The Most Wonderfully Painful Time of the Year

Several years ago, when my son Quinn was in kindergarten, he opened a present on Christmas morning, and he was not happy with what he saw. He set it aside, looked up at me, and declared, “We’re gonna need a receipt for that one.”

suffering

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I made a mental note to start working on gratitude with him as soon as the wrapping paper was all picked up. Yet, at the same time, I heard in his words the ordinary wish of the masses of humanity: we are given this gift called life and, oftentimes, as we unwrap it, there are parts of it we would like to return.

Usually, we want a receipt for the painful parts.

For instance, several months ago, I dropped Quinn off for his first day of fifth grade. The long line of cars was moving slowly, so I had time to watch him walk onto the playground. He stood there, alone, nervously rubbing the straps of his backpack, scanning the crowd for just one friendly face. He turned in circles and searched in vain. My stomach clenched. As a psychologist, I know kids need moments like this to build resilience—to learn they can survive it—but the father in me was about to pull over and get out anyway. Then, the line sped up and I was forced to move on, leaving my son lonely and looking. I knew he’d eventually find his friends—moments of loneliness always precede moments of belonging, that’s just the way it is—but eventually wasn’t good enough for me.

I wanted to skip over the painful part…

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This Is How to Find Your Place in the Family of Things

death and resurrection

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This year, the maples all turned purple.

They usually die all at once in an explosion of blood red and burning orange. This year, though, it looks as if they all got together—had a tree-meeting of sorts—and agreed to die differently. Purple, at first, instead of red. Starting at the crown, and then pausing for a couple of weeks, before turning fully red. Slower than ever. Better than ever? I’m not sure about that.

But definitely different.

I have a friend who says that death and resurrection is the pattern of everything. It’s not just trees in their ancient, seasonal rhythm. Whole forests burn and whole ecosystems are resurrected from the charred remains. Our skin cells shed to dust and are replaced by new tissue. Every night, our consciousness dies in sleep and is resurrected by wakefulness. Every twenty-four hours, the day dies at sunset and is resurrected at sunrise. Everywhere you look, everything finds itself somewhere in this cycle of death and resurrection. And this year, the maples reminded me: the death and resurrection is different every time.

This autumn, for instance, I died differently than I’ve ever died before. Three times.

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Why I’m Glad My Daughter Got Kicked in the Face with a Soccer Ball

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Several years ago, when my daughter was five, she played soccer and got kicked in the shin during a game. From the sidelines, judging by her behavior, it seemed like the leg would have to be amputated. We were able to save the leg (with a bag of ice), but she never really recovered emotionally.

She takes after her father in this way.

Eventually, she finished the season and decided she’d rather dabble in extracurriculars with lower odds of getting kicked with a cleat—dance and gymnastics and piano, for instance. However, this autumn, she decided to try soccer again.

The first practice, she looked like Frogger.

She ducked and dodged away from every other player on the field. When the ball came toward her, she turned away from it and hugged herself tightly. She never actually fell onto the grass in the fetal position, but it seemed like it could happen at any moment. She explained that the kids at this level were bigger and she was afraid of getting kicked in the face with the soccer ball. I told her the odds were long that it would ever happen.

Whoops.

By the time our third game rolled around, she’d become less afraid and more aggressive on the field, refusing to back down on defense and inserting herself into the scrum for a loose ball. Her fear appeared to be melting away for good.

Then it happened.

A giant, precociously pubescent fourth grader launched a ball directly into her little third grade face. I didn’t see it happen—I was busy trying to get four players on the sidelines to sit still and quit squirting water bottles at each other. But, when she arrived at the sideline, the evidence was there: a big, rosy welt covering most of her left check. She was in tears, head in hands.

But I’ll be honest, a part of me was glad it happened.

This was her biggest fear about soccer, and you can’t play your best soccer if you don’t know that you will be able to endure your biggest fear. The same is true of life. A good life isn’t one in which we avoid all of the loss and heartache and disappointment and loneliness and rejection and failure of being alive; a good life is one in which we become confident we can survive all that pain.

In life, most of our anxiety comes from fearing the soccer balls that will be kicked in our face, while most of our resilience comes from feeling them.

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This Is Why Your Definition of Success Might Be Keeping You Stuck (And Here’s a Better Definition)

success stuck

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One morning, I won a bunch of gold medals on my first try.

When I ride my bike, I use a social app, which tracks your route, distance, speed, and other metrics. Usually, other riders have created “segments” along your route—specific stretches of road or path in which your time is recorded and then ranked against your past rides.

On the day of the gold medals, I was bored with my typical routes, so I chose a new route with new segments, and I began. My legs felt heavier than usual, and the humid late-summer air was thick in my lungs. It was clear from the outset that this morning would be a long, slow, slog of a ride. So, when I finished the route and looked at my results I was, at first, incredulous.

Four segments. Four gold medals.

Then, as the dawn turned into day, it slowly dawned on me: it had been my first time riding this route, my first time completing these segments. So, no matter how badly I performed, it was my best performance of all time. At first, this was exceptionally unsatisfying. But then I realized why it was so unsatisfying:

My definition of success is all messed up.

My definition of success has to do with being the best, rather than being determined. My definition of success emphasizes conquests instead of courage. My definition of success focuses on the completion of projects, and it neglects the bravery required to begin them.

What if the first time we do something is always our best performance, regardless of how we perform, because getting started always requires the best kind of courage?

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How to Stop Chasing What Won’t Make Us Happy

He’s growling and twitching and aging way too quickly.

I’m sitting in my reading chair, trying to enjoy On the Road by Jack Kerouac. (For some reason, I’m convinced the title of my next book will be found within it.) But I can’t concentrate, because our dog Cole—a miniature schnoodle who is all shnauzer—is standing on red alert at the window and salivating at every creature of the land and air that passes by.

Mostly birds. An occasional squirrel.

loveable study experience

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A yellow finch lands in the fountain outside the window. Now Cole is silently apoplectic. Shivering and shuddering with desire and frustration. I watch him and I laugh to myself, thinking how silly he is, how silly dogs are. He’s made this bird the center of his universe. At this moment, he believes catching it is the only thing that really matters. His instinct tells him it will satisfy him. Will it? Probably, for a minute or two. Then there will be another bird to bark at, another squirrel to chase up a tree. I think again about how silly it all is, and I return my attention to the book. But my eyes won’t focus because my stomach has just sunk.

My whole life I’ve created birds to chase.

For a while—a long while—my birds were grades. Also, I chased friends. And girls. My birds were gadgets to save for and restaurants I couldn’t afford. I chased attention. Approval. Love. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. I look around, and I see bird chasing happening everywhere. We chase youth and immortality. We chase image and Instagram. We chase righteousness and victory.

I sit there and watch Cole shake as he watches the finch splash, and I know that I’ve chased a lot of birds in my life, but the yellow finch in my life has always been success. I’ve twitched and trembled and shuddered and salivated at the window of my life, growling at success out there just beyond my reach, splashing around in the fountains of the world. Once I catch my yellow finch, I tell myself, I’ll be able to finally relax, settle in, enjoy this ordinary life. It’s silly, of course. The way to live the simple bliss of an ordinary life is not to chase an extraordinary one; it’s to quit chasing an extraordinary one.

Because in order to truly enjoy what you have, you have to release what you don’t.

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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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Why We Must Become Like Little Children Again

little children

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They’re fighting over grapes.

My daughter Caitlin, age 8, has decided she wants grapes for breakfast, and her older brother Quinn, age 10, has decided to run interference. He gets to the grapes before her and tells her he’ll break off a cluster of grapes for her and keep the rest for himself.

Caitlin never suffers injustice quietly.

She plants her feet, looks him in the eye, points a finger at his chest, and says, “Quinn, you are being controlling!” Quinn looks at her, pauses for a moment, and then surprises both of us. “No,” he says, “I’m not controlling; I’m greedy.”

Then, he apologizes and hands her the bowl of grapes.

“Truly, I tell you,” Jesus said, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The meaning of this proclamation has been debated for millennia. What does it mean to become like little children? How does this usher us into the kingdom of heaven? And, oh, by the way, what in the world is the kingdom of heaven?

Whether you think of Jesus as truly a God-man, simply a wise man, or ultimately a crazy man, this declaration of his tends to capture your attention. It rings true. And yet the tenor of that ring feels complicated and uncertain and mysterious. Right now, I’m not interested in changing your decision about what kind of man he was, nor am I interested in uncomplicating this particular teaching of his.

But I don’t mind telling you how it has changed my life.

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This Is the Powerful Promise of Our Pain

belonging

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Piteously. She hung her little head and whimpered piteously. Spell the word piteously.”

For three years, my oldest son Aidan has been aspiring to win his middle school spelling bee. In sixth grade, he froze up and was out in the first round. Days of heckling ensued. In seventh grade, he placed second. No heckling, just a hint of his own disappointment. This year, he’s the favorite, and he has his eyes set on the trophy that is, bizarrely, half his size. Then, after a half-dozen rounds dueling with the remaining contestant, the pronouncer asks Aidan to spell the word piteously.

Aidan spells it with two “i”s.

I’m watching via Facebook Live and I pump my fists in exaltation, believing he has spelled it correctly. The pronouncer tells us otherwise. And, on the screen of my mobile phone, my beloved son simply deflates. Somehow, I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut, too. Sure, it’s just a middle school spelling bee, but still, I want to claw my way through the digital screen and wrap him in a father’s hug.

There is nothing rational about it. A hug won’t roll back time and change an “i” to an “e.” A hug won’t prevent him from feeling piteous before his peers for the rest of the day. In this moment, a hug is no more and no less than the full promise of his pain, and the promise is this:

Pain pulls us together.

More than fourteen years ago, when he got stuck in the birth canal and his heart rate was dropping, his earliest moments of pain and peril turned all of my life’s priorities upside down. Everything I thought was important was suddenly inconsequential, and the only thing that mattered was holding him in my arms.

Pain disorients us and then reorients us to each other.  

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How Your Phone Is Robbing You of You

cell phones psychology

My son is waiting by the road for his ride to school.

I remember being fourteen and waiting for my ride to school. Sometimes, I would try to walk the balance beam of railroad ties separating our yard from the shoulder of the road. But I bored of that quickly. Then, I would pass the time walking into myself. I’d think thoughts. Feel feelings. Wonder about who I was and where I was going. Daydream of dating girls who were way out of my league. Feel insecure, even in my own daydreams. In other words, I’d wander into my humanity.

My son is not walking railroad ties.

But even more importantly, he’s not walking into himself. He’s not wandering into the infinite abyss of his humanity. Rather, he’s wandering into the infinite abyss of something else. He’s on his phone. Rather than venturing into his interior world, he’s venturing into his digital world.

This is tragic.

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An Old Man’s 7 Resolutions for a New Year

As we age, it seems, life presents us with two options: denial or humility. And, in my opinion, if you decide to trade-in your denial about your limitations for a little bit of humility, you might as well fold some of that humility into your New Year’s resolutions…

funny new year's resolutions

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This year, I’m going to stretch.

I’m not going to stretch because I’m training for the 2020 Summer Olympics or a marathon or a Tough Mudder, or even a 5k. No, these days, at the ripe old age of 41, I’m not stretching out of ambition, I’m stretching for the sake of prevention. I’m stretching so I can walk into the grocery store without a limp. So I can ascend a flight of stairs without pulling a hamstring. So I can roll out of bed without throwing out my back.

When I was younger, my New Year’s Resolutions were usually, in some way, related to conquering the world; now, as I age, my goal is a bit more ordinary: I just want to continue functioning in the world. So, if you’re like me and time has humbled you—if you now realize that mind-over-matter is a privilege of youth and, in the end, matter always wins, by eventually changing form—here is a list of New Year’s Resolutions for you to consider.

After all, it’s a worthy goal to be an upstanding citizen, but the older you get, the more you need to focus on simply standing up…

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