The Jealousy of Good Things

The Jealousy of Good Things

Recently, I read about a philanthropist who made a very generous gift that will positively impact mental health in their community both in the present and generations from now. It was an exciting and praiseworthy gift.

Yet, as I read over the press release, I only felt a sense of failure and frustration. I felt a failure as I had to admit to myself I would likely never be able to give such a gift. At best, I can do the work that said gifts often fund but that rarely comes with the adulation and praise that I pettily desire.

I felt frustration at allowing myself to let such envy take hold of my mind. Frustration quickly led to quiet anger, restlessness and unhelpful ruminating. I spent the rest of the day in that state, growing more and more weary as I tried to fight off the demons of my self-created vulnerability.

In a sense, I am suffering from the Facebook effect. The Facebook effect is the very real phenomenon of people developing depressive states from viewing their friends social media posts. This happens because we tend to post the highlights of our lives on social media. As I scroll through Facebook all I see are happy moments. It makes it seem like everyone else’s life is amazing and wonderful and perfect and I am forced to consider that my life is not as amazing and wonderful and perfect 24/7.

But, the Facebook effect is not new. Though the format in which it occurs may be new, the jealousy of good things has been around since the earliest days of humanity.

animal-1853018_640

For my birthday a few weeks ago, my wife gifted me A Song of the Sparrows by Murray Bodo. It is a collection of poems and meditations on life and spirituality. The next morning after the evening I spent alternating pitying and loathing myself, I came across the passage below. (Passage in italics, my reflections follow.)

“When I compare myself to others, I have an immense sense of failure, of inadequacy because I see only their strengths which seldom are my strengths.”

No matter how much I try, I can’t have it all and I can’t be everything. As a child, I never liked Choose Your Own Adventure books. I wanted all the adventures. I hated being limited to only one option and knowing if I picked a particular option then all other options were likely off-the-table. What if I picked the wrong one?

As an adult, I have made intentional choices to prioritize my family over my career. I made this decision knowing full well how it could potentially negatively affect my future earnings and opportunities of influence I may have been on track for.

But, I love the opportunities focusing on my family has given me to spend time with my children and spouse! Being a stay-at-home dad has been an amazing opportunity that has allowed me to build stronger relationships with my children, be a better support to my wife and to go through my own much-needed time of self-introspection and maturation.

And yet, in the moment, I allow myself to feel like a failure when I learn of others who are further along in their careers, make more money, have more influence and success, etc. In other words, I let myself feel poorly for not doing things well that are not strengths I have prioritized developing.

“But when I forget comparisons and look only to what needs to be done, what can be done, I am at peace in the knowledge that I have something to give, something to offer. If I give of myself, it will make a difference, even though someone else could be given more, could have loved more perfectly, could have succeeded where I failed.”

A few years ago while working on a residential treatment campus for adolescents, a youth who was upset told me that I was the worst teacher on campus. For good child development related reasons, I was trained to avoid getting into content with youth when they were upset. But, sometimes, I couldn’t help myself. I responded somewhat jokingly but truthfully that I did not feel I was the worst teacher on campus. I could think of others who were better, but I could also think of some who were definitely worse. And that, all things considered, I didn’t feel I was anything less than the third worst teacher on campus.

There will always be someone better than me at anything I do. But, I have become okay with this knowledge as it allows me the opportunity to fail and not be a failure. It gives me the opportunity to do good work and not listen to the voice in my head that attempts to remind me that I could have and should have done better. I don’t have to be the best at everything I do, I only need to give an honest effort at what I do.

“If only everyone realized that the gift she or he can give is unique and does make a difference! What pain of self-pity he or she would be spared!”

For me, to accept that the gift I can give is unique is extremely difficult. It is easy to assume any skill I have is a skill anyone can learn. When I see people with skills I do not possess any form of mastery in, it is easy to conclude there is something wrong with me that I cannot do everything everyone else can do. It’s a rather selfish way to view others. That is, that another’s uniqueness is merely a function of my own limitations and not a reflection of said person’s unique skill and the discipline it took them to master that skill.

My younger brother is an excellent musician. He can pick up an instrument he’s never played before and within a few weeks, he’s attained some level of mastery over it. On the other hand, my brief middle school band experience as the 3rd chair in a two person trombone section more than confirmed to me that I lacked the ability or discipline needed to be even a mediocre musician. I could pity myself for this. I could be bitter towards my brother that he somehow stole all the family’s musical talent. I could dismiss his talent as a worthless pursuit. Or, I could appreciate the uniqueness of my brother’s gift and enjoy the fruits of his labor. I have long since chosen the latter option and appreciate the opportunities I have since had to enjoy the ways in which he uses one of his gifts.

“We can never be the people we admire. We can only be ourselves, and that alone is admirable.”

What else can really be said? I can never be anyone but myself. If I spend my life wanting to be someone else, I am likely to end up loathing myself as that is a goal I will never be able to achieve. But, if I can accept my faults and focus on my strengths, then perhaps who I am will eventually be someone I want to be.

Advertisements
Posted in Articles on Fatherhood, Identity, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mister Rogers Got It

Mister Rogers Got It

Living and parenting from a strengths-based mindset

My wife and I recently viewed the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? about the life of Fred Rogers and his television show Mr Roger’s Neighborhood. After watching the film, we discovered several seasons of his show could be found on Amazon Video. Both my wife and I, like so many in our generation, grew up watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood so we were excited to be able to share that experience with our children.

A few days ago, I found myself sitting on the couch and watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood with my children. There was a segment with a man who set up intricate displays of dominoes to be knocked over. The man explained how it was all done, then someone was given the opportunity to knock over the first domino.

black-and-white-2309273_640

The man had setup over 3,000 dominoes and they fell quickly. Towards the end, the dominoes split off into two paths. The main path continued on and finished its run. The second path stopped short of completion and several dominoes were left standing.

The man who had set up the dominoes expressed something along the lines of “Oh, no they didn’t fall!”

To which, Mr. Rogers immediately replied, “But, look at all the ones that did.”

Mr. Rogers got it.

Mr. Rogers saw all the work the man had put into setting up the elaborate display of dominoes. He saw that even though the display did not fully meet the desired expectation, it was still a success in its own way. He saw that a few un-fallen dominoes takes nothing away from the effort and experience that went into setting it up.

Where the man saw 10 dominoes that did not fall, Mr. Rogers saw that 2,990 dominoes did.

I find that time and time again, people struggle to focus on anything other than what went wrong or on weaknesses. When I receive feedback, I often wait impatiently for the positive feedback section to end. Positive feedback is nice and all, but I want to know what “really” needs my attention and correction.

The problem with this mindset though is that I am left never satisfied with a job well done. There is always room to move the goalposts slightly further and further back until they reach a point that even if I am perfect, I still fall short.

Perhaps it is time to see the 2,990 dominoes instead of the 10. Perhaps it is time to rejoice in the successes while taking note of the failures. Perhaps it is time to live joyfully in reality rather than discouraged by a lack of unobtainable perfection. Perhaps it is time to learn from Mister Rogers. Our children and ourselves will be better for it.

Posted in Articles on Fatherhood, Health, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

You’re Doing A Good Job!

You’re Doing A Good Job!

As I have mentioned elsewhere, my wife and I spent several years running a home for adolescents. Since then, we have transitioned from raising children whose parents were unable to, to raising our own children. Due to these experiences, it occurred to me last year that at the time, my wife and I had parented children of every age from birth to 18 except 7. In all of those years raising children, we had never had a 7 year-old.

Our oldest is 7 now and we are completely lost on what to do! We are only hoping to get through the year until she’s 8 and we can fall back on our prior parenting experience with 8-year-olds.

I kid, of course.

Seven-year-olds are different from children of other ages but the principle of being attentive and sensitive to their developmental needs still applies.

All that to say, as my wife and I have raised children of all ages, we have been around parents who are at all stages of parenting whether it be through play dates, extra-curricular activities or something else.

From being around other parents, two refrains seem to most often come up regardless of the child’s respective age or gender.

One, is my child normal?

Two, am I doing everything right?

Is my child normal?

No, your child is not normal. There does not exist a ‘normal’ child. Normal implies a specific set of standards from which every child can be compared against to determine how many standard deviations away from normal they may be. The interplay between genetics and environments is much too complex for anything such as a normal to reliably exist.

At best, a child can be considered normative. That is, a child who is normative generally meets the broad developmental guidelines that are expected for children their age assuming no developmental delays or other barriers have occurred. I.e. Talking between 1 – 2 years old, tying their own shoes around Kindergarten, being able to think critically in their twenties, etc. As these guidelines are broad, there is much variance in when a child may achieve them.

Most parents seem to readily accept that their children are normative. And when there are concerns, there is help often readily available through a child’s pediatrician or a mental health professional. I would even go so far as to suggest that the question of “is my child normal” is actually just another form of asking the second question listed above.

Am I doing everything right?

No, it’s likely that you are not doing everything right in your parenting. It’s likely you’ve missed an opportunity to reinforce a vital lesson. It’s likely that more than once your perfectly planned day has gone horribly awry within five minutes of your children getting up. It’s likely you’ve prioritized something else over your children at some time or another. It’s likely you didn’t start your children early enough or you had them specialize too late for them to become the best in the world at whatever hobby they showed a passing interest in at some point.

In our culture, there is incredible pressure to do everything the ‘right’ way. And by right, I do not mean morally/ethically. By right I mean, in a way that it is clear that I have ‘won’ the most complete victory possible at the game of life. The problem though is that just as there does not exist a ‘normal’ child from which we could objectively draw a path from to ours and develop specific steps to make up that gap, there does not exist a clear, objective ‘right’ way to parent.

There are broad parenting approaches that very much should be incorporated into parenting such as attachment theory, positive reinforcement and modeling the behavior you want your child to display. But, the problem with parenting approaches is that everyone has a different way of implementing them.

There is no absolute parent who is number one at parenting and everyone else is attempting to mimic or knock them off their perch like in college football during the fall. Though, admittedly,  a weekly ranked poll of “Best Parent in America” does seem like something in the wheelhouse of our culture.

Parenting is tough work. You’re never going to get it completely right no matter how much you know and how hard you try. Not because you’re doing it wrong or because theories of child development are wrong. No, you’re never going to get it completely right because the children you are raising are born with a natural self-efficacy that sometimes wants the exact opposite of what you want. We do not take home robots from the hospital who are just awaiting the proper programming that will guarantee the most success in life.

Now that it has been established that you are probably not doing everything right as a parent, I have a question and an observation.

First, the question:

So, what?

So you haven’t done everything right, so what? You’re likely doing more right than you’ve acknowledged. Just the fact that you’re reading this suggests to me that you are probably doing a lot right. Not because I have anything profound to say but because any one reading this likely has at least a desire to be a good parent.

Well-placed desire can go a long way in raising happy, healthy and successful children as desire challenges us to be better. I.e. My desire to be a good parent doesn’t drive me to do nothing, it drives me to examine my current parenting practices and determine where changes need to be made.

Of course, desire can be misplaced. Desiring to be a good parent for the good of your own self-image over what is best for your children is probably not great. The desire to be a good parent causing you to feel overly anxious and self-critical is, obviously, not great. But, again, well-placed desire allows for honest introspection, healthy seeking and good implementation of the best parenting approaches.

If I was only allowed to say one thing to parents, it would be this:

You’re doing a good job.

If you’re not abusing or neglecting your children but you are consistently there for them in whatever way you can be, if you’re trying to raise your children to be the best versions of themselves, if you’re just going day by day feeling like you’re barely surviving the chaos that parenting often is, if you’re trying at all in some way to be the kind of parent your child needs, then you’re doing a good job. Keep it up!

parent-863085_640

Posted in Articles on Fatherhood, Parenting | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Could I Be Wrong?

Could I Be Wrong?

When I was in high school, the school I attended had several athletic rivals. These were schools who were mostly nearby and roughly the same size in terms of school population. I played against these schools several times a year across different sports so a bit of familiarity grew between us. Not familiarity in the sense of getting to know someone but familiarity in that if someone gave me a cheap shot during football season, I knew I likely would have an opportunity to get them back during basketball season.

In my eyes, one school was perceived to be our ‘biggest’ rival. In almost every school-sponsored sport I played, a main goal of the season was to beat this particular rival. When effort in practice was lacking, we were reminded the other school was practicing harder. When we complained about extended early morning practices, we were reminded the other school was practicing earlier and for longer. When we argued and fought against each other, we were reminded that the other school never argued with each other but when they did they fought harder.

Not surprisingly, I had few (if any) positive opinions of our rival school. To my adolescent mind there were no redeeming qualities that could ever be found in anyone who attended the rival school.

sport-1201014_1280

Through my participation in track and field, two things happened to crack the veneer of ‘otherness’ which I had been conditioned to attach to this rival school.

During my freshman year of high school, I had the opportunity to be on the Varsity track team with my older brother who was a senior at the time. As a freshman, I was not necessarily deserving of being on the Varsity team but no one liked running long distance so the numbers worked out in my favor.

Track is a bit of an odd sport in that it’s almost several sports combined into one. No one runs all the events at a track meet so there is often a lot of time between the events one might participate in. The time between events was spent warming up, cooling down or socializing…mostly socializing.

After a few meets, I noticed my brother was often talking to runners from other teams. He would warm up with them before a race, beat them in the race, then cool down and hang out with them after. There was no observable animosity between them. The most paradigm-challenging event occurred when I observed him socializing with runners from our school’s biggest rival. The school whose students had no redeeming qualities. I was forced to consider why it was he was spending time with these heretofore nonredeemable people.

Perhaps, he was only being nice and tolerating them?

Perhaps, he was getting in their heads and creating a competitive advantage?

Or, perhaps, he actually liked them and they were somehow friends?

The next season, my brother had graduated so I was on my own at meets. Not knowing any better, I did what I had observed my brother doing the year before. I socialized with other runners from other schools. At some point over that season, I started to get to know a runner from my school’s biggest rival. I remember thinking something along the lines of “this guy isn’t anything like what I assumed people from his school were like, he’s actually a decent person and we’d probably be friends if he attended my school.” And then, “If this guy’s alright, then maybe the other students at his school aren’t so bad either.” At this point, my worldview had been thoroughly shattered.

Two core beliefs have developed from these events.

One, I began viewing people as potential friends rather than viewing people as potential rivals. As much as possible I try to live up to the mandate of the faith I follow to live at peace with others. I fail often, but this mindset has allowed me innumerable opportunities that I would not have had had I continued to view others through a culturally constructed lens of hate and intolerance.

Two, could I be wrong? I had previously assumed my belief about my school’s rival was correct. Through the events described above, I was forced to consider that my belief might be wrong. Which it was. Which has led to me applying this question to every significant belief, interaction, experience I have had since.

Could I be wrong?

It is a question that runs underneath everything I believe. It is a question that has forced me into humility as it makes me admit that I don’t know everything and my conclusions are only my interpretations of truths I have learned.

It is a question that sometimes leads me to despair as I so desperately want to have the answers to the deeply complex problems of our world, to the mysteries of the faith I follow and to the questions of my own self and why I do the things that I do though I do not want to.

It is a question that drives me to what will be a life-long journey of gaining knowledge and understanding as I will never be fully satisfied that I have reached the end of learning.

It is a question that brings me great joy as I do not have to fear new knowledge or learning of different ways of doing things. I have the freedom to change my mind if I am presented with a better, more reasonable or helpful perspective. I also have the freedom to not change my mind if a core belief is challenged and not feel threatened by whomever may be challenging said core belief because I am already accepting of the idea that I might be wrong.

Now, I may be wrong about this, but there seems to be a pervasive belief in our society that we must be right about everything. To admit not being right, is to admit weakness. And, what is worse, especially for men, than to be weak?

To me, this adherence to being right at all costs and not ceding any ground reeks of arrogance and fear. Arrogance that somehow where billions of people have fallen short, I alone have the correct answer to life’s most difficult-to-answer questions. Fear that if I were to allow my interpretation of life’s truths to be held to up to the light, I might find them wanting.

Though I still struggle at times with arrogance, being weak has allowed me to live without fear. It has allowed me to admit I don’t know everything and to follow whatever path leads to the answers I seek.

A couple years after my worldview shifted, I was at another track meet. A different rival runner from the one I mentioned above was running an event while I waited for mine to start. We had become friends so I cheered him on. A nearby teammate saw and asked what I was doing. I said he was a friend and I wanted to be encouraging. My teammate pointed out that if my friend won his race, we might lose the meet. I agreed that that was true. My teammate seemed confused, and he walked off a bit annoyed with me.

A few years after that, my friend died. His friendship impacts me still to this day. Even just last week, I realized a small way in which his friendship set the foundation for me to years later gain a deeper understanding and acceptance of my own identity. A friendship that never would have occurred, had I not been willing to consider that I could be wrong about what I believed to be true of others.

Posted in Articles on Fatherhood, Identity | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Under the Rule of Pirates?

Under the Rule of Pirates?

I recently read a passage from St. Augustine that resonated with and challenged me to consider more deeply the steps I take as an individual to contribute to building a good and just world that will still be here several generations from now.

sailing-vessel-1777854_1280

As a parent, I often find it difficult to balance the desire to do great good with the often minute-to-minute needs of my children. To some extent, I feel I have been able to live in the tension of this balance.

Whereas previously, I have shared my thoughts on how to raise socially conscious and empathetic children, the following is more focused on how I believe we, as a community of individuals, can take steps toward creating a world that reflects the values we often try to instill in our children.

As such, I may make points you disagree with, I may draw conclusions you do not like. If that is the case, I invite you to reach out to me through email or private message on our social media accounts. I do not respond to vulgarity or personal attacks other than to acknowledge that the opinion exists but short of that I am willing hear differing opinions and attempt to seek common ground.

That being said, I am (sincerely) always hesitant to share thoughts related to politics. In fact, I don’t much like politics. There is some irony here as my undergraduate degree is in Political Science.

I find political conversations are generally driven more by uninformed policy positions and manipulative propaganda techniques than by nuanced and thorough discussion and understanding. To me, politics as presented by the 24-hour news outlets is often fickle and more of mind with groupthink and the mob mentality.

For me, politics is less about a set of ever-changing stances on (mostly) social and (sometimes) economic issues, and more about the ways in which massive systems of power and authority actively engage decade after decade in disobedience of the law to which they hold private citizens and non-citizens accountable. These systems grow so large that their actions are considered acceptable not by moral or ethical standards but because there is no system that is larger that could possibly hold them accountable. Rather, they are free from accountability, too big to fail.

In truth, my ‘politics’ can be better viewed through the lens of my beliefs about wealth inequality and the subjective application of the rule of law than through the lens of a specific political party. I tend to be slightly conservative in that I prefer slow, sustainable change. But, I also firmly recognize that inequality and injustice does often require a swift and far-reaching response. I also believe there is a moral and ethical imperative for those in the minority to be protected from the potential tyranny of the majority (whether that majority be government institutions, corporate interests or a specific demographic of people.)


In the early 5th century, St. Augustine of Hippo wrote a book called The City of God. This work touches on a variety of topics, one of which is the danger of unjust rule.

Augustine points out that without just rule, governments are little more than large-scale bands of pirates. [Bracketed words are my addition]

“The band itself is made up of men [legislative bodies]; it is ruled by the authority of a prince [head of the executive branch], it is knit together by the pact [the Constitution] of the confederacy; the booty [tax revenue] is divided by the law agreed on.”

Further,

“If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity.”

To illustrate his point, Augustine shares a story that comes from the writings of Cicero, a Roman politician and orator, of an exchange between a pirate and Alexander the Great. The pirate was questioned by Alexander why he had terrorized the seas in such manner.

The pirate’s bold response:

“What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.”

Augustine’s writing begs the question, have we ever been ruled by a just government or has it always been the band of pirates? Where in our global history can we look to a time when the rule was just?

Over the last few years, I have been drawn to the concept of restorative justice. I find it to be an encouraging theory and model, I agree with much of what I have learned about restorative justice.  But, lately, the word restorative has challenged me as I cannot help but wonder to what are we hoping to restore ourselves to?

I understand the use of restoration on the individual level but when applied on a global-scale, to all of humanity, when was there ever a time in which all were treated with adequacy, equity and equality, not merely those who were fortunate to match the demographic characteristics of those who ruled?

I have often heard a lament that goes something like this: “If only things could be how they used to be, everything used to be so much better. People treated each other better, everyone worked hard and had enough.” Though I readily admit that those who lament in such a way are generally sincere in the interpretation of their experiences in years gone past, I fully reject that a return to the often oppressive and demeaning practices and attitudes of yesteryear is the solution.

At best, when viewing history through the criteria of adequacy, equity and equality for all, there have been pockets of just rule. Or at least, there has been good law that has attempted to provide the foundation of just law, though often the enforcement of said law has been lacking.

I am not as well-versed in the history of cultures outside of my own, but within the history of the faith community in which I belong, there can be found many commands that if applied well would result in a community that is justly ruled.

The jubilee year and the treatment of aliens as described in Leviticus and love one another as described in the Gospels are just three such examples.

It would seem the ideals of just rule have always been present, but we often choose to ignore them due to greed, selfishness, fear, and several other reasons all of which are found just as wanting as the ones I listed. So then, again, how do we restore our communities, our country, our world to a state that never existed in the first place?

There’s no easy or simple fix to this question. But, a first step is that our mindset must change. We must evolve in how we view our individual responsibility to those who are different from us, who do not live near us or who even seek to hurt us. Instead of the tribe of Republicans vs. the tribe of Democrats, the tribe of Christians vs. the tribe of all other faiths, the tribe of America vs. the tribe of any other country in the world; we must band together to be one tribe; the tribe of 7 billion plus humans. All of whom are unique and worthy of receiving the opportunity of living a good life that does not come at the harm of others.

There was a beginning to humans. Whether you believe in the creation stories of the faith community to which you belong, the scientific explanation of evolution, or something else altogether, there is a common ground in that once there were no humans, then at some point, humans came into being.

We would be well served to remember that my enemy across the aisle, my enemy across altar, my enemy across the ocean is also my cousin. They are family. And how do we treat family? How do we want our families to treat us? Shall we not aspire to be more than a band of pirates? Shall we not demand to be ruled justly, restored to the highest ideals of our past and future hopes?

I want a government (past, present and future) that rules justly rather than like a band of pirates who have after enough theft and treachery gained the ability to rule with impunity.

The framework for such a just society can be found scattered like ashes throughout the great civilizations of the past. When seeking an answer to perceived present-day immoral and unethical actions, perhaps, we should look to these ashes instead of nostalgia-heavy, childhood memories? And, then instead of lamenting that these past civilizations ultimately failed, we should try again.

Posted in Articles on Fatherhood, Community | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Wrinkled Paper Exercise

The Wrinkled Paper Exercise

The Exercise

Take two new, unblemished sheets of paper. They should be completely clean of any marks, folds, tears, etc.

Now, take one sheet of paper and crumble it up. Fold it over itself multiple times, wrinkle it up, you can even tear it in pieces if you’d like. Take at least a minute crumbling it up as much as you can.

Done?

Now, take a couple minutes and return the piece of paper to its original state. Unfold it, press the wrinkles out, put the torn pieces back together.

Compare the sheet of paper you crumbled up to the piece of paper you left untouched.

They’re not the same, are they? Does the sheet of paper you crumbled up still look worn, used, damaged or even destroyed? Does the sheet of paper you crumbled up look drastically different from the sheet of paper you left untouched?

The wrinkled paper represents a person who we have hurt, offended, etc. The point is no matter how hard we try, there is nothing we can do to restore the offended person to their original state, that is, the unblemished, clean, still new sheet of paper.

crumpled-paper-1551434_640

What Does it Mean?

All offenses are eternal because there is nothing I can ever do to completely restore you to your previously unblemished state. Nietzsche and Paul the Apostle were right. Any punishment for an offense could justifiably be eternal. If there’s nothing I can ever do to fully restore you to the pre-offended state then why should I ever be allowed to be in a state in which I am no longer punished for the hurt I caused you? Is that not the only truly fair application of justice?

All have offended and been offended. As I focus on the offenses that have been brought on me, it is very easy to forget that offense I have committed against another. Or at least, it’s easy to minimize it.

The truth that I cannot ever restore a person I have hurt to their original state nor that I can ever be restored to my original state creates a cycle of competing justified punishments from which there is no justified escape.

The only escape then is through a radical means that exists outside of the cycle of competing punishments. The escape from the eternal punishment we bring on ourselves from how we treat each other is forgiveness.

Escaping the Cycle

Forgiveness is a choice to stop the cycle of deserved punishment.

Forgiveness is a difficult choice.

Forgiveness is a difficult choice as it asks the offended person to give up the anger they are entitled. But, forgiveness also allows the offended person to be released from whatever lasting emotional control the offender still has over them (Enright, 2001).

I was speaking once with a person whose father left them at a young age. In tears, this person described how even years later they were still incredibly hurt by their father’s choice. I asked them if they would ever be able to forgive their father for leaving. The answer, at that time, was no. I imagine it still is.

That person is justified to not forgive and they are entitled to the anger they feel. Their father hurt them and has shown no indication that he is sorry for leaving. But, forgiveness is not saying “It was okay for my father leaving”. Forgiveness is saying “I’m not going to let my father leaving control me anymore.”

Forgiveness is a difficult choice as it asks the offended person to examine the depth of the hurt brought on by the offender.

For years, I have harbored anger against the faith communities in which I have participated. Not the faith itself but the organized body of believers who I was supposed to be with in community. I often felt judged and looked down on because of my socioeconomic status, my vocation, etc.; essentially, my identity. Rarely was anything said or done to me directly, but I heard what was said about others with whom I share characteristics (socioeconomic status, vocation, identity, etc.).

What was said was rarely kind.

In the faith communities in which I participated, I have often heard sermons encouraging me to put on the ‘armor of God’ when I go out to face the world. To me, the world was fine. Yes, there are awful atrocities that occur every day in the world, but the world in which I interacted with accepted me as me. It was at church where I most needed the ‘armor of God’.

Even as my faith has grown, anger at my collective faith community has remained. I knew I needed to forgive but I had not yet reached in myself the depths of the hurt that had been caused. I forgave for slights I felt as a child about my socioeconomic status. I forgave for slights I felt for the non-‘normative’ vocational role I took on a few years ago as a stay-at-home father. But, what I only recently realized was, I had never forgiven for slights I had felt towards my identity from early adolescence on to the present day.

It had never occurred to me how deeply I had been hurt. With no real forethought, I recently spoke to my wife about some of these hurts. Her gracious understanding and empathy allowed me to feel the immediate release of the emotional prison my anger had kept me in for so long. For the first time, I felt I could finally fully forgive the offenses my faith community had committed against me.

My faith and my faith community play an important and central role in my life and my family’s life. Rather than living the rest of my life angry and seeking out punishments for slights, real and perceived, forgiveness allows me to move on. The faith communities in which I have participated may never know the hurt they have caused me. But, in terms of forgiveness, there’s not a requirement that both parties be present in the choice to forgive.

I am not excusing their actions against others but I can forgive their actions against me. And, potentially, it starts me on a path to reconciliation. That is, once escape has happened, a process needs to occur to prevent the punitive cycle from starting again.

We can be the ones who break the cycle. It may be difficult. It may at times feel impossible, but it is worth it. For our sake and for the sake of our children.

References

Enright, R. D. (2001). Forgiveness is a choice: A step-by-step process for resolving anger and restoring hope. American Psychological Association.


Thank you for giving me the time of your day to read what I have written. It is a gift that is appreciated.

You are loved, valued and welcomed here,

JP

Posted in Articles on Fatherhood, Community | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Grieving Hope

A Grieving Hope

“Life is grief.” I recently heard this phrase spoken by a guest speaker in a class I was attending a few weeks ago. I’ve thought of it often since. I think it is because there is a universal truth in the phrase “life is grief.”

tree-3153571_640

Life is grief.

Grief is the mourning of what has been lost, the mourning of what could have been. Even for those who have not experienced the loss of a loved one, they have still experienced the loss of a dream, the loss of innocence or the loss of a life not turning out how we had thought it would.

In life, we are constantly walking through grief. We often walk this path alone and completely unaware of the depth to which our grief permeates the entirety of our being. When events occur that force us to face our grief, we are often told to get over it or get through it. If we take too long, according to an arbitrary standard, there must be something wrong with us.

Life is grief.

Grief forces us to face the finality of life and the permanency of the past. What is done is done and cannot be undone. What I have lost I cannot ever get back. The experiences of my past have permanently affected who I am and will be. We were on a path and our trajectory was forever changed by what we do and what has been done to us.

Grief comes after the change and it is always present, though often subtle once the initial shock wears off. It is a sadness that can overwhelm any peace that seeks to comfort. A sadness that drives us to newer and riskier heights of attainment as we seek to ignore its effects on us.

Last year in the late fall, I realized I was sad. Deeply sad, a sadness that could only be accurately described as grief. I was grieving the loss of what I had thought my life during a certain time was going to be. In the realization of this grief, I experienced an onslaught of related emotions to such a degree that my only response was to use all the inner strength I possessed to shut them off and push them away.

I did not want to deal with my loss, I did not want to deal with my grief. I ran from it and tried to ignore it. But, eventually I was forced to deal with my grief. I was unaware at first, simple steps my unconscious mind prodded me to take that became conscious thoughts and actions I deliberately chose though until recently, I was unaware of why.

I still feel grief in my life. I feel overwhelming sadness at loss I have experienced, loss of loved ones and loss of dreams and loss of innocence. I mourn and feel incredible grief for the injustice and inequality found throughout our world. I carry grief with me everywhere I go. I will always carry grief with me everywhere I go. As much as I try, I cannot deny grief its place in my life.

But, I can learn to live with grief, to accept its presence in my life and to be open to what the pain of grief gives me.

That is, grief allows me to have hope. Hope that what has been done and what could have been will not always be what is.

But, hope does not restore what grief mourns. Hope does not take away the painful presence of grief. What is the point of hope? I don’t know. A shallow and contrived coping mechanism that allows us to have some semblance of peace during our short time in this world? A means by which we can ignore the fear that is an eternity of death and the lament of perhaps there is no point, no meaning to our life? I don’t know.

Perhaps, hope is just hope. A belief that there is more to this life than what we have experienced. That we can live in our grief because we can make life better for those who come after us.

In this season of my life, I have felt intensly the tension of soul-crushing grief pushing and prodding and overwhelming. But, this grief is not trying to destroy me, rather it is nurturing a flickering flame of hope that so desperately wants to go out.

Without grief, I cannot have hope. The absence of grief implies one of two realities. One, life is perfect, injustice, inequality and other such atrocities have ceased to exist. Or two, I am in denial. I am ignoring the reality of life. Both realities disregard the need for hope. For, if life is perfect, whether in reality or in my head, what more would I hope for?

Grief allows me to recognize the reality of what life often is. Life is tragic, life is painful, life disappoints. But, only through recognizing life for what it is can we hope to change life.


This is part two of two of reflections on a journey I have been on to improve my emotional/mental health. The first part, on anger can be found here. I can’t honestly say I set out with the intention to write these reflections in the way that I did. That would have been easier, of course. But, sometimes life works out in spite of our intentions.

Thank you for giving me the time of your day to read what I have written. It is a gift that is appreciated.

You are loved, valued and welcomed here,

JP

Posted in Articles on Fatherhood, Health, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Winter’s Fast

A Winter’s Fast

Richard Foster in his book Celebration of Discipline writes about how when someone fasts (intentionally goes without something for a time) they will quickly become aware of what darkness plagues their inner self.

Fasts are most often associated with not eating for a pre-determined length of time such as for a few hours to a day or more. I have done food fasts before and found that when done in a safe and healthy way, they can be very beneficial for my physical and mental health. A person can fast from other things than food though.

forest-3143157_640

Recently, I have come to realize that I have been participating in an annual fast that goes on for much longer than a few hours or a day. For me, by nature of living in the Midwest, the winter season is a several months long fast. The days are short and often overcast, vegetation is sparse or has died off and the temperature is bitterly cold. Forced inside more than I would like, I am left with more time than in any other season for introspection and self-evaluation.

Over this latest season of winter, I have re-discovered a somehow forgotten truth about myself.

I have noticed I am often angry.

Not at any one person or any specific event that occurred. More so, it’s just a general feeling of frustration that is consistently present somewhere in my mind. It is usually a small irritant that does not prevent me in any way from going about my day at work or at home or elsewhere. Nor, does it prevent me from having good healthy relationships with those around me.

It really would not be worth mentioning at all save for the fact that sometimes my underlying anger becomes more than that. Sometimes situations or something someone says causes my anger to grow and grow until I can concentrate on little else. It becomes a battle between justifying myself and trying to stop myself from getting angrier.

In a certain sense, my anger is like a lit candle on the mantle above my home’s fireplace. It can burn for hours with little attention given to it. I know it’s there but there’s nothing to worry about because it’s a small flame and it’s under control. In fact, in some instances, it’s even useful. But, then, when I’m not looking (or even perhaps when I am) a draft of wind comes through and blows a piece of paper into the flame. The paper catches fire and falls to the floor, the flame spreads and suddenly what was moments ago was a small, easily put out flame is a raging fire threatening to destroy my home.

There is sometimes an assumption that anger is wrong or ‘bad’. But, in and of itself, anger does not have a negative value any more than it has a positive value. It is a naturally occurring emotion whose function is to serve as a heads up from the body to the brain that something may be off-kilter. Its inherent value is arguably neutral. Why it is often assumed that anger is wrong or negative is because anger is often used as a justification to act in way that is highly negative, destructive and harmful.

Ultimately, my goal is to use any feelings of anger I have in a positive way. Or as I prefer to view it, in a way that is helpful to myself and those around me.

How then do I use anger in a way that is helpful?

First, I need to determine what in mere seconds triggers my anger to go from the manageable flame of a candle me to the roaring housefire.

To do this requires some forethought. That is, at a neutral time, it is helpful for me to think through what past experiences have created pathways of anger in me today. For instance, I have a strong aversion to injustice. Specifically, I do not like bullying. If I perceive in a situation that either I or someone else is being bullied, I get angry quickly.

When I become angry quickly, I usually have one or two potential responses that pop into my head. For me, it’s a string of unprintable words I would like to say or a physical action I would like to do. In all honesty, neither of these responses are helpful over the long term. This is especially true as the clear majority of bullying I have seen in the last few years is on Facebook and Twitter between ‘friends’. To respond in an aggressive way would only serve to spread more anger.

(Now, this is not to say that I have an excuse to ignore behavior that involves bullying or belittling others. Rather, I am saying there are more helpful ways to push back than adding more fuel to the fire.)

Second, I need to have a plan.

Again, anger in and of itself is neutral. It’s merely a warning mechanism. Once I recognize my anger is growing, I need to do something about it. If not, two outcomes are likely to occur. Either I will shove it away, never to deal with it and risk remaining on edge for an indefinite amount of time or I let my anger explode out in an uncontrolled burst of aggression and fury. Both options risk hurting myself and those around me.

By having a plan for how to manage my anger, I am minimizing the risk of acting in a way that I will later regret. To be perfectly forthright, currently, I do not have a great plan on how to manage my anger. I feel as if I have been at step one for years. I have spent a lot of time thinking about my triggers to the point that I feel I have a decent grasp on what some of the specific causes of my anger are but the next step of managing my anger in a helpful way has thus far eluded me.

This is not to say I am out of control or act in a harmful way towards others. I’m not and I don’t. In fact, friends, family and colleagues generally describe me as very calm and congenial. But, despite my outward calm demeanor, I often have anger on my mind as I try to put it out or egg it on.

Over this winter fast, as I examine the world around me and my place in it I have decided that there is nothing wrong with the anger I have. It is a part of who I am. It shapes how I see the world and the injustices, inequality, and inequity found throughout it. But, I often let myself be controlled by anger rather than the other way around which leaves me mostly ineffective and unhelpful.

As I have come to this realization, I have decided to attempt to do something about it. I recently read The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen in which Nouwen writes about the practices of silence, solitude and prayer. Silence is not ignoring injustice, it is speaking to it with wisdom and discernment. Solitude is not isolating myself, it is intentionally giving myself the space to wrestle with the tension of who I am and if that is who I want to be. Prayer is not the often meaningless words of condolence is has so often been turned into, it is a lament, a choice to be vulnerable and a recognition that help beyond me is needed.

Silence, solitude and prayer are not acts to be done only in the moment when anger, tragedy or hardship occurs. These acts are a way of life to develop so that my response is helpful and compassionate when anger, tragedy and hardship occurs.

I encourage you to take a few minutes to examine yourself for anger as well. Our world certainly seems filled to the brim with it. Be honest in your introspection. As the famed psychologist Carl Rogers once said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Identify what makes you angry and then come up with plan so that you can handle anger in a way that will be helpful to you and those around you.


Thank you for giving me the time of your day to read what I have written. It is a gift that is appreciated.

You are loved, valued and welcomed here,

JP

Posted in Articles on Fatherhood, Health, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Middle Childhood: The Feeling of Never Being Enough

Middle Childhood: The Feeling of Never Being Enough

The Lost Middle Childhood Years

Early childhood and adolescence gets the bulk of attention in regards to developmental stages that occur before adulthood. This is not surprising as lots of obvious changes do occur during early childhood and adolescence. But, this does not mean that the years in between these stages (often referred to as the elementary years, middle childhood, the ages generally between 6 – 11, etc.) are not equally important.

Middle childhood consists of a number of developmental experiences that, in a sense, set the stage for later developments in adolescence and adulthood. Between early childhood and adolescence is when children first begin to reason and show signs of abstract thought. Likely for the first time, children have to navigate social situations with their peers without direct supervision of an adult. How children perceive themselves during these years and their success and failures becomes vital in determining the type of person they may grown to become.

robot-2592439_640

How Middle Childhood Shaped My Life

I recently went with my family to see the movie musical, “The Greatest Showman.” It was an overall enjoyable movie-going experience. The lyrics of one song stuck out to me.

“Towers of gold are still too little, these hands could hold the world, but it’ll never be enough, never be enough for me.”

When I became a stay-at-home parent, for the first time since my late childhood, I had to slow down. As I have written elsewhere, my world shrank and the needs of my kids became a greater priority than anything else in my life. This slow-down also forced me to have to work through several hard truths about myself that I had previously been able to ignore by filling my days with activity after activity as a teenager and more and more work as an adult.

I stopped playing with toys around the age of ten. I can clearly remember taking the time to set up several GI Joe action figures in preparation for some imagined battle. After setting them up, a thought occurred to me that I wasn’t a kid anymore and I needed to get on with my life. I never really played with toys again. Even now I have a hard time playing with toys with my children. I’ve gotten better I think but I wouldn’t ever say it comes naturally to me.

Several factors that I have only recently connected contributed to this decision, all of which relate to the developmental stage I was going through. Like most children in middle childhood, I was becoming more aware of myself, the world around me and how I fit into that world. In my world, socially I was considered smart. Teachers praised me, my parents were proud of my good grades, etc. But, to me, smartness meant responsibility and heightened expectations. A responsibility to work harder than my peers and an expectation to accomplish more than my peers faster than my peers. I needed to live up to my hype so to speak.

Around this age, I also became more aware of dysfunction within my family and my role within that dysfunction. In short, I always felt my role was the diplomat or the peacemaker. I failed at this role, over and over. It wasn’t my fault, but I felt it was. It was not really anyone’s fault other than the randomness of the combination of genetics, intergenerational trauma and a million other environmental factors. I didn’t then, and I don’t now blame anyone for how I felt or how I perceived my world. Eventually though, after determining I had failed enough, I decided I would avoid failure and focus on those things which made me feel good about myself.

The tension of being successful in school and a failure at home led me to decide I would use my success in the school realm to escape my failures at home. As mentioned above, I spent my adolescence and early adulthood years escaping to avoid personal failure. By most reasonable standards, I was successful, too. I had a high GPA, graduated from college, received promotions at work, got consistently good reviews from my bosses, etc.

The difficult truth though was that no amount of success was enough to dispel the failure I had carried with me since my late elementary years. In fact, in my adolescence and early adulthood, I only added to the failure I already felt I was. Nothing was ever enough for me because the goalposts were always being set further and further back.

The difficult truth was that though I did not engage in the same patterns of dysfunction I had grown up around, I had my own patterns of dysfunction that were just as destructive to relationships I had with my wife and my children. When there was conflict or stress at home, I escaped to my patterns because they made me feel good about myself. At least until, reality set in again. Then my patterns of dysfunction merely served to add to the failure I felt as a husband, a father and a person.

From the time in middle childhood when I began to understand the world around me, I had been running away from myself. The years I spent as a stay-at-home parent were crucial to helping me to stop running.

Providing a Safe-Haven 

My oldest is at the beginning stages of middle childhood. Though I have raised teenagers, she’s the first child my wife and I have raised from birth. It was always incredibly rewarding to see our teens reach that moment of ‘getting it’. The same is true for our oldest as she has recently started to become more aware of herself, the world around her and how she may fit into that world in a helpful and positive way.

I often think about how my children will perceive me as they grow up and become more aware of their world. Will my parenting lead them to enjoy success and manage failure? I hope so. I am by no means a perfect parent, but then again, my goal is only to be a good parent to them.

The reflection above was an easy way to show how some of my experiences in middle childhood directly influenced later stages of my development. Overall, I have mostly positive memories of my childhood. My needs were met and my parents cared about me. Those two factors contributed heavily to the success in life I have been able to have despite my weak moments. Thus, the point of what I’m shared was not to condemn or give anyone else the opportunity to pass judgment but rather merely to show how even in stages of growth that seem relatively benign, experiences can affect a person across their lifespan.

For parents, the take-away is that being attentive and sensitive to your child’s needs in middle childhood means paying attention to how their moral and social development is going and how those developments relate to them having a positive sense of self. We won’t get it perfect, but perhaps we can provide more of a safe-haven for our middle childhood children than we ourselves experienced. Sometimes, that is the best we can hope for as parents – to contribute to a generational pattern of healing, each generation just a little brighter than the one that came before.

Posted in Articles on Fatherhood, Parenting | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Teaching Our Children to Stop and Think

Teaching Our Children to Stop and Think

I recently read Flourish by Martin Seligman. In his book, Seligman presents research related to his theory of well-being. Overall, it’s a good read which I would highly recommend to anyone. One section briefly touched on the concept of intelligence and what factors may go into determining what intelligence truly is.

chess-2727443_640

Intelligence is a notoriously difficult concept to define. Often when the topic of intelligence comes up, what is meant is how successful one is in a setting such as school (as determined by standardized testing). But sometimes, intelligence refers to social ability – one’s ability to be attuned to their emotions, or the degree to which a person can handle difficult situations. Charisma, savviness, insightful, perseverance and grit are all words often used to describe these other types of intelligence.

It has also been argued we are all intelligence in our own ways. Generally, this statement is attached to a quote often (likely falsely) attributed to Einstein about fish not being judged for not being able to climb trees.

Seligman presents an argument that what is often called intelligence would be more accurately described as speed, slowness and self-discipline (Seligman, 2012). Persons who are considered to have high intelligence process information at a faster rate than what would be considered normative. Slowness allows a person to process in a meaningful way what they have just learned. Self-discipline allows a person to use speed and slowness well.

A person may be naturally fast, too fast to be able to settle their mind long enough to fully consider the applications of what has been learned before moving on to a new area of interest. Self-discipline enables a person to develop the ability to stop and think.

Or, a person may not be naturally fast. But, as a person takes longer to learn new information they may gain a deeper understanding of the information giving them more time to fully consider the material before moving on. Self-discipline again enables a person to not give up when they feel they are not understanding what they are trying to learn.

An argument can be made that intelligence is made up of two steps.

Step one: Process the new information as efficiently as possible.

Step Two: Thoughtfully apply the new information in a helpful way.

Step one seems to be highly valued in our culture while step two is often an afterthought. Processing information quickly makes a person seem intelligent, but intelligence only goes so far if a person is unable to have the self-discipline to think well and act with integrity. On the other hand, being a slower learner is often seen as a weakness. But, being slow does not mean someone can not learn, it just means adjustments might need to be made to how the information is taken in. Some people take longer to finish college but that does not make their degrees any less valuable.

Middle childhood is the time of a person’s life when they begin to determine if they are ‘smart’ (Eccles, 1999).

In early childhood, every little step is celebrated. We celebrate our kids’ first words, their ability to count to 10 and identify colors, successful usage of the bathroom, etc. The bar of expectations for kids in early childhood is super low, and it should be.

In middle childhood though, we begin to more stringently measure our kids’ abilities against specific learning standards and their peers (and our children pick up on this). The bar of expectations raises dramatically in a relatively short amount of time. By the end of middle childhood, most children “know” whether they are ‘smart’ or not due to their developing ability to think critically about themselves and the world around them as well as the reinforcement they receive from their support system (Eccles, 1999).

Those children who do not feel they are smart have been shown to be at greater risk for depression, social isolation, anger and aggression (Eccles, 1999). For those children who do feel they are smart, this belief could potentially lead them to putting undue pressure on themselves to live up to their own expectations and the expectations of those in their support systems. Culturally, being smart often gives a person a tremendous amount of value.

Right or wrong, middle childhood is much too early in life for a person to have to deal with self-defeating thoughts of “I am smart enough to be valued.”

What then can parents do to help their children maintain a positive sense of self that will enable them to recognize their strengths and weaknesses and use these insights to become successful, thoughtful and intelligent adults?

1. Don’t praise your kids for being smart. Praise them for how they understand and use the information they take in. Being smart, as the phrase seems mostly commonly used, is the ability to take in new information quickly. As explained above, processing new information is only half of being smart. The ability to process information is (mostly) a skill shaped by genetics and environment. It is not something a person has much control over, especially in middle childhood. To praise or condemn a child over an ability they have little control over whether they possess or not seems frivolous at best and harmful at worst.

2. Teach and model self-discipline to your child. Self-discipline is the ability of a person to maintain focus on a reasonable goal. No matter how naturally gifted your child may be, they will eventually fail. If they have good habits of self-discipline, they are more likely to be able to see the failure as a learning experience and not a reflection of their worth. If they do not have good habits of self-discipline, failure is likely to dissuade them from trying again or to at least consider why the failure occurred.

The ever growing role the Internet serves in our society highlights the need to expand our definition of intelligence to include not just taking in information but also having the self-discipline to be able to understand and use new information in a helpful way. One of the great benefits of the internet is the relative ease of access to information it gives to the billions of people who use this technology.

Unfortunately, as access to information has grown, our collective ability to patiently examine and respond in a helpful way to each other has not grown at the same pace, if at all. We take in information, but we don’t process it well. We passionately (but often ignorantly) argue with our friends and family before quickly moving on to new information. Further, more importance is placed on being the first to have an opinion than on having a good and well-constructed opinion.

Richard Foster, in his book Celebration of Discipline, says ““The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.” This quote speaks well to why we do our children a disservice when we limit our definition of being ‘smart’ to only how well they take in new information. That is, what is the point of giving our children access to all the information in the world if we’re not at the same time teaching and modeling to them how to use it in good and helpful ways?


References

Eccles, J. S. (1999). The development of children ages 6 to 14. The future of children, 30-44.

Foster, R. J. (1988). Celebration of Discipline, rev. ed. San Francisco: Harpers.

Seligman, M. E. (2012). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Simon and Schuster.

Posted in Articles on Fatherhood, Parenting | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment