The Ordinary Webs We Weave

It’s an early summer night and we’re doing early summer sorts of things, like boating and tubing on a river winding its way toward the Mississippi.

Then, as the sun dips low and the light gets long, we set our course for one of our favorite dinner spots. We prepare to feast. However, we are not the only ones feasting. A billion bugs just hatched. Suddenly, the air is thick with them, they are everywhere, plastered on the windshield of the boat, stuck on our sunglasses, caught in our hair and in our clothes.

As we disembark we notice, at the end of the dock, a spiderweb. It is coated in this harvest of insects. Heavy with them. Sagging under the weight of them. Quinn, who is ten, takes a look at it, and speaks truth: “Well, that spider had a good day.” I’m left digesting his words long after I’m done digesting the food.

Because in that spider I see much of humanity, including myself.

life purpose

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What I mean is, most of us have come to believe that the task of being alive is building just the right web in just the right spot at just the right time, and that bounty and abundance is the validation of the choices we’ve made. Our webs are our relationships and our accomplishments, our families and our kids and our jobs and our careers. We think we are here to build extraordinary webs out of our people and our purpose. And we believe if we do so, our webs should be laden with love, heavy with cash, sagging with satisfaction.

Here’s the thing, though, about that heavy web at the end of that buggy dock on that particular summer evening: it was just dumb luck.

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Why We Need to Wobble

I was accidentally sabotaging my daughter’s dream.

For two summers, Caitlin began the season dreaming of riding a bike. And for two summers, by the time the bees were on the buds and the cottonwood was on the air, that dream had been stashed away, along with her bike, in the back of the garage. I couldn’t figure it out. Caitlin is brave, but our practice sessions would always end in her fear and my frustration.

It turns out, I wasn’t giving her what she needed.

facing your fears

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A few weeks ago, signs of summer returned to our part of the world—grass got green and buzzing bees could be heard on the warming breeze—so Caitlin and I rolled her bike out of the garage, hoping for third times and charms. But, once again, the fear and frustration quickly set in. I began to wonder if a bike-riding gene had been deleted from her DNA. Then, the truth hit me. There was something missing, but it wasn’t a gene.

I wasn’t letting her wobble.

I was holding the back of her seat for stability, but I was holding on too tight. I was eliminating any sense of imbalance from her ride, so she would feel safe, so she could learn while unafraid. But, ironically, this had magnified her fear. Now, she wasn’t just afraid of falling; she was also afraid of the sensation of wobbling.

And wobbling is how you learn to ride.

Wobbling on a bike is the only way to learn balance. When you wobble one way, you lean your body in the other. When you overcorrect, you learn to recorrect. Eventually, you learn the skill of making countless minute adjustments to keep yourself upright and moving forward. Wobbling is how you learn to ride.

Wobbling is also how you learn to live.

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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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The Only Thing Better Than Being Remembered

The waves will wash us away.

I’m walking along the beach on the West coast of the United States when I see it, carved into the rock: “S+H 4 Ever.” There is a heart carved around it, and a date: 9/2014. At first, my heart is warmed—it must have been hard to carve, a labor of love. But then, very quickly, my heart is chilled. Three years ago, “forever” was carved deeply into a rock, and three short years later, the crashing water is already eroding and erasing the letters. In those fading letters, I saw myself. I saw all of us.

The waves of time will wash us all away.

purpose meaning

At some level, each of us is aware of this. So, we strive for immortality, by carving our initials into this life—we try to make our mark on the world. We try to make a difference. We long to be remembered. We hope to leave a legacy. We fight to outlast ourselves. But the truth is, aside from the occasional address in a field at Gettysburg, or a speech on the mall in Washington, most of us will not be remembered for very long.

Someone once said, “Every man dies two deaths. The first is when he takes his last breath. The second is the last time someone says his name.”

Our time here is short and, for most of us, the waves of time will eventually wash away even the memory of our existence, no matter how deeply we carve our initials into the bedrock of our lives.

Like I said, the heart-warming inscription only chilled me.

Two days later, though, I’m back in the heartland of America, and I’m sitting beside another body of water—a river—on a colorful, brittle autumn day. The season around me is yet another reminder of how everything and everyone is always dying and passing on. As I sit beside the river, the image of the waves slamming into the shore continues to haunt me. But then something happens.

As I watch the world around me, I see that it’s dancing.

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What Everyone Needs to Know About Chasing a Dream

There are two things, actually.  First, chasing your dreams will not eliminate pain from your life; it will simply give you a reason to endure pain. And second, you don’t get to choose your dreams; your dreams choose you

millenials chasing your dreams

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He gets knocked down, grits his teeth, and gets back on his feet.

My nine-year-old son Quinn is playing in his first soccer game of the season. We’re down 1-0, and he doesn’t like to lose, so he steals the ball back. Three defenders stand between him and the goal. He dribbles around two, but the last one knocks him to his knees again. Yet, again, he refuses to quit. He hooks his foot out, steals the ball back, stands, and kicks it into the corner of the net.

As his father and his coach, I’m proud of him.

But not because he scored, or because the game is now tied. I’m proud of him because he got knocked down twice, got back up twice, and kept moving forward. I’m proud of him because he had a goal and he stayed focused on it, rather than his frustration and his setbacks. I’m proud of him because, in the real world, this is what dream-chasing looks like. 

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What to Do When Your Path Is Covered in Darkness and Fog

I’m surrounded by darkness and fog.

Autumn drifts closer—the air is getting cooler, the leaves are getting drier, the crows are getting louder, and the days are getting shorter. Which means, if I’m going to get in my bike ride before the morning carpool, I have to begin in the dark.

On this particular morning, a fog has descended, reducing visibility to almost nothing, and I’m on a bike path, surrounded on all sides by forest. A small headlight illuminates the path ahead of me, but it cannot penetrate beyond a few feet.

I’m surrounded by darkness and fog, and it’s a metaphor for everything.

purpose

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As my feet push the pedals on this dark path, I wonder if maybe I should have just stayed in bed, where it was safer. Similarly, while I’d slumbered the night before, the doubt had crept back in, unbidden—doubt about this passion of mine, this writing thing. Six years of words on a page. Three-hundred-some blog posts. A book. I wonder if my words and I should have just stayed in my heart, where it is safer, where blood, sweat, and tears may not end quite so badly.

In every life, there comes a dark morning when you question the path you’ve chosen—the decisions that have left your life decidedly undecided. It’s the kind of morning that can turn into depression, if you have too many of them in a row.   

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The Life-Altering Decision to Love Your Limitations

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Around the time I turned 40, I became acutely aware of the passage of time.

Imagine that.

So, I’ve spent much of the past year trying to make the most of it. For instance, several weeks ago, I was planning to take advantage of a gorgeous weekend by camping out in the backyard with my kids.

Then, I got sick.

A summer cold that leveled me for most of a week. My throat hurt so badly I could barely swallow. I couldn’t climb a set of stairs without getting winded. The very idea of pounding tent stakes exhausted me. My body had reached its limit, and that limit did not include a night under the stars.

And it angered me.

It angered me because we are trained from a young age to believe we don’t have limits. We are told—in defiance of all reason and history—that we can be anything we want to be, and do anything we want to do. We are given all-you-can-eat buffets. We are given all-you-can-binge Netflix. We pay for unlimited data on cell phones, and we rent unlimited wardrobes on-line. We use oil as if it is limitless. We pretend houses can inflate in value without the bubble eventually bursting. We pretend the stock market can just keep on going up forever.

It’s no wonder we get a little angry when faced with a limit.

At first, limitations feel unjust, unfair.

We loathe our limitations.

While loathing them, though, we miss out on the opportunity to learn from them.

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Chase Your Dreams, but Chase Them for the Right Reasons (A Commencement Address)

Keynote speech delivered on April 26, 2017, at the Dixon High School 65th Annual Scholastic Honors Banquet coordinated by the Kiwanis Club of Dixon…

graduation speech

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Students, twenty-two years ago this spring, I too was on the brink of graduating from Dixon High School, and I too was invited to attend this honors banquet. And do you know what I remember most about the speaker that night? Nothing. I can’t remember a single thing about the speech. I have only two memories of the night: trying to appear confident amongst a bunch of strange adults, and trying not to spill food on my dad’s tie. So, if you’re a little nervous or feeling a little clumsy, you’re doing just fine. That’s how you’re supposed to feel on a night like this. If you’re not feeling a little nervous and awkward, come talk to me afterward. I want to check your pulse.

So, twenty-two years ago, I was in your position, feeling nervous and awkward, with graduation coming into view. My future was uncertain, but there was one thing about which I was totally certain. I wanted to get out of this town. I wanted to do something that mattered, and deep down, I wanted to be someone that mattered.

And, though you come from a relatively small town, you have good reason to believe great things are possible. After all, our little town has produced some larger than life figures, such as Charles Walgreen, DHS Class of 1889, who started the wildly successful Walgreens company. And of course, Ronald Reagan, DHS Class of 1928, who became a film star and went on to become the 40th President of the United States. If you’re looking for reason to believe that your wildest dreams might actually come true after you depart Dixon for college and destinations beyond, look no further than the Gipper. Not to mention the countless men and women who have graduated from DHS and gone on to shape our world in ways that are much less visible, much more ordinary, but just as important and valuable.

Speaking of which, here’s a slightly lesser known story about another DHS graduate. He graduated, oh, approximately twenty-two years ago, and legend has it that, despite his best efforts, he returned home after his senior Kiwanis banquet with dark splotch on his father’s tie that smelled suspiciously of salad dressing. Approximately four months after he sat nervous and awkward, not really listening to the speaker up front, he departed Dixon for the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Pulling out of the driveway, his car packed with clothes and towels and a thirteen-inch TV/VCR combo that had cost him most of his graduation money—and his stomach packed with a nauseous feeling—he thought to himself, “Why did I decide to go to college? This is terrifying. If I wasn’t doing this, I could still be in bed right now.” High school graduation, it turns out, had not perfected his confidence. It won’t perfect yours, either. I’m sorry to be the bearer of this bad news.

I’m assuming you’ve figured out who I’m talking about, so I’ll switch back to speaking in the first person now.

Growing up here in Dixon, I thought something magical would happen when I left. I thought when my Friday nights included something more than pining for the same girls that had been rejecting me since the fourth grade, and cruising up and down Galena Avenue listening to Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg and trying to feel tough, that something would change inside of me. I left for the University of Illinois thinking I’d find that magical thing there.

And I did find many, many good things at the U of I. I made a number of good, lifelong friends. I was mentored by smart and caring professors. I figured out that I wanted to be a psychologist. And, once again, I graduated with honors.

But, as they say, wherever you go, there you are.

On the day of my college graduation, I still wondered if I was good enough. I was still haunted by loneliness and a desire to be truly seen. And I still felt like I needed to do something great in order to matter in the grand scheme of things. So, I did what we all do: I kept searching for the next potential solution to these nagging problems. More specifically, I figured if the bachelor’s degree didn’t fix all my self-doubt, maybe a doctoral degree would do it! And I figured I wasn’t far enough from Dixon, so I chose to go to graduate school in Pennsylvania, at Penn State University.

Perhaps youve heard this popular definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. It turns out, in this way, were all a little crazy. Over and over again, we look for outside solutions to the problems inside of us.

You see, I hoped high school graduation would be a solution to my self-doubt and insecurity. Then I hoped college graduation would solve the problem. Then I hoped becoming a doctor would solve the problem. Somewhere in the middle of grad school, it became clear that wasn’t doing the trick either, so I quickly married the woman I was in love with, thinking that perhaps marriage would be the solution.

Nope.

I love her to death, and she is the best thing that has ever happened to me, but no woman or man has the power to remove our self-doubt. I wondered if becoming a dad would do the trick. Again, my kids are the best gifts I have ever received, but becoming a parent can’t fix our self-doubt and insecurity, either. It just creates more questions and more decisions to be uncertain about.

Then, seventeen years after I graduated from DHS, while I was working as a psychologist in the Chicago suburbs, I decided to start a blog. It began as a way to market my services to potential therapy clients, but then something interesting started to happen: I realized I loved writing. In fact, I realized I’d always been passionate about writing, but I’d never actually done any real writing, because, really, who can make a living as a writer? Within two years, though, two of my blog posts had gone viral and, on an ordinary Thursday afternoon, my office phone rang. I picked it up, and on the other end of the line was a producer from NBC. She told me she wanted my daughter and I to come on the TODAY Show.

Finally, the solution I had been searching for presented itself.

The ultimate affirmation of my writing and therefore my worth. A national television audience and all of the attention that comes with that. And some absolute certainty that I was doing something that mattered. After all my searching, I had finally found the solution to my self-doubt and insecurity. Now, I would love myself, feel loved, and make a difference in the world by doing what I love.

The end. Just kidding.

That’s not the end, is it? Because appearing on the TODAY Show wasn’t the outer solution to my inner problems, either. Sure, I basked in the glow of it for a couple of weeks afterward, and it did eventually lead to the publication of my first book, Loveable, one month ago. But gradually, in the weeks after the show, my self-doubt and insecurity came creeping back in. During those weeks, I finally had to face a truth I’d been telling others for years but avoiding myself. I’m here to share that truth with you tonight. Here it is:

The solutions you are searching for do not exist.

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The 3 Things I Was Afraid to Write About This Week (Or, How to Truly Live)

purpose

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This week, I experienced writer’s block for the first time.

I sat down—multiple times—to write my weekly blog post, and I couldn’t bring myself to start typing. I panicked—multiple times—but then I decided to follow my own advice and take a breath or two.

A few breaths in, I realized, I did have words inside of me. Plenty of them. But the words inside of me were simply refusing to exit through my fingertips, as they usually do. There wasn’t an absence of words; there was an abundance of stubborn words.

No, not stubborn words, scared words.

For instance, I wanted to write a blog post about the month of March in our family, in which my son acted in his first community theater play and my wife ran for the school board and I published my first book. I wanted to write about how success is unrelated to ticket sales or book sales or vote counts. Success is about making our true self our lived self, regardless of who shows up to applaud.

But the truth is, my son’s show was sold out, my wife won her election, and my book debuted as a #1 New Release on Amazon, and I feared people would think me arrogant to speak so publicly of my family’s good fortune.

I wanted to write another post about grief and how our anticipation of death—and loss in general—usually takes the form of anxiety. I wanted to write about how we defend against that anxiety by becoming angry and becoming certain we know how to solve the mess of life (please see Facebook). We need to quit resisting our inevitable losses and, instead, grieve our losses ahead of time, so we can get on with truly living.

But I feared no one would want to read something so morbid over their Wednesday morning coffee.

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Life Isn’t About Proving Yourself (It’s About Being Yourself)

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They were so nervous they could barely pronounce their own names.

Last month, my oldest son Aidan participated in his first Scholastic Bowl match. His younger siblings and I arrived, not really knowing what to expect. In hindsight, though, I should have known. After all, I was thirteen once.

I remember.

I remember what it was like to feel like my worth was up for grabs every time I opened my mouth, to feel like the outcome of every endeavor would either prove my worth or reveal my lack thereof. In other words, I remember what it was like to feel shame. The truth is, somedays, I still feel it. We all do.

Because we’ve still got a scared kid inside of us somewhere.

As rookie Scholastic Bowl spectators, we wound up in the wrong room with two teams from other schools, but we watched anyway. At the beginning of the match, the captain of each team had to rise, introduce himself, and introduce his four teammates. Both captains, upon standing, turned bright red, spoke with quavering voices, spat out the names as clearly as possible through all the adrenaline, and sat down as if someone had kicked their legs out from under them.

When you don’t know that your worth is infinite, eternal, and precisely equal to everyone else’s, any moment of life can feel exquisitely dangerous.

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