Letters to my sons

A collection of thoughts and lessons I've learned along the way for my little men, and anyone else that's interested.

Posts tagged with #Relationship

My sons,

I know I’ve written about empathy in the past, but I’ve been doing a bunch of reading and thinking on the topic, and I wanted to share some more thoughts with you both as I learn more about this beautifully difficult character trait.

When I first encountered the concept of empathy, I believed it to mean putting myself in someone else’s shoes, and trying to determine what I would do in their situation. While I still think that much of that statement is true, I need to make a small tweak. I now believe empathy to mean putting myself in someone else’s shoes, and trying to determine what they would do in their situation, and why.

The fundamental difference here is the focus. My first definition has to do with me; what would I do in their situation. This is entierly determined by me, my background, my experiences, and my context. The choices I make in that frame of empathy then, will reflect my preferences, my value system, and ultimately would, without intention, be self-serving.

Now, since our goal when we apply empathy is to understand the other person and to add strength to the relationship, this definition isn’t as useful to us.

Our new definition is more compelling because it gets at the heart of what the other person needs, what they desire, and what motivations factor in to their decisions. It causes us to not just know about the other person, but to know them.

In his book The Lonely man of Faith, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik postis that one of the core needs of man is the need to know and be known. He argues that the need to be known is a universal characteristic across mankind, and that as relational beings, we find much fulfillment and peace in being known.

And so when we want to demonstrate empathy, there is much good that we can do to add to our shared understanding, and to bring fulfillment to the other person.

  1. Remember that empathy is an act of understanding, not of judgment. It is primarily an observational activity, observing and learning about the other person’s motivations, context, and values. It is not applying our own judgment to those things!

  2. Be patient. In our self-centered and self-focused world, it takes time to develop the muscle to break away from that trend and to focus not on our own agenda and goals but on someone else.

  3. Intentionally practice and apply empathy. No change comes without effort. While the desire to have empathy is already a great first step, we need to progress past that and realize that there is real work to be done in order to get us being truly and effectively empathetic.

My hope for you both is that you grow up to be men that are confident in yourselves, and have enough confidence around your own desires and needs that you’re able to set aside yourselves and learn to concern yourselves with the needs of others.


My son,

One of the most sobering realizations that you’ll have in your life is that your life this side of heaven is finite. As I noted last month, time is the only resource in life that we will never get back. Each moment that you spend is one that you’re never going to get back. So how do we make the most of it? And what’s that got to do with self-respect?

Quite a bit actually.

Self-respect is the thing that lets you own your own destiny, that lets you fearlessly choose the path that you want to take. You are beautifully and wonderfully made - own that. Claim it. Run with it.

There are all sorts of benefits from having a strong sense of self-respect, of self-esteem, but the fundamental thing is that it gives you confidence to be your own man, to do things that may not be popular, to stand up against opposition, and to do the things that you believe in.

  • Confidence to fight for the little guy.
    This one is arguably the most important. In this world, there are so many people without voices - the sick, the poor, the scrawny kid in class that gets picked on, the girl on the bus that no one wants to sit with.

    To each of these, Jesus asks us to love them as He loves us. In Matthew 25:40, Jesus tells us that "whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me".

    In my own life, I've found that this one is extremely difficult. It's so hard to step outside the norm, to go against the grain, to put yourself out there to stand up for the little guy. But just think - how much harder is it for them?

  • Confidence to stand up for what you believe.
    We live in an age where the social norm is to not offend, to not have beliefs that could show disapproval to anything that popular culture deems is acceptable. We have axioms like "it's the nail that sticks out that gets hammered".

    Never in the history of our world has there been a need for people to stand firm in what they believe in, to have a deep rooted sense of morality, and to be that light on a hill for all to see.

  • Confidence to be alone.
    It's tough being alone. Whether it's being circumstantial - being home alone for an evening, going to an even like prom alone, or even taking a vacation on your own - or if it's a longer term thing like being single while your friends are coupled off, being alone is tough.

    Having self-respect gives you the confidence and sense of self enough to be not just okay with those situations, but to stop seeing them as inflictions and instead to start seeing them as opportunities.

  • Confidence to strike it out on your own.
    It's a basic human instinct to seek safety, and to seek safety in numbers. Striking out on your own goes against that very nature and by definition isn't easy.

    But so much of life, so much about being a man, so much about an enriching experience is only accomplished and experienced when you strike out on your own. Being your own man isn't easy, but it's absolutely essential.

  • Confidence to ask her to marry you.
    Nothing is more nerve wracking than when you find yourself on one knee holding a little box with a ring that costs 3 months of your salary in it. Nothing.

    And no matter what anyone else tells you, nothing should be.

    Finding a life partner that you can run with, laugh with, celebrate with, and mourn with is so hard, and when you finally find her, asking her to be yours as long as you both shall live is nerve wracking. As it should be.

    Having confidence in yourself lets you realize that it's just as hard for her, and that it's just as big of a commitment for her as it is for you. And that's a good place to be.

So my prayer is that as you grow into a young man that you would have confidence in the man that God is created you to be, and that out of that understanding of self, of self-worth, of self-respect and self-esteem can come a heart for the world that is kind, considerate, protective, bold, and courageous. I love you, my boy.


My son,

Throughout history, every single achievement that mankind has accomplished has been a group effort. Even the great ones - Einstein, Gretzky, da Vinci - all of them had strong influences that encouraged, challenged, instructed, and inspired them to be able to have accomplished the great things that we know them for today.

There has been much research about a person’s development, growth, and ultimate success as a healthy, fully functioning member of society. While there are very drastically different theories on the most important experiences or surroundings that produce successful people, every theory agrees that relationships are critical to a person’s upbringing.

As the good book says:

“Bad company corrupts good character” - 1 Corinthians 15:33

It is therefore critically important that you be thoughtful about the company that you keep, about the relationships that you build. Build being the operative word here.

Make no mistake about it - relationships are works of art that need to be intentionally built. They need to be thought out, planned, worked on, evaluated, and refined. Whether we’re talking about a casual acquaintance, a lifelong friendship, or an epic romance, each of these need to be sought after, worked on, invested in, and cared for.

So how do we build the right relationships?

While I am by no means an expert on the subject, I can share with you my thoughts and observations.

  1. Be mindful about the type of investment this is. Not all relationships are equal. Some are meant for your enrichment, some are meant for you to learn patience and endurance as you pour into someone else for their enrichment. Some are mutually beneficial. Know which is which.
  2. Own it. Be intentional about what you want out of each relationship. While it’s very easy to have acquaintances and friends that are seemingly aimless, don’t tolerate that. Be deliberate and thoughtful about each relationship you have.
  3. Prune it. Reclassify relationships as required, and prune the ones that no longer serve a purpose. Relationships themselves will naturally run their course, and while it is certainly easier in the immediate instance to allow them to do that without your intervention, in the long run, you’ll find that being intentional here is going to be far better.
  4. Pour your life into it. For relationships that you’ve decided are worthwhile, go big. Don’t take half-measures, but pour your all into it. Relationships are two-way streets - the more you pour into them, the more you’ll get out of them.

My hope for you is that you will have a lifetime of rich experiences, and great relationships and companions to travel the road with you. Remember to go big, to dream without abandon, to give without expectation. And above all, love with everything that you’ve got.


My son,

One of the things I've learned over the years is the benefit of perspective. Seeing the world from a different vantage point is often much more beneficial than we might initially think. This becomes increasingly clear as the years go by.

Something one begins to notice is that there seem to be two types of people that emerge over time. The first are people who seem to be filled with wisdom, with understanding that is beyond their years, who have an uncanny ability to see the big picture. The second are, well, people that aren't.

What's the difference? Why are some people able to grow past the adolescent fascination with self and emerge as people who understand that they are but a small piece in a big puzzle, and some aren't?

Perspective.

I read a great quote the other day:

"[Wisdom] is moving over the course of one's life from the adolescent's close-up view of yourself, in which you fill the whole canvas, to a landscape view in which you see, from a wider perspective, your strengths and weaknesses, your connections and dependencies, and the role you play in a larger story" - David Brooks, The Road to Character

So how do we get there?

First, we need to realize that wisdom is obtained through lifetimes of diligent effort to dig deeply within. We obviously can't afford to live those lifetimes ourselves, so we must be willing to learn from the wisdom of others. In learning from others, we continue the refinement process that they began, and that another will complete after we are gone.

Secondly, we need to realize that life is too difficult to do on our own. We must rely on others that have come before us, and that are running the path with us. Blessed is the man who surrounds himself with others that are more wise than he, for he will gain the benefit of not just his own experiences and theirs, but the lifetimes of learning and refinement that have gone into those that have come before them.

It's all a matter of perspective.


My son,

One of the most beautiful things about the world is the vast diversity that's in it. We live among people of varying backgrounds, experiences, world views, beliefs, expectations, and biases - and that's a beautiful thing. It's an incredibly inspiring thing to see when people of different shapes and sizes come together to build something greater than themselves.

The only way that can happen is with empathy.

Empathy isn't about being nice. It's about having the ability to listen and to understand someone else's perspective, and to care about it. It's about setting aside your own biases and experiences and recognizing that there's value in an opinion or a thought that may be different than yours.

It's the thing that allows you to look at someone else and see the best in them, see the intrinsic value in them. It's the thing that let's you look past the veneer and see the common beauty of the human spirit in someone else, and make a connection with that.

And so my charge to you today is to abound in empathy. Life's too short to live alone. I want you to have a full life, one that is filled with mountaintop experiences that challenge you to be better, one that is surrounded by diverse and wonderful people that will push you out of your comfort zone, one that is deeply and richly connected to those around you.

From the time that you were conceived, your mother and I have prayed that you would grow up to be a man that is kind, that is empathetic to those around you, and that encourages and challenges people to be better. May you be empathetic, and may you make those lifelong connections, and in doing so live a rich and full life.


My son,

I love speed. You know this. But every so often, life needs a speed check.

Don't get me wrong - speed is great. It's exhilarating. It's adrenaline-inducing. It's memory-making.

But there comes a time when you need to slow down and take special care to the details that you might miss at high speeds. Here's why.

  1. Speed requires you to be looking forward always - since things come so quickly at you, you need to be focused on what's ahead to make sure you don't slam into a wall. And this is a great thing - focus enables us to do great things. It gives us purpose, gives us goals, gives us a drive to continue onward. But it also makes the things not in front of us relegated to our peripheral vision only.
  2. Speed requires you to act on instinct and intuition. Again, this can be a great thing - if we know the path ahead and are sure footed, this isn't a problem. But when the road becomes less clear and the path less obvious, speed gives us less time to react and adjust.
  3. Speed dulls your other senses, and you can get tunnel vision.

While all of those things aren't bad in themselves, life is about balance. Sometimes you have to slow down in order to see clearly. Sometimes, you need to take in all that's around you, examine the details, and see the hidden beauty in the things that are all around.

Remember that life isn't just about having a singular goal, even though at times those may be there. Life is about more than that - it's about the journey, about the people that are with you, about the small unexpected circumstances that you may find yourself in. It's about the small shared moments of disappointment. It's about the shared experience of comfort. It's about walking together through struggles. It's about celebrating together through victories. It's about making the most out of every moment that you've got, and sometimes, sometimes, you need to slow down to notice those things.


My son,

God created us to be in community. He designed us to live with others, to experience life with others, and to share our journeys with others. And with that shared journey comes the ability to be inspired by, and to inspire. To be challenged by, and to challenge. To be loved, and to love. To be taught, and to learn.

That's what mentoring is about.

It's about sharing the things that you've learned with others, and in turn learning from the experiences of others. It's an acknowledgement that you can't learn everything there is to learn in life on your own.

It's a commitment to another person saying that I will walk this next part of my journey with you. I will share things that may be uncomfortable or even unpleasant with you for the sake of our mutual trust and learning.

It's about building a bond of trust to allow someone else to see into your soul and to allow them to speak into it. It's about having the grace to look into the heart of another and treat it with care. It's about truly embodying the statement that together, we are better than the sum of our parts, and that "as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another".

I've been blessed in my life to have a small number of phenomenal mentors over the years. These men have poured into my life, have relentlessly pushed me to be better, and have shared with me pieces of their lives and their faith that have helped reveal to me the type of man that I want to become. And I am eternally grateful for their faithfulness.

In turn, I try to do that with others, and try to pour my time, care, and effort into their lives as well. As your mother has helped me discover, the legacy I want to leave is to be known as a person who inspires others to be the best that they can be.

And so my prayer for you is that not only do you find good mentors that will help you through the journeys that you'll go through, but that you too will walk alongside someone else and aid them in their adventures and be a guiding post for them as well.


My son,

Growing up, our family wasn't really big into celebrations - birthdays weren't a big deal, holidays were really just family hang out times and not big extravagant events, and even milestones while celebrated were always generally fairly subdued in nature.

Now, much of that is cultural, and a product of the era that your grandparents lived in, so I don't want you to read this and think that life in the Ng house was miserable and drab; far from it. In their own way, your grand parents taught your uncle and I how to value the right things, how to cherish your time with loved ones, how to work hard and how to enjoy the fruits of your labor.

My charge to you is to take all that one step further, and celebrate at the top of your lungs, with all the energy in your being.

Because that's what you'll remember - the big, over-the-top parties that you were a part of, the black tie ball that you went to for New Years Eve, the spontaneous trip you took to celebrate a promotion of a friend or a loved one. These are the memories that will stay with you and bring a smile to your face decades later. These are the things that your mother taught me to do (albeit sometimes against my will!), and are things that I am eternally grateful to her for.

You're almost two years old as I'm writing this, and one of the things you love to do is to cheer and make a big ruckus when you do something well. You love clapping for yourself (and getting everyone around you to clap with you!) when you use your fork to successfully shovel something in your mouth. You love cheering and throwing both arms in the air when you launch your favorite seahorse across the room. You love it when people around you clap or cheer; you clap and yell more loudly than them all.

My hope is that your mom and I are able to continue to encourage that in you, and that you'll grow up to be someone who celebrates the little things, because it's those little things that will stay with you. It's those little things that will make you a good-natured person. It's those little things that will keep you smiling and hopeful even when life gets rough. And it's those little things that will bring people together to celebrate and to run life together.


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