How to Survive (Maybe Even Thrive) in Life’s Most Vulnerable Moments

vulnerability and gratitude

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Last week, I released my first book.

Wait! Please don’t quit reading! I know, for the last month or so, I did the first-time-author thing and wrote repeatedly about Loveable. But that is behind us now. Sort of. This week, I don’t want to tell you about Loveable; I want to tell you about how I survived the vulnerability of publishing it. This is what I did:

I let it be vulnerable.

What I mean is, several weeks before the book was released, I was beating myself up for feeling so anxious: “Kelly, this whole book is about trusting you’re loveable and living from it. Where’s your confidence? Where’s your joy?” Of course, self-condemnation doesn’t produce much joy, so I just kept feeling worse. Eventually, though, what I realized (okay, what my wife told me) was this:

There is no way to live vulnerably without feeling vulnerable about it.

So, instead of trying to eliminate my sense of vulnerability, I decided to choose how I would live my vulnerability. That is, instead of trying to live my vulnerability with no anxiety, I decided to live it with no regrets. At first, I wasn’t sure how to do this. Eventually, though, what I decided (okay, what my wife recommended) was this:

Try to live your vulnerability gratefully.

This whole writing journey of mine began with a practice of gratitude—writing down one thousand gifts I noticed in my everyday life—so why not bring it full circle and start paying attention to the gifts right in front of me once again? Why not begin to notice this:

Vulnerability and gratitude can co-exist.

Then, in the weeks leading up to the launch, this is what I noticed:

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What We’re Hiding Just Behind Our Faces

vulnerability

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Marcos Alberti is a Brazilian photographer and, last year, he made some really good art.

He selected a number of people, and he took a series of photos of each person. Following an initial photo, he then took a photo of each person after one glass of wine, two glasses, and three glasses.

In each set of photos, a remarkable transformation occurs.

In the first photo, faces are guarded and usually emotionless, sometimes defiant. Even the rare smiles in the first photos are muted, tempered, and safe. In the second photos, however, after one glass of wine, the faces are loosening up and lips are carving out larger smiles. And there is at least a hint—at least a glimmer—of light in the eyes.

After the second glass of wine, in the third photos, everything is changing. There is a casualness about every expression—smiles and postures and even hairdos look somehow freer. By this third picture, it is beginning to look like there might actually be living, breathing human beings behind the stoic facades.

Why do I call this good art?

Because good art tells the truth.

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Why Valentine’s Day Is Demonic

Valentine's Day

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Every year, on Christmas Eve, we gather with family and friends.

For a lip sync contest.

After dinner, the contest begins, with the kids typically performing their favorite hit song from the year. We adults, on the other hand, often perform a favorite song from our younger years—this year, that may or may not have included a song entirely about farting.

And this year, my younger son Quinn got up and put every ounce of his heart into a performance of “The Run and Go,” by twenty one pilots. The song’s refrain goes like this: “…don’t want to give you all my pieces, don’t want to hand you all my trouble, don’t want to give you all my demons…”

As the vocalist shouted the final refrain in anguish and Quinn silently shouted along, I looked at my wife.

I thought about how, at first, we both resisted giving each other our pieces, handing each other our troubles, and giving each other all our demons. I thought about how much we clung to the fantasy that love and marriage could somehow look like every pristine advertisement for Valentine’s Day. In those early years, by resisting our demons, pretending they didn’t exist, and refusing to reveal them to each other, we created so much unnecessary heartache.

To maintain the illusion we’re not broken, we have to break other people even worse.

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The One Thing We All Need (But Hate to Ask For)

help

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I was drowning.

For a couple of months last autumn, on Wednesday afternoons, my three kids had a meeting for the school newspaper, musical rehearsal, swim lessons, dance class, art class, and basketball practice. And my wife was working. While I like to pretend that I can do everything, sometimes all it takes is a Wednesday afternoon to remind you that you are not, actually, God.

So, on a Wednesday afternoon, I asked for help.

I asked one of our new friends in town—whose kids also attend some of the same activities as our kids—if he could take our daughters to dance class together. An hour later, we were both picking up kids at art class when I offered to get the girls from dance. He declined. For some reason, it made me feel anxious, so I asked again. He looked back at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “No thanks, I want you in my debt.”

I want you in my debt.

Poet and author David Whyte writes,

Help is strangely, something we want to do without, as if the very idea disturbs and blurs the boundaries of our individual endeavors, as if we cannot face how much we need in order to go on.

To need help is to be human. To embrace our need for help is to embrace our worthiness—to know that while we are not strong enough to be without needs, we are still good enough when we are in need.

But to ask for help?

To ask for help is to be vulnerable—to hand our fragile sense of worthiness to someone else and entrust them with it. To ask for help is to test the foundation of our belonging—to trust that our people will keep us around, not only when we are helpful to them, but also when we are helpless before them.

To ask for help is to be indebted to others for the life we are trying to live.

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The Simple Trick to Finding True Belonging This Year

belonging

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On New Year’s Eve, my Facebook feed was transformed.

For an hour or two, politics went away and people focused on what is, underneath it all, most important to all of us. Suddenly, at midnight, my feed was filled with images of family and friends gathered together, releasing one year and welcoming a new one—people marking the passage of time by remembering what is most valuable to each of us: belonging.

We all just want a place to belong.

Life is almost that simple. We all just want a place we can call home—a place of belonging where a few people know who we truly are and cherish us because of that rather than in spite of that. We all want to love and be loved and, in doing so, to become more fully human. After all, in the words of Frederick Buechner, “You can survive on your own; you can grow strong on your own; you can prevail on your own, but you cannot become human on your own.”

We all just want a place to belong.

Of course, what we want is simple, but getting what we want doesn’t seem simple at all. Relationships are fraught with conflict and tension and disappointment and disillusionment. What’s the trick to finding at least one safe place to truly belong?

It’s the trick of the coffee mug and the gym shoes.

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How to Choose Your Friends in the Aftermath of the Election

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

empathy

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

I’m not very good at small talk.

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

Empathy is.

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The Subliminal Sexism Both Men and Women Are Still Listening To

sexism

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Sexism often hides in plain sight.

Sometimes it even hides in our most romantic music.

At the beginning of the summer, I heard a great new summertime anthem, so I decided to stream the entire album. I was pleasantly surprised by its mixture of carefree rock and thoughtful love songs. Then, in a duet, I heard these lyrics:

Her: What if I fall?

Him: I won’t let you fall.

Her: What if I cry?

Him: I’ll never let you cry.

Her: And if I get scared?

Him: I’ll hold you tighter. When they try to get to you, baby, I’ll be the fighter.

During the first chorus, I thought, Well, that’s sweet. Good for that imaginary couple. But sometime during the second verse, I found myself getting angry. By the third chorus, I wanted to hear a very different response from him. Something like, “Don’t worry, I fall too, so let’s fall together.” Or, “Go ahead and cry; I’ll cry with you.” Or, “I’m scared too, so let’s hold each other and fight for something that looks less like Tarzan and Jane and little more like true intimacy.”

Then the next song came on, and it went like this:

Break on me, shatter like glass, come apart in my hands, take as long as it takes. Girl, break on me. Put your head on my chest. Let me help you forget. When your heart needs to break, just break on me.

By that point, I was beside myself, but I tried to be patient. I waited for a lyric like, “And then someday, baby, I’ll break on you, too.” But of course, it wasn’t coming.

Why was I so fired up, you ask?

Because sexism dressed up as romance drives me a little crazy. It drives me crazy, in part, because I have a daughter, and I want her to know she doesn’t need to rely upon a man to protect her, because she has a strength all her own. I want her to know she no longer lives in a world where she has to go limp to find love. I want her to know she doesn’t have to be dependent to be adored. 

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What We’ve All Been Searching for Since Childhood (A Post About Belonging)

At first, it sounded like nonsense.

A few weeks ago we picked up my son, Aidan, from two weeks of residential wilderness camp. He’d attended the camp with a friend from our town, and we were taking them back to the hotel for a decent shower before the long journey home. The two boys filled the thirty-minute drive to the hotel with a seemingly infinite stream of inside jokes born from their two-week adventure together.

Most of what they said made no sense to us. Yet, listening to them, you got the feeling something magical had happened between them—a bond forged in the midst of trials and tribulation and overcoming and rejoicing. Listening to them, you realized the code words they were using were the natural bubbling up of this deep magic. What is this deep magic?

belonging

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It is called belonging.

Closeness. Togetherness. Unity. The merging of two stories into a common language, a common vernacular. Each code word and each inside joke an icon of something greater, something bigger that cannot be completely articulated. Each retold story the retelling of some ineffable connection, the likes of which cannot be grasped but only pointed toward in laughter and delight.

At camp, Aidan and his friend put their phones away and took their hearts out. Instead of watching YouTube videos and sharing someone else’s stories, they created their own stories. Instead of learning someone else’s language, they developed a language all their own. At camp, they found a little bit of what they will continue to search for in middle school and beyond. Indeed, it’s what we’re all searching for all the time.

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The Truth (and the Surprisingly Good News) About Who We Really Marry

The truth is, no two adults have ever gotten married. When you get married, you don’t marry a grownup, you marry a time capsule in grownup clothes. This is what I mean by that…

marriage

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I’ve developed a new intervention as a marital therapist.

At some point in the therapy, I walk over to my book shelf, I pick up a framed picture of my son and a framed picture of my daughter, and I set them down next to the couple. And I say, “This is who is married here—on the outside you are grown, but on the inside you are, like the rest of us, still little ones looking to be loved. You are free to quit pretending you are adults with reasonable requests, rational arguments, and selfless love.”

We marry time capsules—aging skin and bones harboring a much younger self.

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What I Want My Daughter to Know About How to Make a Brave Face

lonely

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“Make a scared face.”

It’s bedtime and my wife and I are in the bathroom with our six-year-old, Caitlin. She’s brushing her teeth, and I’m looking on, enjoying the banter, as my wife prompts Caitlin to make faces in the mirror.

Caitlin’s eyes grow wide and her mouth goes agape. “That’s not scared, that’s surprised,” her mother teases her. Caitlin giggles, smiling around the gap where her two front teeth used to be.

“Make a sad face.” Caitlin’s lower lip juts out and she bats her eyelashes repeatedly. “That’s not sad, that’s pouting!” her mother exclaims. Caitlin laughs again, knowing she got caught.

The life of a psychologist’s kid.

They continue to cycle through faces, each one some mixture of emotions and experiences, never quite pure, until I chime in, “Make a lonely face.”

Instantly, without thought, my daughter’s face goes dark, she turns her face not toward the mirror but away from it and from us, and she casts her eyes downward at the ground. My heart leaps into my eyes, where it takes liquid form. My wife’s breath catches in her throat, and a tender, “Oh,” escapes her lips.

Caitlin is six and she knows exactly what loneliness feels like.

And she knows exactly what we all do to make it worse.

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