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 #Forward

My sons,

To some, our world today may look bleak. We are at the end of the second year of COVID-19 life, with the world still teetering and toying with the idea of reopening. In an ever evolving story with what seems like as many setbacks as victories, this pandemic thing certainly isn’t over, already amassing almost 6 million deaths. In the midst of all of that we have the various racial hate crimes that have sprung up on top of an already volatile world.

Closer to home, the stress added by this quarantining pandemic life has caused much unrest, emotional instability, anxiety, and hardship. Many people have lost jobs, have been forced out of homes they can no longer afford, and become increasingly dependent on an insufficient system.

The Good Book is pretty clear that this is expected:

“In this life, you will have trouble. But take heart! For I have overcome the world.” - John 16:53

Our history books, religious texts, and novels are all replete with characters that have experienced much hardship. Characters riddled with flaws and insecurities for whom life pulls no punches. Characters who in spite of huge diversity and against all odds emerge victorious. Characters like King David, George Washington, Maverick, Maximus, and even Frodo Baggins - all of them had the odds stacked against them and still emerged victorious.

Why?

It isn’t that there was no fear or self-doubt; no, these characters all displayed a healthy amount of those. Nor did they have redeemers come to deliver them from their circumstances with some overwhelming force. No, the reason these great characters were triumphant was internal. It is their mindset, their approach to the situation. Their ability to see the pitfalls all around them, “bogies like fireflies in the sky”, and say those two simple words: “and yet”.

Those two words change the equation. They change our entire outlook. Those two small and simple words have a world of impact because they reshape our posture. They take us from the defensive (and occasionally defenseless) posture full of fear and dread for what’s next to one of hope and determination that “this too shall pass”.

With that shift in mindset our entire being changes. No longer are we helpless victims of circumstance; we are confident owners of our destiny. Yes, we have been dealt a rough hand. But it is our hand to play, our hard work to put in, our hope to place and hold on to.

I love the story of Horatio Spafford, the man who penned one of my favorite songs. A prominent and successful lawyer, Spafford lost his 4 year old son in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Shortly thereafter, he and his wife planned to take their 4 daughters to London. Due to complications with his business, he was delayed but sent his family ahead. They were shipwrecked, and his wife alone survived the tragic accident, and sent him a telegraph containing two words: “Saved. Alone.”

It was on the ship he took to rejoin with her that he penned these famous lines:

“When peace like a river attendeth my way,
when Sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.”

Imagine for a moment that voyage. Imagine Horatio leaning against the railing looking out to an endless ocean, tears streaming down his cheeks as he finally has a moment where he is forced to rest. Imagine the grief, the anguish, perhaps even the anger at the injustice of it all. The long journey with nothing to do but to think, to remember, to commiserate, to mourn.

Somewhere on that journey through endless water, through memories, through heaving sobs and pain; somewhere on this man’s journey dealing with the unimaginable those two little words spark a light. Small and flickering at first, that light grows and spreads, illuminating the man’s soul until he is able to say, “and yet, it is well with my soul”.

How do we get that? How do we ensure that we’ve got a fertile environment where those two little words can sprout and take root?

EXPOSE YOURSELF TO A RANGE OF PERSPECTIVES

It is human nature to believe that in times of adversity we are alone. It is a natural fear, and a common worry. Even when we are not physically alone, even when we have some blessed friends who want to shoulder our burdens with us, we will often push them away believing that they do not, can not understand. We believe our experiences to be singularly unique.

Chances are, they are not.

By regularly exposing ourselves to a range of perspectives and trying to understand them, by listening to the stories of others, we see that in fact we are not alone. Others have struggled with many similar struggles that on the surface may seem different but in reality have a lot more similarities than we may have originally thought. In seeking to understand others we allow ourselves the space to believe that we too may be understood and may not be alone, and can therefore not only withstand and weather the storm but can see that this too shall pass.

DO THE WORK TO BE SECURE OF YOUR IDENTITY

Identity is important. It is hard work. It is that which we believe about ourselves. It is the thing that gives us inner strength. There is great power in one’s identity.

When we are secure in our identity, our value, our self-worth, we can respond to adversity not by deeming it unfair, not by dwelling on the fact that we did nothing to deserve this. We can instead respond by seeing the event as unfortunate, and know that despite this, (“and yet”), we will still move forward and thrive.

SURROUND YOURSELF WITH POSITIVE AND RESILIENT PEOPLE

I would be remiss not to mention this out. We know that bad company corrupts good morals. We know that passion is additive and contagious. We know that our environment greatly impacts not only our choices but also the connections we make and the experiences we have that ultimately govern those choices.

Thus by surrounding ourselves with positive and resilient people we are able not only to learn from them but to be changed by them. In witnessing their resilience, in walking with them through their struggles we prime ourselves to do the same.

My boys, life is not going to be easy. It wasn’t meant to be. There will be challenges that help refine you. There will be hardships for you to endure. My prayer is that you will face them, understand them, and be able to say those two small but powerful words, “and yet”.


My sons,

Today I want to talk about one of the most dangerous phrases in the English language. Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? I assure you that the phrase itself is indeed very powerful, and is also incredibly common. It is a phrase as old as time, and has been uttered by kings and peasants, rich and poor, young and old, the educated and the ignorant, even the wise and the foolish. It is a phrase that does not discriminate against any measurable external trait, but rather is a strong indicator of the internal human condition. It is the phrase, “if only”.

You’ve heard it before, and may have even said it to yourself a time or two.

“If only I was smarter, or taller, or better looking.
If only I had more money, or more friends.
If only she still loved me.
If only I paid more attention in class.
If only he didn’t mock me.
If only they had let me into their club.”

This phrase is dangerous not because of anything it conveys, but rather because of the mindset it exposes. It is such a seemingly harmless phrase, yet it expresses so much of the underlying internal condition. And as with all habits, if left unattended, it will change our character and will permanently impact the way we approach the world. Several negative ramifications we should be wary of:

WE DWELL IN THE PAST

If we look carefully, the words immediately following the “if only” are almost always anchored in the past. If only someone hadn’t wronged you, if only you had a better teammate, or if only you had chosen differently. Even the future sounding cues are really anchored in the past! If only she would take more initiative, if only he would be more kind. While those may sound forward looking, they aren’t! If only she took more initiative implies that she didn’t in the past!

The down side of dwelling in the past is that it’s just that - the past. We cannot move life forward when we have our gaze fixed on the past. Life is designed to be forward moving. We are meant to grow, to progress. It’s wired into the very fabric of our being! Every living thing is designed to move forward. The circle of life doesn’t go backwards! It is ever forward moving, and though it is cyclic, it does not run in the reverse direction.

You cannot move forward if you are fixated on the past.

WE FOCUS ON THE NEGATIVE

If only statements are generally negative. They point towards something that we wish didn’t happen, some event that we wish had gone differently, some regrettable circumstance that may have been thrust upon us. Human nature already fixates on the negative. A single traumatic event is often enough to have us spending a lifetime avoiding that same situation again.

This is a survival instinct that helped humanity tens of thousands of years ago cope with its environment. While modern advancements in research, in categorization, and in education have allowed us to understand much of our planet, this was not always so. Our ancestors could not point their smartphone camera at some plant and have Google tell you type of plant it is along with nutritional information, whether it has any medicinal properties, and how to pair it with other ingredients to turn it into an amazing salad. No, mankind of old learned things the hard way and avoided things it did not know; especially if it had a negative or painful experience.

We no longer live in that world, and yet our instinct of emphasis on traumatic events still remains. Journalists capitalize on this fact. The news is centered on the dramatic, the traumatic, and the negative. We don’t need more negativity; in fact, we need much more of the opposite. The world is not as bad as it seems, and things are getting much better! But we are not wired to see that, and so must fight against things that focus our attention on the negative.

WE DON’T TAKE RESPONSIBILITY

If only such and such a thing happened, then the result would have been much better. If only my team was better, then we would have won. If only mom cooked better, then I would have healthier eating habits.

These statements all push the burden of responsibility off of ourselves; we shift the blame to the thing that didn’t happen instead of acknowledging our own culpability in the matter. It is no longer our fault! If the other person had done better, or if the referee had not singled me out, or if she didn’t have it out for me from day one, then things would have been different and I would have had a more desirable outcome.

• • •


My sons, do not believe those lies. Do not focus on the negative events of the past, placing blame and judgement on others. Rather set your mind on the future; look forward for the next things that will come, and be hopeful for that future! Yes, there may be pain and suffering, but there will also be joy! Laughter! Beauty, love, romance, and new shared experiences! These are what we live for and look forward to. I pray you fix your eyes on those things and not the failings of the past. Acknowledge the past, take responsibility, learn from your mistakes, then move on, move forward.

I love you boys, and am so proud and happy to be able to move life forward with you!


My sons,

You’ve both often heard me talk about having discipline, being efficient, and living intentionally. Without a doubt those are great things to work towards and to cultivate in your lives. Yet as with most things in this world, there is a balance that when struck correctly brings out an undeniable beauty. That balance is the skillful art of creating space, and knowing when and how to do so.

Space

The finest art is that which speaks most loudly to you. As the observer, yours is the only opinion that matters. Regardless of the artist, the medium, the subject matter, the artist’s intention as they created the piece, or even the opinions of the critics, the finest art is that which speaks most profoundly to you alone as the one experiencing that art.

Truly great art leaves space for the observer to explore, discover, and to savor.

It has been said that art is that which you leave out. It is the space created for you to fill with your thoughts, your background, your experiences, your worries, your struggles, and your triumphs. And once filled, it is the gentle nudge that begs us to deeply contemplate.

This concept is one that transcends art and finds its home in many other areas of life. In sports, coaches tell their players to train hard before the game and then to clear their head to give space for their instincts to take over. In love we give space to those we love to allow them to work out their feelings and choose to reciprocate. In music we have natural breath marks, spaces intended to allow the mind to settle and root itself on a mood or theme before being whisked away again. In friendship we share our thoughts and opinions with our friends and then give them the space to choose their own path while we support them wholly. Even in the act of Creation, God rested on the seventh day and made space.

Space to remember

It is with great intention and reverence that we create space to remember. At funerals we create a solemn space to remember the deceased and the life that they led, their impact on us, what they meant to us. At memorials we create an aura of silence to honor the dead and their sacrifice. At graduations we prompt our graduates to pause and reflect on their accomplishments in preparation for what is to come.

Space allows the heart to reminisce, to slowly and deliberately consider that which we are remembering, and to place ourselves in the midst of that experience once more. It allows us to experience more deeply, to love more deeply, to honor more deeply.

Space to heal

We need space to heal. The body cannot heal if we continue to put pressure and strain on our injury. The heart cannot heal if it is constantly being battered and under attack. The mind cannot heal if we continue to relive our trauma without the space or the tools to rewire our thinking. The soul cannot heal if it is not given the time to receive nourishment. When we have broken relationship, we instinctively ask for time and space to think, to ponder, and to heal. Without ever being taught, we know this. Deeply.

It is in that space that we are able to choose to heal, that we are able to take action towards healing. It is not a coincidence that many cultures have mourning rituals that specifically call for time and space to mourn. It is not a PR stunt for companies to offer bereavement time to their employees. It is because the space allows us to mourn, to remember, to honor, and then to integrate the reality of loss into our lives.

Space to grow

As a species, we are wired for growth, for forward movement. It is no wonder we have so many metaphors and images for growth. Perhaps one of the most common and well known images is that of spreading our wings and flying. We know this. We feel it. At a very early age, we instinctively spread our arms wide as we imagine taking flight and going to places currently out of our reach.

The beauty and glory of that image is not only in the jubilant and expectant pose we take, but also of the space around us; the space to explore, the vast horizon spread before us, the breathtaking view of the mountain we are about to soar over.

Human beings are meant to grow, and we need space to do that.

And so I urge you to create space. It may seem counterintuitive. It may feel awkward and unnatural. It may appear destructive at worst and not helpful at best. But we all need space. As you navigate your lives, my prayer for you is that you learn when you need space, how to skillfully create it, and how to confidently and unapologetically take the space that you need.

I love you boys.


My sons,

Something I’ve always valued is retrospection and introspection. Looking back at our experiences to learn from them, and looking within to thoughtfully consider the choices, decisions, and actions we’ve taken are two very good habits to build. As with any habit, it’s best to start building them early and when one doesn’t need them yet. Taking a page from Robert Redford in Spy Game:

“When did Noah build the ark, Gladys?”
“…“
“Before the rain.”

Looking back on this year, it has definitely been one for the history books with all the unexpected twists and turns. It’s been a trying year for most, full of challenges, upset routines, and new and very real fears. It’s brought folks face to face with many insecurities: meaning, purpose, relationship, isolation. It has caused many to look forward, to desire a different future, and to even take action towards making that different future happen.

As we think through those new beginnings, I want us to consider a few important things.

The future is decided by optimists

I’m not just being optimistic here myself, hoping for a future that is defined by optimists. The future will always be decided by optimists.

Why? Because it’s human nature to desire inspiration, to follow those that are inspiring. We are wired to move life forward, to strive for a tomorrow that’s better than today. Optimists paint those pictures, tell those stories, and dream of those grand and epic scenarios.

We aren’t attracted to pessimists. We may resonate with their negativity, and we may seem to connect over a shared disdain, fear, or dislike, but ultimately they don’t attract or inspire us in the long run. It’s the optimists that attract us, and ultimately it will be the optimists that change the world for the better and decide what our future looks like.

Be FOR other people

Coming out of this isolating time, I would challenge us all to be more for other people. We’ve already had enough focus on ourselves this year. Let us make tomorrow more about other people than ourselves. Let us make it a time where we think more of others, do more for others, care more for others, and love others more.

It’s never too late to start

Lastly, it’s never too late to start making the changes you want to see in yourself! If I’ve learned anything at all this year, it is that it’s never to late to get started.

You may have had a rocky start. You may have rough soil to work with. You may have spent years down a path that you’re not happy about. But that’s okay. We move life forward, one step at a time. Tomorrow isn’t defined by what you did yesterday; it’s defined by what you set your mind to do tomorrow. So as we start this new beginning, my challenge to you both is to start it by being optimistic that the best is yet to come, and by setting your minds on being for other people.

Happy new year!


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