Dear Young Author (A Dad’s Letter to His Son About Writing and Living)

young author

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Dear Son,

Already, at age ten, you are a decorated author.

I’m proud of you—at your age, I had neither the courage nor the persistence to enter a young author contest. And, of course, I’m thrilled for you—it is a joyous thing when a writer’s risk is rewarded with some recognition. But I guess I’m also concerned for you, because in my short career as a writer, I’ve learned something about writing and about living:

Why we write is why we live.

I don’t mean that we live to write. As Stephen King wrote, “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.” What I mean is, while we are writing, we are also becoming. While we are writing, we are entering into a space within ourselves, and when we are done writing, we go out and live from that space. So, if you write honestly, you will live more honestly. If you write tenderly, you will speak more tenderly. If you write bravely, you will love more bravely.

And if you write to make your dad proud of you, your whole life will become a pride project.

Dear Son, not all reasons for writing and creating—and doing anything, really—are created equal. Don’t write because it gets my attention or anyone’s attention. Don’t write because you want to be popular or admired. Don’t write to make a name for yourself, and really don’t write to make money for yourself. Approval, attention, admiration, affluence. These are not bad things, but they are temporary things. Terrific things, really, but also transient things.

Don’t write to achieve temporal things; write to approach transcendent things.

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How to Recognize Where You Truly Belong

Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment.

Or maybe, for the moment, I’m just feeling humble enough to hear the answer. Either way, on a random Sunday afternoon, I ask my oldest son, Aidan—a teenager with plenty of insights and opinions about our family—what is the most unbearable thing about having me for a father? His answer:

All the sighing.

family belonging

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My wife corroborates his report. She says I’ve been walking around sighing a lot. I know there’s some truth to it. Plenty. So, I start paying attention to myself. For the rest of the afternoon, I catch myself sighing more than a dozen times. In part, I’m trying to relax, but more often than I’d like to admit, the sighing is communicating something.

It’s communicating that I feel burdened, not by the stress inside of me, but by the stress around me.

So, here’s my son, in the midst of his adolescent search for a place to belong—a place where he is embraced, not because he is easy but because he is worthy—and hoping to find that place with his father. Instead, all too often, rather than finding belonging, he hears a sigh.

How can we recognize the places we truly belong?

We belong where our worthiness is not dependent upon our easiness. We belong where we can be a burden without feeling like a burden. We belong where we can be needy and still feel wanted. We belong where we can be messy and loved, broken and embraced, complicated and celebrated.

In other words, the place we truly belong is where our humanity is not met with a sigh.

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

back-to-school

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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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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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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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The Kind of Trophy Every Kid Should Receive

These days, every kid gets a trophy.

A lot of people don’t like that.

And I understand. Trophies are about performance. They are meant to honor hierarchy, to differentiate winners from losers. And they’re supposed to prepare our kids for a dog-eat-dog world, where simply showing up isn’t the same as working your way up. Like I said, I get it.

So, why do we keep doing it?

self-esteem

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In Loveable, I tell this story:

…when the other team scored against us, I sprinted for midfield. I was waiting for my team when they arrived, and gave high-fives all around, as if we had scored the goal. Because when a bunch of six-year-olds fail and then look to you, they’re never wondering how they did; they’re always wondering who they are. They’re not wondering who gets the biggest trophy; they’re wondering who gets the biggest hug.

Trophies are like golden hugs.

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Dear Daughter, You Don’t Need to Act Like a Man to Become a Strong Woman

Dear Little One,

Last week, we arrived at the theater early and, before a movie about beauty and beasts, we saw a preview for a movie about men and machines. We came for a story about love and we got a preview about war. I’m okay with that—it’s the world we live in and I’m used to it.

What I’m not okay with is the young girl we saw in the preview.

feminism

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She looked directly into the camera, covered in sweat and dirt, and she said, “Some kids used to tease me…they’d say, ‘You run like a girl, you throw like a girl, you fight like a girl.’ Fight like a girl? Yeah, I fight like a girl. Don’t you?” Then, for the rest of the preview, she exuberantly participated in the blowing up and destruction of everything.

I felt like that little girl had punched me in the gut, too.

Because I looked over at you—seven-years-old, eyes wide behind 3-D glasses, already wondering what it means to be a girl—watching the not-so-subtle message that to be a strong girl, you have to fight like the most violent of men.

Little One, as your father, I want you to know, this was not a message about how to become a strong woman; it was a message about how to become an extinct woman. This was the message of a war-riddled and violence-obsessed hyper-masculine culture, hell-bent on victory, knowing that the only way to have victory over your womanhood is to erase it.

After all, what is the most effective way to eliminate the other? It’s to make them exactly like you.

Don’t fall for it.  

We have enough ego-driven, angry, aggressive, and violent men on this planet. We don’t need you to become one too, just so you can prove to those very same men that you are a “strong girl.”

No, Little One, the way to become a strong girl is to resist your assimilation into the worst elements of masculinity. The way to be a strong girl is to grow into the best and strongest parts of your femininity.

To be a strong woman, you don’t have to push others down; you simply refuse to be pushed around yourself.

To be a strong woman, you don’t have to relish aggression; you simply resist it.

To be a strong woman, you don’t have to use violence; you just need to use your voice, steadfastly, resolutely, and unceasingly.

But most importantly, you don’t become a strong woman by acting like a man; you become a strong woman by acting like yourself. 

At the center of you is your soul, your heart, your truest self. It is the least tangible part of you, yet the most indestructible part of you. It is the least violent part of you, yet the part of you from which you will fight most resiliently.

You don’t have to be like a man, you only have to be like you.

You won’t become your truest, strongest you by struggling violently against others. You will become your truest, strongest you by struggling to love the world in the very specific, very unique, perhaps ordinary, but always beautiful way that only you can love it.

Little One, if we all loved the world with that kind of beauty, the beasts wouldn’t stand a chance.

Peace to you,

Daddy

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Loveable is available in paperback, digital, and audio and can be purchased wherever books are sold, so you can also purchase it at your favorite bookseller.

Dear Little Ones, You Are Good Enough (No Matter What)

The following letter to my children—and to the little one in each of us—is an exclusive excerpt from my new book Loveable, which will be released on Tuesday, March 21…

grace

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Dear Little Ones,

I’m sitting in a parking lot as I write this. On one side of the parking lot is a playground where kids are laughing and playing. On the other side of the parking lot is a transitional living unit for troubled youth, where kids are hurting and struggling.

On one side, the dream of every parent.

On the other side, the fear of every parent.

I’ve often wondered why the county would put this facility next to a park. But as I sit here today, the message seems clear: the line between our brightest dreams and our darkest fears is a fine one, isn’t it? Finer than the width of this parking lot.

Little Ones, what you do matters. Each and every choice has a creative potential as powerful as the Force that hung the stars and spun the planets. So the fearful part of me wants to give you one more lecture about the importance of your choices. But I’m not going to do that. Instead, I want to tell you about who you are, regardless of the choices you make.

Regardless of which side of the street you end up on, I want you to know: your core is untarnished, your center is unaltered, your heart is unblemished, your spark is still burning, and your original identity is uncorrupted. Little Ones, regardless of your choices, I want you to know you are worthy.

You are enough.

On the day you bring home your first A and on the day you bring home your first F. On the day you make the game-winning shot and on the day you get cut from the team. On the day you sit at the cool-kids table and on the day you eat lunch with your loneliness. On the day you get a standing ovation and on the day you freeze up and forget your lines . . .

You are enough.

On the day you resist peer pressure and on the day you give in. On the day you enter college and on the day you enter rehab. On the day you get your first promotion and on the day you get your first pink slip. On the day you run a triathlon and on the day of your diagnosis . . .

You are enough.

On the day you were born you were enough, and on the day you die you will be enough, regardless of what comes in between.

Little Ones, I’m not saying you’re free from consequences. But I am telling you this: while many poor choices do have a consequence, most poor choices are already a consequence—the consequence of doubting our worthiness. The task of our lives is simply to rest into the truth of our worthiness and to walk the path of who we already are.

So, Little Ones, when you’ve lost your way and you wish you could do something impossible like rewind time, remember this: there is one thing that is always possible—it is always possible to return to the center of who you are. You will find there the truth of your worthiness whispered upon the tongue of grace and it will, quite simply, never steer you wrong.

To my Beloved,

Daddy

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Dear Little One, Release Your Shame (A Letter from a Father to a Child)

shame

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Dear Little One,

You have not been perfect. Far from it.

Do you remember the time you crept downstairs while everyone was sleeping and snuck the Kool-Aid from the refrigerator? Do you remember how, when you got caught, you lied and said you didn’t do it? You’ve punished yourself for that transgression for long enough. You are forgiven. Release your shame.

You are not the poor decisions you sometimes make.

Do you remember the time you accidentally brought home someone else’s homework, feared getting into trouble for making a mistake, and stuffed the homework beneath our house, where you thought no one would find it? You’ve lived in fear long enough. Release your shame.

You are not the things you do when you are most afraid.

Do you remember the bullies on the playground? You were trying to figure out how to become a man, and with every bruise, you doubted more and more if you could become one. The bruises on your skin became bruises on your heart. Your skin has healed—it is time now for your heart to heal, too. Release your shame.

You are not defined by the bruises you’ve picked up along the way.

Do you remember when you became the bully? Do you remember how you teased that poor, sad, lonely kid on the playground? You’ve wounded people. This is true. But the shame you’ve felt about it is a wound that festers, infecting you and everyone around you. Release your shame.

You are not the desperate things you’ve done in order to belong.

Do you remember all the subtle ways you’ve arrogantly looked down upon your peers? I get it. You think you’re fighting for a spot in a very tiny winner’s circle. You’ve fallen into the same trap as the rest of us. You are forgiven. Release your arrogance, which is really just another guise for your shame.

You are not the games you’ve played and won, or lost.  

Little One, I pray you will release your shame, because the truth is, you are me. Though I’ve written many letters to my own children, this is a letter to you, the child I once was, the little one who still exists somewhere within me. In fact, I think all those letters to my kids have also been a letter to you—the scared, ashamed, confused, and desperate little kid I was and, in some ways, still am.

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