A Dad-To-Be Perspective

I’m going to be as brief on this as I can be. My wife and I recently discovered that we were going to be parents. And more so, we also discovered that the child was going to be a boy. I’m excited. She’s excited. I could have been happy knowing it’s a girl or a boy – that didn’t matter – but it’s really cool to know what to expect. The drama of delivery day will have its own stresses. But for now, we’re happy with having an idea of what’s to come.

And of course, what we have yet to learn. So yeah, it’s exciting.

But, as I’ve been reflecting on this awesome thing, I’m overcome by something. During our ultrasound (sorry, you’ll just have to imagine the pictures), there was a quick snapshot of our little guy facing the camera. He looked like an alien, but you could clearly see a face there. Then, as if he knew we were watching, a little smile came across his face and my wife, the nurse, and myself all laughed. What a character and he’s not even here yet.

Now, flash forward to the next day. I’m out and about. I run into an older gentleman at a food store – a guy I’d put in the ballpark around 80-85 years old. He’s walking slowly. Old age, perhaps? That’d be a good guess, but I come to see that he’s lugging around a heavy O2 tank. And since he can’t carry it under his own power, the tank is positioned inside of his cart. The tubes are feeding from his jacket up to his nose and I can hear him breathing his every breath.

Knowing this, what comes to mind? What’s your impression of this man? This guy’s a smoker, right? or maybe he’s paying the price for having smoked all these years? The list goes on. I’m sure there are many quick calls we’d make upon seeing this gentleman. But, here’s the thing: as I’m walking past this man, he looks at me and wouldn’t you know it, he smiles. And naturally, I smile back.

Sure, it’s a common courtesy – to smile when you see a a stranger. Be polite; don’t be rude – years of social conditioning may have been feeding into our interaction, but as I walked away from this man, it hit me: at some point – somewhere – maybe 80 years ago, maybe less, this gentleman didn’t have a cumbersome tank of oxygen O2. He didn’t have wrinkled skin, gray hair or weakened joints and muscles. No, there was only an anxious mother; one who was probably wondering what her little guy was up to, and God-willing, a man awaiting the day his son would come into the world. All the hope of a new life was wrapped tightly inside her and steadily being made ready for the world.

Granted, I don’t know all the facts. I don’t know if this man had a runaway dad, an absentee mother, or an abusive upbringing. I don’t know what pain he’s caused in his own life or the ones he’s harmed or suffered under. But, the fact remains: somebody cared enough to bring him into the world. And because of that care – that love that was built before he was birthed – I can’t help but be knocked by the enormity of that. I may not know this gentleman’s entire story, but a long while back, God saw him in the womb and was carefully preparing his arrival. And now, decades later, this once helpless, little baby boy, is an adult. He’s older – yes – and his body has changed over the years, but he’s still capable of smiling. Every person you’ve ever met – or anyone you will ever meet – started out in this very same way.

That sort of knowledge should change the way we see others, shouldn’t it? But, of course, it’s so easy to forget. What’s right in front of our faces often trumps these simple truths, but I’m encouraged to think that if God can see us this way, as children, then we can do the same if we try.

Truly, life is a miracle. And I can’t wait to share in the life of my son’s.

 

Friends and Enemies

A good friend is hard to find, they say. Actually, it’s more like a great friend is hard to find. Look at your own friend pool and select the one you’d place ‘best’ in front of ‘friend’. If you can identify a certain someone, then you have decided to be exclusive. It’s kind of like dating. Others may be on the fringe of being selected, but ultimately don’t hold that special something to earn the title. And if you’re fortunate, that certain someone has labeled you withe the same distinction. This is the essence of the best friend. 

Conversely, there is the enemy. The arch-rival; the nemesis; the one in opposition to your joy. At one point you may have tried to be cordial; to mend the barrier between you, but either you or the other party just wouldn’t have it. And it would seem that every meeting afterward has had the same ending: you don’t like them; they don’t like you; and if you could, you’d secretly like to see them fail, if possible. This is the essence of the enemy.

When I was growing up, I had a few good friends. I was fortunate to have a best friend too, and he and I have remained that way well into our 20s and now 30s. I feel even more fortunate looking back, seeing the times when we could have called it quits, but didn’t. Truly , we are best friends. And not surprisingly, the best men at each other’s weddings.

But, then there’s the enemy. That revolving door of faces I’ve encountered, ever-changing in a way that was dependent on where I was in life: elementary school, junior high, high school, college, the professional world – you name it, I had an adversary for nearly every major transition of my existence. I chose some of them; some of them chose me. I figured this was the natural way of things – like Darwin’s law enacted in real-life scenarios. Some people were just “out to get me” and I needed to get them first, if I could.

Not surprisingly, I found this type of life to be exhausting; chock full of missteps and empty victories. For example, spending so much time in rival mode can make a person into the thing he hates most: an enemy. I was a friend to many and had a best friend of my own, but how was I treating strangers? Was I someone I’d want to be friends with? Seems like a weird question to ask, but ask it of yourself. Then be honest with the answer. You may be shocked by what you discover.

A mentor of mine once said, “Enemies will let you trip and fall on the sword, but a true friend will have the courage to stop you where you are and tell you the direction you are headed is the wrong one.” 

In other words, being a great friend means taking risks with the people you love the most. You don’t even have to be best friends; just start with being a friend, first. I know many who have fallen into a less-than-admirable category – myself included. Preferring to sit on the sidelines, preferring to show up when things are good or when consult is easy; preferring to shy away from the encouragement necessary to see their friend succeed. That doesn’t sound like a “friendship” at all – one that’s reliance on conditions doesn’t hold the weight of a real bond. Over time, you may begin to see the line between friend and enemy become blurred. The primary reason for the confusion? Friends are interested in seeing each other succeed; they enjoy it when their friends have won something, beaten the odds, or conquered a major trial in life. But an enemy? They’d rather have things stay the way they are – comfortable, yet uncomfortable. Content, yet discontented. Continue to be identified in a narrow scope of existence, blinded from the possibilities of a broader horizon. They adhere to routine, no matter how juvenile or stagnate that routine may be.

I hope and pray my enemies become fewer and my friends grow greater. I will certainly find more opposition, but it’s not a future I must look forward to; only prepare. To be stuck in that old thought cycle of “they’re out to get me” sucks too much life from me. And I’d love to have more life if I can get it.

Persistence – Feigning Happiness

It’s hard to be happy when your situation is not an advantageous one. But, I feel that it’s even harder to pretend being happy – even if your situation isn’t necessarily a bad one. It’s December and I should be moving on to the next topic, but ironic as it sounds, I’m feeling stubborn about moving on and felt it right to release another post on persistence. This time, covering the subject of happiness.

Feigning happiness is a tough act to keep up on a consistent basis. Growing up, I had a hard time dealing with the fact that my father had a debilitating illness, and I didn’t want people to know it either. Even my closest of friends stayed in the dark. And when asked what might be wrong with my dad, I came up with an original story to keep the secret hidden. Faking it seemed easier and for a time, that seemed to make the most sense. But, as I’m saying, it worked for a time. 

The problem with putting up a mask is that it’s reliant on the reactions of others. If someone asks you, “how are you doing?” and your conditioned response is always “Great!” then the person asking has no reason to dig any deeper – even if what you’re really saying is, “I’m really struggling, but I don’t know how to say it. Please keep asking.”

I used to be in the thinking that this was a good way to keep people around me. That I was doing other people a service so as to not cause any bad vibes, but I’ve found this to actually be the opposite. A mask is a selfish thing because ultimately, the mask belongs to me. It’s not something people hand over when they see me; it’s something I can put up when I want to. But, in that same breath, it’s something I can let build up if I allow others the right to define how that mask will look.

That’s why feelings aren’t a good indicator of how you are doing. One day you could be up; another you could be down. And I know some people who think, or have thought, that this is a bad thing – me, included. That every day, every hour, every minute – they need to be at the utmost level of their happy zone. But, that’s just not realistic and it’s not healthy either. Peace of mind should be a better goal than 24-hour happiness. That’s where all the joy comes in and joy has no masks.

I find this to be another of life’s great battles, but it’s certainly worth it. When I pray – something I highly encourage – I pray for peace of mind before I pray for happiness. A mind at rest can hear the clearest of voice’s and it’s something I want to become better at daily.

Which, once again, is another challenge in life worth being persistent about.

 

 

 

Courage – under whose authority?

Today’s world has trouble defining courage, but it has just as hard a time defining authority.

Mine was defined at home. When I was growing up, I learned to have a respect / fear of my father. He was the man in charge; the king of the household; the last line of defense at home. Essentially, he was the disciplinarian. His word was law and if I abided by his law, then I could live peacefully under his roof. That sounds fair enough, right? My mother had authority too, but it was a different kind of authority. She was more the hand to hold; the warm embrace; the ear to lend your voice to – she was the lifeline. And if I came to her with an issue that needed comforting, I could live more peacefully under her roof. Once again, sounds like a fair enough arrangement, right? Yes, it does – when things are running like they’re supposed to.

But, what if they’re not? The result looks much different. If my father’s law is skewed and his discipline unjust, then I feel the ramifications. If my mother’s lifeline is damaged or absent, then I feel the ramifications there too. And the consequences look like this: my idea of authority has been crushed. Moreover, my idea of a loving authority has been shattered. For if the people who made me – the ones who watch over me daily – can’t handle their own business, then what right do they have to govern mine?

And this is where it starts. That disillusionment with authority; that break from looking up to people and the conscious/unconscious decision to look elsewhere for guidance. Because let’s be honest, everybody’s parents mess up at some point – there are no “perfect parents” in the world; as good as mine were and are, they still had their bad days. So depending on how “bad” a parent messes up, the more work it’ll be for the child later. The more work it’ll be to fix the now disjointed views of a child who, after years of soaking in the brokenness of a broken home, has fractured more than than their view of parental-child relationships – they’ve fractured the very nature of how the world was meant to operate.

Whoa – back up, right? That sounds like a lot of pressure for a parent. But hey, let’s not forget – it’s a human life we are talking about; not a truck or a vacuum sweeper. These things, when fractured, can be easily replaced. The same cannot be said for a human life.

But, here’s the good news: fractures are mendable things. A fractured bone, for example, doesn’t have to stay that way. In fact, a broken bone will do whatever it can to get back to its original state. The only thing it requires is time; time to heal and time to mend. However, if the bone is disturbed too early, then it may become further disjointed and take even more time to heal – a more painful experience than the first.

This becomes even more delicate when dealing with authority. Bad experiences with authority figures can leave a person severely jaded; stricken with little desire to trust authority ever again. And the thought of ever being “ruled” by another is seen as detestable; to be avoided at all costs. So, in order to cope with this, a peer-to-peer kind of authority is established. “You don’t tell me how to live and I won’t tell you either” is the new mantra. And if we abide by these rules, we can all live peacefully under the same roof.

Yet again, this sounds reasonable and fair, doesn’t it? It does and yet, this concept breaks down rather quickly. For if there is no one to lead, no one to establish what is best practice, then the roof ceases to exist. What’s more, one person’s idea of best practice will inevitably collide with someone else’s. And another with another. And another with another and so on. The result being the exact opposite of the original intent; the individual’s desire to be more important than the whole splits everything into pieces, which will leave people feeling isolated rather than unified.

So what to do? Well, it takes courage. Not just courage to lead, but courage not to follow. And the “not to follow” does not mean to reject authority – it merely means to reject the notion of authority being a bad thing and to reject your own perceptions as being the ultimate reality. Children reject authority because they want to have their way all the time. As adults, this concept should be understood as not practical. Or better yet, not fulfilling. But, by today’s standards, embracing this understanding has been forgotten. God’s governing hand is only relative and as long as I can Google an answer, I’m better off. No, Googling answers does not require courage. Neither do blanket comments or fact-dumping. Courage is carving in stone, not writing in sand.

Imagine a home where your stay is just and your stay is kind. It’d be a joyous home, would it not? Not the kind of place you’d want to leave. But, you can’t get to that place without first having a response – to recognize there is more to be courageous about than your own agendas.

Sounds reasonable and fair, does it not?

Courage – what does it look like?

Last month I focused in on joy. What brings someone joy? What doesn’t? People will spend a good deal of their day – and life – trying to attach themselves to what makes them happy, but never really get to that point of joy. I wanted to examine that further and for the most part, I did. But, I was also a bit distracted last month. In a good way though – I got married.

You might say that I have plenty to be joyous about. Wedding, honeymoon, beginning life with a best friend – yes, these are all awesome things. Daunting, but exciting and a great transition into the topic this month: courage.

It’s a hard term to define nowadays. What is courage? What does courage even look like? Ask someone 80 – 100 years ago and courage may look like defending one’s country or feeding the mouths of the hungry; a black and white concept with immediate results. Ask someone from 50-60 years ago and courage takes a new form: inaction becomes mistaken for action and calls to war separate people rather than bringing them together. Flash forward to the present and the image of courage is even more skewed; less clear and murkier than ever. In fact, courage now looks like this: sitting at home, “knowing what’s wrong with the world”, yet possessing neither the fortitude nor the incentive to act on the wrongness we feel. This new courage is all about hiding – the complete opposite of what the word means. The 21st century “warrior” builds barriers around one’s self, makes more money than his neighbor, and leads as comfortable an existence as possible.

Don’t believe me? Consider the protagonists of today’s popular stories and movies. And like it or not, the stories we are willing to indulge ourselves in – the stories we pay attention to – help define what is worthy of being called, courageous. On one side, there is the unattainable image: the perfect mate who never wrongs you or the impossibly-shaped supermodel made only for you. Neither persona exists as a whole – sorry. But then, you have the other extreme: the slacker; the privileged fool; the self-entitled comedian. All of which can exist, but share none of the qualities with being “courageous.” And with such opposite ideals flying around, people may find themselves struggling to achieve one of the two; thinking if one cannot be attained, then the other must be what he or she is meant for.

For example:

“If I can’t be the hero, then I can definitely be the slacker who will eventually get his day.”

“If I can’t be funny or land that awesome job, then I’ll work hard to get that perfect soul mate to make my life complete.”

These may not sound like actual statements, but through a person’s actions, we can observe where these unconscious agreements have become conscious reality.

I find myself severely convicted by this growing trend. More than in recent years. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, maybe it’s because I just got married, or maybe it’s just because it’s always ticked me off – for whatever the reason, I burn with the foreboding sense that courage is a trait most men – and women – will never understand. Not until we make the effort to reevaluate courage will we see the difference. And courage is not always about getting recognized; it’s about the willingness to face and fight battles we’d normally run away from. Confronting an abusive relationship, not giving into despair and depression, acting on a civil injustice rather than standing idly by, etc. The list goes on…. Courage isn’t about having a grand stage; it’s about growth.

My most recent of reads, Killing Lions, by John and Sam Eldredge, strives to showcase the lack of courage our society faces and honestly, I agree with them. Not because I’m a crotchety old soul who hates fun – it’s because the epidemic is true. The world is in need of more courageous men and women. And that doesn’t mean more rich people, more ultra-successful entrepreneurs or people who get elevated to a top management position. It’s about daily living that isn’t racked by fear, but moved with a sense that the world is messy and in need of those willing to get their hands dirty and clean it up.

Pressure: Role Models and Writing

This may come as a surprise to some, but we tend to adopt certain traits and behaviors from the people we meet. Especially if the person is in a leadership role. But, the absorption process isn’t as simple as dipping a dry sponge in a bucket of water. We pick and choose model behaviors based on what we deem as admirable or attractive. Then we envision ourselves doing the things they do, operating in a manner that is reflective of what we are seeing. And we experiment to find out if what works for them, will in turn, work for us.

For example, when I was little, I wanted to be like Michael Jordan (and what kid didn’t?!). I read up on his training regimen, I tried to learn his moves, and I did my best to hone in on what made Air Jordan so great. I never did make it to the pros but I did adopt plenty of Mike’s attitudes along the way: don’t give up, strive to win, see who you want to be before you begin, etc. – all were applicable character-builders in my eyes. Mr. Jordan operated – at least on the ball court – like a successful guy and yes, I wanted to “be like Mike” too.

However, his off-the-court troubles have been hard to swallow as I’ve followed his career. As an athlete, he’s the best – driven, competitive, talented and applies himself – but as a husband and father, he hasn’t always had the best rep. And both are positions holding great authority in the most intimate of places: at home and with family.

Mr. Jordan has probably faced absurd amounts of pressure as an athlete, but he’s also faced a ton more in his personal life. Every leader, every role model, faces similar pressures. But, sometimes when you’re a leader, being the proper role model can often be an afterthought. “Let me get to where I want to go first” is the mindset – then, “I’ll worry about what people think of me” comes later. But, the two go alongside one another. A person who wants to have influence, but thinks a good leader means being a good delegator is a fool. Leadership is an act of service, and is done from the ground-up, not top-down. The eyes of the ones you lead aren’t watching you with awe because you’re in charge, they’re watching you and looking for consistency of character and clear goals and objectives. That’s all about role modeling and very little about delegating to your subordinates.

So there’s more pressure with being a decent role model than one may anticipate. Or perhaps it’s better to understand the perspective that people are always looking for strong role models, seeking out proper and good authority even when they don’t even realize it. Eager eyes watching and absorbing what you do like a sponge – hopeful you have the right gusto to serve them and not just yourself.

As a writer, learning how to be a better role model is huge. A person’s actions and words have great weight in the world and if you’re a writer, you’re basically in the business of both. You can write on a topic – any you wish – but the catch is that people’s expectations will increase. You have to live out what you write about; what you choose to be an authority on is what you must ultimately own in your own life. Otherwise, it’s like making a proclamation to hit a home run without ever having swung a bat in your life. But, here’s the good news: you can train ahead of time. It’s not like you have to bat without first taking a hitting lesson. You can still prepare; you can still train; and you can still seek out others who have done things well – modeling their attitudes, their practices, and their character. That way, some of that pressure can come off.

And when you’re a writer, that’s something to rejoice over.

 

 

 

How Much Pressure Do You Face?

Pressure can be a cruel thing.

As a noun, pressure functions in two ways: first, as “a persistent physical force exerted upon or against another object that it is contact with” or secondly, as “the use of persuasion, influence, or intimidation to make someone do something.”

As a verb, pressure functions like this: “any attempt to persuade or coerce (someone) into doing something.”

Basically, whether it’s being used as a person, place, thing, or action – pressure is defined in one way: to throw off the balance of whatever it is in contact with. And it does so from the outside, but the level at which it is pressing is defined by what’s on the inside. Not the other way around. In other words, whatever pressure you find yourself under, it’s often blown into the proportion that you – yourself – have made it to be. Your expectations are causing you duress – not the thing you must accomplish or succeed against. And that’s a key understanding to have when you’re talking about or dealing with pressure. That whatever you feel is pushing against you – whatever you feel is dominating your existence – well, it starts with your flag in the ground. A strong stake in the dirt can weather those onslaughts and keeps a person from thinking he needs to avoid every bit of pressure that comes his way. So beating pressure is not about avoidance, but about influence – influence over our own mind.

And hey, that’s good news because you can at least control your own thoughts day-to-day.

You don’t have much control over life anyway, right? Life is not a movie called ‘You’ and life will go on regardless if you have a good day or not. So having a desire for perfection – specifically in one’s own self – is a fool’s game. You may be able to perfect certain areas of life like, a great golf swing or making a solid chili recipe. But to place the same expectation on one’s own self – in its entirety – is never a good plan. Wholeness of one’s own being should be the goal; not perfection. A wholeness of self will handle pressure like a feather landing on your shoulder; not the brick you may be accustomed to.

Life will always pushing back in some way so it’s best to have a firm stance where you’re at. What does that look like practically? It begins in the mind. As a writer, I struggle with a need for perfection in my writing. If I’m not careful, I can spend a good hour mulling over a single paragraph. And when I’m done mulling, I find I am still not satisfied. Why? Well, imagine the mental spiral that follows: Why’d you do that; That took too long; you should have went with your gut; look at all the time you’ve wasted; you’ll never get this done… and so on. Yes – not good.

But it’s not the need for perfection in the sentence that does me in – no, it’s typically the pressure I place on myself – caused by that mental implosion. That absolute need for me to be perfect comes out because I’ve led myself to believe that if I can be perfect, then I can produce a perfect work. A root problem most people experience as they try to complete the tasks set before them, but few recognize the issue as being from internal duress.

“I have so much against me everyday….”

“I am under so much pressure….”

“If only things were easier at my job….”

I’m not downplaying any one person’s situation. This is strictly fundamental and getting back to basics – how you perceive yourself in any situation is likely how you’ll respond, react, and take action. And if you’re having a hard time about it, how do you combat it? In my case, I’ve started learning how to halt this pressure – this unneeded, unwarranted, and unsolicited pressure – and consider how I am bringing myself into my work. Basically, training myself mentally. My work doesn’t require me to be perfect – it merely requires that I follow through with clarity; clarity that I have done all I can and if I haven’t, I’ll learn what I need for next time. Today’s culture struggles with this lack of commitment to go full force and with that – a HUGE fear of failure. Every duck need be aligned; every piece set; and every avenue walked before taking that said step – or even the littlest of said steps. Our lives are on a social platform now and the world is watching us, we feel. So unless we have a sense of wholeness and mental discipline about ourselves – that one failure does not define us – we are sunk before we even cast off from shore.

And “too much pressure” will always be an easy out whenever we cop out. A sense of wholeness should be our goal; not the need for absolute perfection – the latter of which will leave us staggered under the pressure we feel and robbed of any joy in the work we produced. A cruel concept when you think about it.

The Difference a Year Makes

It’s been a year since I spoke to inner city youth on pursuing dreams; a whole year. I’ve been fortunate to mentor and inspire young adults in one-on-one environments but a whole year since I’ve been granted an audience larger than a mere handful. I’ve grown much in that frame of time – as a person and as a writer – just like any other person can or does. And recently, I was granted the opportunity to repeat what I did a year ago: speak in a classroom about what I do.

This wouldn’t be like what I did before though. This time, it would be pre-teens and new teenagers; a whole other animal to work with in a classroom setting. Last time, it was 9th and 10th graders, but this time, it would be middle school students. To any teacher who knowingly takes on the task of teaching 7th and 6th graders, I applaud you. Better yet, I say ‘you’re amazing’; you deserve a ton of credit. When it comes to these ages, the interactions can be as tender as they are hostile. The differences between a 12-year old and a 13-year old are vast; vast like an ocean, I’d say. Becoming a teenager can be like sailing off to a new continent, not knowing what to expect, but you have to go because you don’t have any other option. And that’s a maddening concept. You’re on a boat and there’s no way you can get off. The land behind you is dead or dying and your only escape is somewhere across the open ocean. But it’s not an escape so much as it’s a predetermined destination. And when you land, you find a place that’s nothing like what you left behind. It’s frightening to many, and for good reason.

I say this because I knew what I was getting into – a land full of angry inhabitants who want to be heard as much as they want to left alone. Quite the hypocrisy, but you tread lightly regardless. It was “Career Day” at one of our local city schools; a day I recall as being one filled with weird guests who had something called “jobs” and one day I would have a to choose a “job” myself. The usual suspects would come year after year to my school – police officers, nurses, firefighters, and sometimes other teachers. But never was there an author, I remember. There was never a professional wordsmith; a person like Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, or R.L. Stine walking through the archways of my alma mater. Not that I claim to be on their level – I just don’t remember one being at my school’s “Career Day”. So this was exciting. For me, it was, but to the kids? Well, who is to say that they had any interest in listening to me or what I had to give them.

Teenagers are complicated organisms; more so than their earlier forms, the pre-teens. Having this knowledge, I wanted to speak in a way that would be engaging, intriguing, and somehow “fun” for the class. How does a one go into a school full of hormone-raged adolescents and keep them interested though? I understand their need for visual stimulation, but hey, I’m a writer. Putting words up on a board would be business as usual to these kids. How was I going to do this and what was I going to talk about and show? Well, the immediate answer I came to was this: I have no freaking idea. That’s when I decided to rely on some divine intervention from God to help me out because alone, there’s no way I could do it effectively. That’s not to say that I didn’t prepare ahead of time. I gathered a couple visual aids, specifically on stories I’m working on, and brought those along with me. That was for starters, but only after asking what might be a good idea to bring along.

So I went to school and encountered the 7th graders first. And truth be told, it was rough. Students could scarcely pay attention for more than a few minutes. But I trudged through on how and why I tell stories, my educational background, and all other things that may help paint a picture of how I got where I was. But all that broke down when I asked the kids one simple question – “do you any of you know what ‘passion’ means? Or do you have one?” The teens didn’t have much to speak on the word, which was surprising to me. Some said it was “something that’s fun to do”; another said, “singing”; and one kid said, “you mean like lobsters or something?” (this boy loved lobsters). I went on to explain that some of their responses were on the right track – save the lobsters comment – but there was one crucial piece missing. “What’s that?” one of them asked and I replied with, “the willingness to suffer for something better, namely a reward”. That’s when I got a ton of confused faces. And unfortunately, my time was up in the classroom.

I walked out of there feeling defeated; like, I’d done a poor job of explaining my work or what drove me to become a writer. The class was hard enough wrangling up to stay attentive, but the reception I received on that final remark really shook me. Not that every teenager should have a clear understand of passion is, but to think that wanting to suffer so as to gain a reward was a foreign concept was disheartening to me. I knew many of these students, if not all, came from difficult backgrounds so suffering or struggling is not unfamiliar. But that was the issue altogether. The reward, the possible gain; the hope was missing. If any one of those kids had the insight or the ability to do so, they may have jumped up and said something like, “well, we already know suffering, but what’s this reward business you’re talking about?” That’s when I sunk inside myself and immediately became angry. Suffering for the sake of something good did not make sense. What reward? What goal? There was none, it seemed. The blank stares made sense and I felt compelled to go back into the classroom and elaborate on what I meant. But there was no time for that – I had another classroom to share with.

This time, it would be the 6th graders. Not as old as the last group and some of them still teetering between pre-teen and teenager. I focused up and decided to stick with my original game plan but this time, get with the program and explain what ‘passion’ means as a whole. Or at the very least, touch on what that may look like for them. I got through the first part of my talk and then came back to that critical inquiry: “Do you any of you know what passion is? Or what that means?” The same responses came through. So I opened up and said, “It actually means that you’re willing to suffer for something so you can hopefully achieve something later.” Again, the blank stares. So I got with it and shared how I’d once wrote a story for a girl I liked when I was 10. I penned a short horror story for her and gave it over to her. My hope was that she’d love it and I’d win her over with my amazing writing talents. And as I told the tale, several of the girls laughed, wondering why I’d resort to something like that.

“Why do you think?” I asked.
“Because you like to tell stories?”
“Yeah. That’s it. And what do you think she said when she read it?”

The classroom went silent until one girl burst out, “She hated it, didn’t she?” To which I replied, “Yes, she didn’t exactly like it that much, at all.”

Every student in the class had a good laugh at that, but when I went on to say how I still wanted to write stories, despite that crushing blow, something clicked for a few of them.

“So, you kept going?”
“Yes. I did.”

It’s been a year since I got to speak in front of a classroom, talking on my life as an author/writer, but more importantly, it’s been a year since I got to speak in front of a classroom on why there’s hope despite any current circumstances. For me, it’s years of sticking with something, committing myself to a craft and not giving in to the doubts that try and intercede. For the students, it could be graver situations like abusive homes, drugs, alcohol, gangs, etc. and that’s frightening to be within. Passion doesn’t exist; survival is the name of the game. So to these students and so many like them, a “guest speaker” is just another adult with an agenda; one they’re not interested in hearing about. But if anyone can bring a story that speaks of triumph – not mindless struggle or silver-spooned entitlement – ears open and heads perk up. All because there’s a hope that something will change for the better.

The storm of adolescence is hard enough, but if there’s a hope that the storm will subside someday, somehow – then that’s much more significant. And worth speaking about.

We Are All Like Stones On A Hillside

In a literal sense, this isn’t an accurate statement. None of us are actual stones on a hillside. That’s a given, but even so, I feel like it’s a great analogy for any one person’s life as you begin to unpack the idea.

A close friend of mine, who shall remain anonymous, recently overcame some major trauma in his life. And it wasn’t any current trauma. We’re talking years upon years of dealing with a very serious issue that has been holding him back, specifically in the area of having and forming solid relationships. The issue being abuse; abuse that was committed against him when he was a child for several years. I can’t sit here and say that I relate to the events of his early years – as difficult as they were – so it breaks my heart to even hear about it. The type of abuse caused him to make life choices that were hazardous and downright toxic in his later years. And over and over, he returned to a place where he knew he was suffering, but since it was all he knew – or thought he knew – he would go there, hating and sulking in the futility of familiarity. I can’t imagine what it was like, but I can see and relate to the hardship. His hardship was unique to him, just as I have my own to contend with like so many others. That is a truth.

Many of us, including myself, were blessed with a safer, more secure upbringing. I am forever grateful for that. Conversely, many of us are not so fortunate. My friend was not in that regard, but in the midst of this trial, he’s endured and something really amazing happened over the past couple weeks. He made a major breakthrough – a concept that sounds out of date and “pie in the sky” but honestly, he did. How do you know? Or better yet, how does he know? Well, for the first time – and I’ll paraphrase his own words – he legitimately felt an absence or longing when he made amends with the party who failed to protect him from the abuse of so many others. His failed protector being his own father; the one person we, as children, look to as our guardian when we are younger. Now, even his father will admit that saying goodbye to his son is no longer an awkward task – it’s a difficult one instead. There’s a new desire to enjoy one other’s company; something that was previously offset by conflicted feelings via years of assumed passivity, denial, or abandonment.

That’s how my friend knows. That’s how his father knows. And the distance between them, be it physical, emotional or spiritual, is no longer filled with that violent static. The grieving has been shared fully and the accountability brought forth. That means there can be movement now; no longer are they inhibited by past chains dragging behind. And that’s powerful.

Many a time, we may feel like we aren’t getting anywhere. Past problems hold us down, keeping us from progressing forward. And we feel stuck in a place that outwardly may look like progression, but inside, we are more than aware of the unhealed wounds. Think of how long it takes people to “get over” a break up or separation. The void left is never equal, it would seem. One person gets a chunk of themselves sucked out and the rest of their existence crumples without warning. This leaves their internal builder – aka themselves – with the job of putting things back in order. But since it happened without warning, the builder is plenty angry with his situation. And however long he chooses to moan, resent, or refuse to rebuild, will determine how long it’ll take to fortify the structure once again.

But relationships are one thing in comparison to a forced encounter; one that was completely out of the person’s control, specifically speaking of my dear friend. Time will march on regardless and we will be asked to “move forward” despite what may lie behind us. That’s the most difficult thing of all – struggling with how to break an age-old struggle before it permanently becomes a part of us.

This reason is why I use the analogy: stones on a hillside. All of us are like stones on the edge of a hill, looking around; wondering if we’ll ever go anywhere other than where we are. We can see the horizon ahead of us, and that gives us a sense of vision or possibly clarity, but the distance is so wide that we’d rather stay where we are – perched on the hilltop and out of the potential mess that could be waiting below. We don’t know what’s there, we just know that it’s unknown and that’s a frightening thought. And it’s these thoughts, coupled by our experiences, that shape us in such a way we can’t move to begin with. Life’s experiences can harden someone to the point of immobility if he isn’t mindful. This leads to inactivity, allowing all manner of weeds (problems) to ensnare the person and further cripple what could eventually start a path towards regeneration. All the while keeping one eye on the sky ahead, thinking and believing it’s either too far away or it’ll just never come to us.

This sounds like something we’d all want to avoid if we could. So how does one do that? Or what’s more, how does any one person stop this from becoming a reality in his own life? The same can happen to people who have little suffering to cope with – they are instead stagnate, immobile on life’s journey. To me, that sounds like a nightmare. I’ll speak honestly when I say that I am someone who has difficulty sitting still. It’s not that I have ADHD (perhaps to some degree but who doesn’t) but I don’t like getting caught or stuck on problems I know can be overcome. If there’s a vision or path to take, then I want to take it. No doubt about that. But everyone has blind spots. And what’s comfortable or familiar may be an attractive option versus something new that demands a serious undertaking. That’s when stagnation can set in, subtly and without warning. And as before, that’s when the weeds will gather and choke the life out of you.

So once again, what does a person do to keep this from happening? Well, a good first step is asking God what to do with your life. No apologies here – it’s a legit thing to ask. It’s what my friend did and it brought him to a place that’s been incredibly freeing. As for me, when I first asked God what He wanted for my life, He gave me some quick instructions: get rid of your clothes. Not all of them, just some of the ones you don’t need anymore. That appears to be rather insignificant, but hear my story. I keep clothes. For a long time. As in what seems like forever to some people. And God knew that I needed to get rid of them if I was to make some changes – good changes – and start rolling forward.

So I did. And a piece of the stone slab that was ‘me’ got chiseled away. That was the first answer I received. A remnant of the old had to be no more. I removed the unnecessary weight; a part of me that wanted to keep my room cluttered and full of junk that really just needed to be gone. Period.

What was next then? Well, I asked again and this time I got told that I needed to coach. Coach what though? That was question three. Then I was told a youth program. I once dreamed of being a school teacher – it’s something I saw on the horizon but was so unsure on how to get there. And since I had chosen a different career path, I thought it was beyond me now. But after I asked this question again, I got a response rather quickly. A coworker of mine asked me to help him coach his son’s ball club. So I took the opportunity and found myself renewed by the experience. Indeed, the vision I had really could be a reality. How exciting, right?

And so, another piece got chiseled away.

Another question, another answer. Another question, another answer. The process seemed to be getting faster. I was still me, but the form I had before all the asking-and-questioning was disappearing. That’s when I started rolling. That’s when things got really interesting. You know that feeling you get when you feel unstoppable? Not the unstoppable like when you’re a teenager. That’s just blind ignorance due to youth and vigor. I’m talking when you know that you can’t be stopped in your endeavors because something is backing you – even if you’re unsure what that something backing you is. That’s the kind of unstoppable I was feeling; rolling full steam down a hillside, gaining speed, and enjoying the ride.

Naturally, that’s when I hit a major snag. What kind of real life story would this be if there weren’t more obstacles? Pieces of myself, still being worked on, staggered my roll and I came to a standstill. Ever feel that way? That’s what happens when you start breaking those outer layers off. It’s fascinating how being honest with God about ourselves has such a powerful effect in our waking life. I really began to see the parts of myself that were truly ugly and I was exposed with issues that I didn’t even know were there! Wounds, lies, broken promises, character flaws – all are fair game when you start rolling. It shouldn’t be a surprise to us, if we’re outside-looking-in, but it’s the blind spots we all have and don’t ever see coming. So when we hit a snag, we get frustrated.

Don’t be alarmed though. My only advice is to not dwell in frustration once you hit that initial snag. Most people end the journey here, too afraid to pull out more of the junk that inhibits their movement. Instead of growing moss on the hilltop, they grow it here; somewhere in between the top and the bottom. But here’s a question – aren’t the plethora of previously answered and kept promises enough to keep going? This is crucial to maintain momentum. And if you do, you’ll be amazed at what you find – more people rolling like you. Just as flawed, but moving just as fast. Just as quickly as you.

These people aren’t like the ones on the hilltop. They’re embracing life’s call, but they are doing so out of a discomfort to become who they were called to be. They’re uprooting the bad parts of themselves, giving it to God, and soldiering onward. Why? Because there are more people flying faster and the thrill of flying faster is far more exhilarating than standing still. Is that not an agreeable statement? Sounds like a lot more fun too. Why position your eyes on the burdens the world wants when you can ask God what freedoms he wants to give you? That may seem like a loaded statement; vague, to a point. But consider starting small and going from there. Mine was clothes, after all. It can be as simple as that.

There’s no secret formula here, but there are definitely easy places to start. One word of caution though: the common confusion after we begin is wondering what God may tell us. When we ask God, “What can I do to help people?” we expect the answer to be something like, “be a pop star.” You know, something that appears to be far-reaching and full of genuine impact. Don’t be disappointed though when God says, “No”. Instead, His plan could be something equally or much more significant than the pop star dream. Something like a school teacher, a cashier at a retail store, or a landscaper. All are important trades. And they are important because they all tread in a very specific, very important field of expertise – they all deal with people.

It doesn’t matter where people are working or what titles they possess. We all mold and shape one other because we come into contact with each other daily. So if we’re asking the right questions, we can be chiseled down to have more of that; the more of that being the surprising journey. I used to think that I wanted everything in my life planned and plotted out according to what I thought was best, but honestly, I find that way to be quite boring. I thought I wanted to know everything – and truthfully, I sometimes do – but my confusion was more about security and comfort. There is certainly security and comfort to be had in God’s plans, but there is also the grander opportunity to be grafted into something better than what you are presently. I’d rather be constantly chiseling away pieces of myself – in keeping with this analogy – than be a square block on the hillside not doing much. That sort of life is predictable and ironically, it isn’t necessarily safe either. Weeds choke out whatever sits for too long. The same can be said for our own lives. How many people do you know that still harbor resentment for something that happened decades ago? There’s a burden there that’s deeply rooted and in serious need of being uprooted. Much like what transpired with my friend. Imagine the kind of freedom he can have now that he’s dealt with this issue. He and his father both. And what’s even more amazing, is how he can share his story with others to encourage people with similar pasts or struggles. My friend is rolling again, but that’s not all – he’s now a beacon to others still on the hillside. And when someone sees that on him – the piece that’s been made new – something cool may happen and another stone will rush down to join him. Thus, igniting their own journey from the hillside.

Asking God what to do with our pain isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s merely a fair start. One that can lead to more life, something so many people have forgotten about and what life is supposed to look like. And if that isn’t convincing enough, consider the alternative to not asking. Nothing can change and nothing has the chance to improve. So be encouraged to start rolling in whatever direction God asks you to, but also consider asking first. It’s certainly worth more than a quick look or a passing glance.

The chasm is wide, but we’re all looking out across the horizon anyway, wondering what it may be like on the other side, provided we are brave enough to ask.

The (In)Disposable Nature of Relationships

My generation loves to make lists. Here’s a “top 10” this and here’s “27 reasons why” for that. And the worst part is – I’ll click and read along sometimes. Perhaps it’s boredom taking me over? Or perhaps it’s…well, boredom again? But occasionally, I’ll seek out one that sparks my interest. I’m a relational and social animal so I enjoy reading about what makes “effective relationships”; not just romantic, but platonic also. I don’t care much for the “top places to travel before you die” or the “what makes your cat do the things he does” (sorry animal lovers) but relationship advice? Well, that piques my interest. And I’m willing to bet that it’s high on other people’s radars too. In fact, I’m willing to bet that the majority of internet lists revolve around what makes a prosperous, trendy, or modern relationship. You’re free to disagree with that assumption, but whether you do or not, you have to admit the danger in that possibility: too many messages equals too many people doing different things. And that creates chaos in an area that’s meant for stability, reliability, and real joy.

Yikes, right?

The flurry of relationship experts makes it difficult to discern what’s best practice and what’s merely a fool’s errand. “Do this more”, “create this habit”, or “understand this about the opposite sex” – these all sound like practical and plausible pointers, but there’s an underlying catch here: they tend to be self-serving. “Do this more” can be translated to “Do this more and you’ll get this.” See how that works? The whole idea about what makes relationships good or great is morphed into selfish pursuits. And when you’re acting selfishly, you may get what you’re after, but do you ever receive the same in return? No, not very often, if ever.

I often feel like my generation has been brainwashed by this notion. That relationships are meant to be places where you get everything you want. Where your partner is second fiddle and you get everything you’ve ever desired. And if you don’t or aren’t receiving these things, then it’s imperative you step away and look elsewhere. All the while, reading another top 10 list in hope it may cover where you might have went wrong. Yikes again, eh?

People aren’t that simple though. You can’t read a top 10 list of “nice things to do” and expect your significant other to reply in positive ways from 1 to 10. That’s not realistic. People are much more complex than that. Men and women included. And what people are looking for involves some of those more basic principles: stability, reliability, and a certain joy; one that assures the other person of more than a good thing, but a certain thing.

Now imagine the opposite happening in that relationship, caused by all the mixed messages or selfish pursuits. Stability crumbles into weakness; reliability stumbles into persistent uncertainty; and joy twists into resentment and bitterness. That’s what you end up getting if you view relationships as being disposable. A selfish attitude will eventually result in a selfish view of relationships and people. Extreme guardedness, unwillingness to compromise, unwillingness to be flexible – men and women will both carry these burdens if enough hurt has been accumulated over time. And it only gets harder and harder if the selfishness continues.

I trust some of this isn’t news to anyone. Read up on “millennial thinking” and almost immediately you’ll touch on the topic of relationships and how commitment just doesn’t seem to be high on the priority scale. “There’s always options and you need to keep those eyes open as much as possible” – this is the thinking. I don’t want to say it again, but hey – yikes. How’d this happen? And what does it look like?

Well, for example, how do you feel when someone breaks plans with you at the last minute? And for no apparent reason other than they don’t “feel” like being there. Time is a non-renewable resource; wasting someone else’s time or refusing to give someone time a day – after promising to do so – is a huge letdown to the other party. No one likes to feel that way. Why? Because we know that the other person acted selfishly. Or even cowardly, in some regard. But people do this all the time to each other. And they do so on even greater levels than merely breaking “hangout times”.

Take physical promiscuity – that’s sex – for example. Giving one’s self to another is more than recreation, it’s a promise. It certainly can be fun though! Absolutely it can – it’s one of the functions that God designed it for, but it’s so much more than recreation and it’s so much deeper too. Riding roller coasters is recreation. Throwing a baseball back and forth is recreation. Watching a movie or reading a book is recreation. Would sex be lumped into these same categories when speaking of importance? I’d be surprised by anyone who would claim it as such. And if they did, they’d only be lying to themselves and others to get attention. Why else does my generation and the one following it have so much difficulty with commitment? It’s because the promises being made through physical contact have been broken; broken because someone believed there were options. And it was those other options that created the chaos, the uncertainty, the unreliability, and so on. I suppose it’s no wonder that the response to all this mixed messaging has been, “fine, I’ll get what’s mine”. Why? Because it translates to, “I’ll get what’s mine because the other person clearly had an agenda and they got what they wanted. So that’s what I want too.”

Yes, yikes.

I’m no saint as it pertains to relationships; I’ve made my fair share of mistakes, but thankfully I’ve been able to come out of the social pool with limited fractures. Sure, I have scars – romantic or otherwise – and I’ll always be susceptible to that so long as I’m alive, but ultimately, I’m a product of my generation and the mixed messages out there. I grieve thinking about what my friends or even acquaintances have had to endure or even believe is right or true about a relationship. They – relationships – aren’t disposable because people aren’t disposable. Is that not true? A messed up generation, namely my own, is proof of the failed experiment to prove otherwise.

My only argument would be to return to what God’s work is for relationships: a promise, one that gets back to the basics of what joy should look like. And it’s not a self-serving, self-righteous, self-reliant joy – this doesn’t exist. And it’s not some kooky concept that’s outdated – no, it’s the original framework we keep dancing around, trying to make better but stubbornly can’t duplicate. But perhaps we can get it right with the next generation? This coming generation will inherit our hearts, but they have yet to inherit our attitudes or our experiences. And that warrants a serious look, not another top 10 list.