPhone at home and I have no way to check on the ever-shifting summer forecast.

I mindlessly reach for it several times. I touch only lint.

Finally, during a lull in conversation, I ask someone with a phone if it is going to rain. And then she does something that undoes me. She doesn’t reach for her phone. Instead, she looks toward the sunny skies in the west, looks back at me with a smile, and says, “Not for the next thirty minutes.”

Not for the next thirty minutes.

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The 3 Reasons You Should Not Try to Make Anyone Happy

We are shoveling mulch like our lives depend upon it.

My three kids are loading wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow, and I’m hauling and dumping and spreading and sweating. Eventually, my nine-year-old son Quinn asks a completely reasonable question. “Why are we going so fast?” I tell him I want the flower beds to look beautiful when his mom gets home. To which he responds with another totally reasonable question: “Because you are trying make her happy?”

The word “exactly” is on the tip of my tongue. But then I bite my tongue.

codependence

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I have an opportunity here to save my son a lot of heartache, disappointment, resentment, and conflict. You see, many of us spend our whole lives trying to make our loved ones happy. Years of believing our worthiness can be tallied by the number of smiles we put on the faces of other people. Years of bitter disappointment, as our success rate remains frustratingly low. And when we don’t get the results we’re looking for, we get ashamed of our failures.

Or we get resentful, thinking of our loved ones as hopelessly ungrateful people.

The truth, though, is that they are just people. Ordinary people, with their own inner world. Their own moods and wounds and worries and hang-ups. Ordinary people who are responsible for their own ordinary emotions, just as we are responsible for our own.

When it comes to ordinary people—all of us, in other words—there are at least three good reasons we shouldn’t try to make anyone happy:

First, you can’t do it. I can barely make my kids brush their own teeth; what are the chances I will somehow figure out the trick to rearranging their inner world, with all of its heart and soul and neurotransmitters and synapses? If they don’t brush their teeth, they get consequences, and that helps a little. Have you ever tried to give someone a consequence for being unhappy? It backfires.

Second, sometimes, what makes someone happy isn’t even good for them. For instance, if I gave my kids everything that makes them happy, they’d sit in front of televisions and iPads all day long, eating popcorn and chocolate, drinking juice and soda. We’d probably have to catheterize them. If you’re primary goal in life is to make someone happy, you will often harm them in your effort to happy them.

Third, sometimes, what makes someone else happy isn’t good for you. For example, if someone is only happy when they’re “right,” and you stay silent so they can feel happy, while all of the good and lovely and important things you have to say remain trapped inside of you, then trying to make this someone happy is the last thing you should be doing. There are a multitude of ways to slowly wither and die inside; doing so while telling yourself that you’re doing it on behalf of someone you love is a particularly insidious one.

So, Quinn is waiting for an answer, but instead I respond with a question.

“Bud, when you’re in a bad mood, and you’re determined to be grumpy for a while, is there anything I can do to make you happy?” He looks thoughtful for a moment, and then admits with a rueful smile, “No.” Then, I tell him this:

You can’t make anyone happy; you can only do your best to increase the odds of their happiness.

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Warning: This Post Could Be Hazardous to Your Paralysis

mindfulness

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I’ve been trying to wean myself off my iPhone. Again.

Nothing drastic this time. Just a slow detox. Turning off my mail app. Deleting games. Deleting news apps. Deleting social media apps. Turning off text notifications. Turning off all notifications. I just don’t have the willpower to resist the dopamine rush that a smart phone gives you every time you use it, so I’ve neutered the thing. I’ve made it as unpleasurable as possible.

And it must be working.

Because a couple of days ago, I found myself standing at the gas pump—waiting, waiting, waiting—and I realized I wasn’t holding my phone. I hadn’t even thought to dismount it from the dashboard. So, I hadn’t mindlessly filled myself with data while I filled my tank with gas. I hadn’t compulsively checked messages or news, and I’d gone a few minutes without the craving for entertainment.

And yet.

It wasn’t pleasant.

Instead of swiping, I found myself thinking. For instance, I thought about someone important who was waiting for a reply from me about something important, and I felt my anxiety about being honest in that reply. Then, I thought about another complicated situation I’d gotten myself into, and how difficult it was going to be to face it with integrity. And so on and so on. In other words, I thought all the thoughts I’d been avoiding thinking.

We prefer our digital life because real life isn’t nearly as easy to swipe away.

When we’re on our phones, if we don’t like something we see, we can change the settings or close the app or mute the friend or block the caller, or just wait a few seconds for the algorithm to realize we don’t like it and never show it to us again. But in real life, problems don’t go away. They wait for us. So, while they wait, we scroll.

A tech detox can be dangerous, because it plunges us back into the complexities of real life.

And yet.

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What I Will Miss When They Are Gone

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They sent me home to get the music.

On a Friday afternoon in June, we were celebrating the 90th birthday of my wife’s grandfather. He remains a healthy and vibrant man, a gift to all who have known him. As he eases into his tenth decade, he quietly laments that this may be his last year of gardening. His party was a true celebration of life.

Yet, the celebration was missing something. Music.

So, I was sent home to pick up my portable speaker. A thirty-minute round trip to ponder this man who cared for his granddaughter—the woman I love so much—at a time in her childhood when no other man was around to do so. I’m a words guy, and I like to memorialize such moments with a toast. Thirty-minutes to ponder what I wanted to say about my kids’ great-grandfather.

And I blanked.

I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to say about him. It was disconcerting. For a moment, I even began to question the sincerity of my affection for him. But then I got still. And I simply listened. Then, eventually, this voice of grace:

You don’t want to toast him; you want to hug him.

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When Life Gives You Lemons, Pay Closer Attention to the Lemons

Most of us automatically categorize life experiences into two categories—good versus bad—and then we try to eliminate or avoid the bad ones. But what if there is a better way to categorize experiences? And what if that way of categorizing them could make us more aware of the beauty all around us all of the time…

mindfulness

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The curves made me listen.

I was on my first long bike ride in years, and my destination was a local city park. It has a humble, boring entrance, but within seconds, you find yourself descending bluffs on a series of switchbacks, before the road levels out along a stretch of tranquil riverfront. The ride to the park was mostly long, straight stretches of road. I sped past neighborhoods and then cornfields, the wind whipping past my ears, obscuring the sounds of sunrise.

Then, the curves.

As I began my descent, I slowed for the first time, and the din of wind in my ears ceased. Suddenly, for the first time all morning, I could hear birdsong all around me, deer loping in the underbrush, and the dance of breeze in the leafy canopy above. It was the most treacherous part of my ride, but because the curves forced me to slow down, I was able to take in the beauty that had been surrounding me the whole time.

Life works this way, too.

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The Definition of Freedom (According to a Psychologist)

What is freedom?

Today, in America, we celebrate Independence Day. Yet, even in the land of the free, our definitions of freedom differ dramatically. A historian might focus on the rebellion of thirteen little colonies against a great imperial power. A conservative American might focus on the right to bear arms. A progressive American might focus on freedom of speech. And, on the Fourth of July, some Americans might simply focus on a day free from work and free for fireworks.

What is freedom?

freedom

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When I asked my seven-year-old daughter that question, she said, “Freedom is being out in the world for your life.” For a little girl who needs permission to go outside to play, freedom is the right to roam.

In contrast, when I asked my thirteen-year-old son for the definition of freedom, he replied, “Freedom is getting to be unique together.” In middle school, there is immense pressure to conform in order to be cool. So, to simply be himself, along with every other unique soul, is the definition of freedom.

What is freedom?

Apparently, your definition of freedom depends upon who you are—your age and your political persuasion and, probably, your personality and your faith and your fears and your wounds. Indeed, there may be as many definitions of freedom as there are people. So, for what it’s worth, here’s this psychologist’s definition of freedom:

Freedom is accepting that, usually, the freedom we fantasize about does not exist.

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I see.

I haven’t written a poem since the year I fell in love with my wife. That was 17 years ago. But on a Friday evening in May, I watched as the night descended, and Siri and I wrote a poem together.

It’s about how rarely we slow down to notice what is right in front of us.

It’s about how we celebrate the light, but the rest of creation embraces the dark, as well.

It’s about how we search everywhere for God, but the truth is, we don’t need to be looking more widely, we just need to be looking more closely.

On this first full day of summer, it seemed like a good time to share it with you. May this be a season in which you watch the world around you more closely, the world within you more tenderly, and may you glimpse ever more clearly your deepest, truest, worthiest, most loveable self…

mindfulness

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Have you noticed how slowly the sun sets

when you are a still, steady witness?

Have you watched as the shadows succumb

to their inexorable lengthening?

Have you listened to birds sing as optimistically at the dawning of the night

as they do at the dawning of the light?

The sun rises every day, and we celebrate;

yet, how rarely do we marvel at the moonrise?

The air cools

amongst the deepening hues

and God watches

from behind a tree,

wondering who will notice.

He hides, it seems,

and we seek.

Except there is no hiding.

He’s everywhere.

I see him.

In the slow-slipping sun

and the long shadows

and the birdsong

and the moonrise.

And the dark.

I see him.

I see.

I.

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A Father’s Love: It’s Complicated, and Quite Simple

“Daddy, is there going to be music for us to dance to, or did you just trick me into coming to a party?”

It’s our first Daddy-Daughter Dance. In the corner of the gymnasium, one particularly stressed-out father is fidgeting desperately with an iPhone and the big speaker to which it’s attached. The speaker remains silent.

father's day

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Meanwhile, the rest of us dads stand in a ring around the gymnasium. We’d prepared ourselves for the awkwardness of dancing in front of other men, but it turns out talking to each other is just as awkward. While we pretend to be comfortable in our own skin, our daughters are turning the gym into a beehive of little girls and pink, popping balloons. Caitlin is right—it doesn’t look like a dance; it looks like a party. On meth.

Caitlin is seven and I’m 40. Yet, 33 years of additional life experience have left me no less confused than her about the nature of this night. She’s now wondering if it’s a dance or a party, but from the beginning of the night what I’ve been wondering is this:

What is my job here?

When your little girl goes out with her momma to get her hair styled for the dance and walks in the door, looking at you with a big expectant smile on her face, do you gush about how adorable she looks—because she does look adorable—or do you tell her that her truest, most enduring beauty lies on the inside, where time is powerless to make it fade?

What is my job here?

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A Therapist Explains Why We’re All So Ticked Off in Social Media

Parenting fail alert.

A couple of weeks ago, on a Sunday night, my thirteen-year-old son Aidan forgot to finish his chores. I’d relocated some plants in the yard, and I’d asked him to water them. He didn’t. I immediately decided his work ethic was lacking—probably because of YouTube—so I told him he was grounded from his phone.

He got angry.

I sent him to his room.

Because when my kids are sad I want to hold them, and when my kids are scared I want to encourage them, but when my kids are angry I want to punish them. I don’t want to listen to it; I want to squash it.

When they get angry, I get angry right back.

anger

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This is natural: our brains are wired to experience anger as a threat, so we reflexively return the threat. And then some. Not to mention, we tend to think of sorrow and fear as relatively harmless emotions—if they do damage, it is only to the person feeling them—but we tend to think of anger as an unhealthy emotion. Bad. Destructive. Most of us have been wounded by someone’s anger, and we want to put an end to the wounding.

So we send anger to its room.

And yet.

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