how to ruin anything

i set a lot of goals for myself. a lot. i like breaking these down into sets of tasks then listing them, with great specificity, on pieces of paper where i can check them off. this leaves me at great risk for feeling massive amounts of success and failure, accomplishment and lack thereof. some times i like to turn even leisurely activities into tasks to be completed. let me re-state that. sometimes my drivenness causes me to turn activities that should be engaged in for fun into accomplishments to be accumulated. this goes against everything i deeply believe in: being present to the moment, resisting comparisons and judgement, and believing that who i am is more important than what i do. i want to bring my behavior into line with these more deeply held ideals and yet i am too often a prisoner to my own cognitive and behavioral bad habits and unconscious hurtful tendencies. 

every summer i set a goal for myself regarding how many outdoor concerts i will attend. this began several years ago when i realized i wasn’t making time to engage in things that fed my soul. in these early years i needed opportunities to be lost in a crowd, in natural urban settings, enjoying music and getting opportunities to dance and rest concurrently. my hope was that in creating a measurable goal for myself i would hold myself accountable to doing something that was difficult for me. i have been realizing, however, that this has turned into a weighty pursuit for me, causing me to race and run and stress about how to accomplish it. my goal has become a ridiculous finish line of sorts that has me engaging something that should be beautiful in a way that is anything but.

in realizing how often i’ve ruined my own fun (and growth) with this kind of behavior, i have come to create a new list of how to ruin anything. if you, like me, have a tendency to turn every good idea, well meaning endeavor, or altruistic impulse into an imperative with power to determine your worth, read on.

doreen’s incomplete, but fully potent, list of how to ruin anything: 

1 make it a competition (even if only with yourself).

competition can be good. it can spur us toward greater effort and even inspire us to push ourselves into spaces we might not otherwise explore. it can also, however, kill. experiences are to be had, not captured and clung to like trophies to display. winning for winning’s sake is shallow when substituted for experiencing something fully. the journey toward a goal is rife with meaning and pregnant with opportunity. if we push too hard, too fast, and too single-mindedly toward winning/achieving/accumulating a certain outcome, we miss all the gifts that the journey offers. setting a number, a benchmark, or a rank that will mean you’ve “won/accomplished/achieved” sets you up to place yourself in one of two categories: success or failure. 

we are healthier when we are flexible, adaptable, resilient, and open. too focused a stare on the finish line (e.g. “i’ll succeed when i’ve lost X pounds,” “i can’t rest until i close X number of sales,” “i will be sitting pretty when i’ve amassed X amount in my savings,” “i can take a break when i have every single closet in my house cleaned,” “i will have arrived when i have 1000 facebook friends/twitter followers,” etc) keeps us from getting to learn from the entire journey. crossing the finish line is one thing. fully engaging the struggle to get there is a different thing all together. it affords the sweat and struggle and muscle pulls and defeated thoughts and so much more to teach us, to shape us, and to keep us aware that there is so much to be learned in trying. possibly even more than there is in simply “winning.”

2 make it (super) public.

there is no better way to feed a competitive streak (even if only with our selves) than to make our goals known publicly. post the goal, tell our friends, begin wearing t-shirts (affixing bumper stickers, wearing buttons, you get the drift...) that let on to the pursuit, then constantly include the goal and our progress toward it in facebook and instagram feeds. bring it up in every conversation. this will cement our focus on accomplishing an outcome rather than on learning from the journey. if we have any tendency toward missing to forest for the trees, making our efforts overly public will assure us of missing even the trees for the leaves.

it’s important to note that i am not talking about passing up opportunities for emotional support, accountability, and help. those are all fantastic and sometimes public in really wonderful ways. rather, i’m talking about the tendency we all face to engage our goals as if they have the power to define us then making sure others know just how well we’re doing. which brings me to...

3 give your pursuit(s) a lot of power to determine your worth/value/coolness or hipness.

most of us deal with deep feelings of insecurity and inferiority. we create personas based on what we can and have accomplished and hope that they will be enough to win us approval and connection. the reality is, however, that we are who we are, not what we accomplish. brene brown says it best when she says that “you can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability.” sometimes the most vulnerable thing is to admit to who we truly are rather than to try to accomplish our way into who we are not. it takes a lot of courage to be a journey-er and experience-er rather than a finisher in the world’s eyes (or possibly even in your own).

4 evaluate your progress (or lack there of) every single chance you get.

knowing where we are is important. basing our sense of worth on where we are, however, is dangerous. a fixed mindset says that we are valuable when we have achieved this or that goal. it says that we can arrive and that our worth is based upon succeeding or failing to do so. it also implies that we can go from winner to loser based upon our performance. a growth mindset, on the other hand, says that effort and openness build upon our inherent worth and bring us to places of greater resiliency and maturity. 

trying (and keeping trying) is more important than accomplishing. effort is more important than acquisition. rewarding behaviors that place the emphasis on these truths keeps us aware that, in the long run, the journey is the most potent prize.

5 keep at it even after you know you should jump ship.

sometimes our goals sustain us. they keep us trying and growing and getting healthier. sometimes, however, we run amuck and they become unhealthy focal points, making us feel like winners or losers even though the pursuits are purely arbitrary. when they bring us to places of rigid success/failure mindsets or when they cause us to forego the important lessons of the journey in order to win the prize it is time to lay them down. they have lost their power for good.

which brings me to this, it is july 25 and i am two thirds of the way to my summer concert goal. this goal has been something i’ve been really proud of and blessed by. it’s pushed me to do important things and has taught me much. i need, however, to put it aside. music and dancing and being lost in a crowd are just too important to me to ruin them and i have learned i can ruin just about anything. so tonight, if and when i find some music to enjoy, i will not count and i will not post and i will not let myself feel i’ve accomplished anything other than being in the moment. (insert huge sigh of humbled relief.) anyone wantneed to join me in lightening their load by laying something down before it's entirely ruined? we can learn so much together.


what is real?

i’ve been thinking a lot lately about what is real.

it’s not uncommon, after hearing one of my talks or stumbling across my blog, for people to communicate with me about how much they notice the youth among them choosing their cell phones/ipads/video games over their “real” lives. it’s easy to nod knowingly and riff on the presented theme. a few months back, however, a brilliant faculty member from a prestigious liberal arts college, challenged the members of a panel i was on about what the phrase “real life” really even means anymore. at the time, i stumbled around for an answer, eventually redirecting to the need for balance between digital life and embodied life. i really wish i could answer that question today because, from here, the answer i gave looks really lame.

a couple of weeks ago i sat in a crowded pub watching the u.s.a. vs. belgium world cup game. sitting, alone, amongst hundreds of strangers to watch a game on a large flat screen, i marveled at the palpable energy of the assembled mass. there was nothing not real about the experience we all shared in the space of the 3 hours for which we were gathered. we cheered as though our encouragement could literally affect play (why else would 300 people chant “u - s - a” over and over at an image projected onto a slide projector screen?). we hung our heads at missed opportunities and high fived every heroic save made by tim howard. sure, we weren’t sitting in the real stadium, in the real host country of brazil but we were having a real experience together.

there are so many ways that this kind of realization applies both to our relationships with technology tools and the people/places/experiences that they make available to us.

we have, as a people, developed very real responses and attachments to our devices. headlines almost two years ago reported that the brain responds to iphone message indicators in similar patterns as it does to love. we can go full days without many things, but leave our phones behind and we feel agitated and anxious, certain that we will miss out for the lack of them. and, actually, we likely will. without said phones how will we find our way, send a message, recall a phone number, know the time, or take notes or photos? we have come to rely upon these devices in very real ways and we have attached real feelings to them. we’re grateful for the specificity and accuracy of the directions they give, information they deliver, and content they provide access to. we’re giddy with how effective they make us and relieved when they can save us from loneliness or boredom. sometimes we imagine them as experiencing feelings for us. how could they not love us when they’ve learned us so well and deliver so amazingly consistently. i catch myself, at times, feeling guilty when i miss a turn that siri directs me to make. i actually feel bad for making her recalculate the route. the reality of this humbles me. 

not only do we feel real feelings toward our devices but we have real experiences in the digital spaces they deliver us into. the friends that a middle or high school aged boy makes online while playing mmorpg’s (that’s massive multi-player online role playing games for those of you new to the acronym) quickly become real friends to him. they may never meet in embodied space but they will, over the course of game play, spend immense amounts of time amassing shared experiences with strategy in environments made specifically to heighten emotion. the same can be said for anyone who meets others in an online game, chat space, or digital environment. the connections may not be happening between people in a shared physical space but the emotions and connections that are stirred and strengthened are every bit as real.

yesterday i stopped into a well known restaurant chain to order a customized sandwich. this is not an “i’ll take a number 2 with everything” place. you have a lot of preferences to communicate with the artist making your sandwich. it was lunch time and the place was packed. the person ahead of me had earbuds in both ears and was on an active call. her four year old daughter held a $20 bill but couldn’t see over the counter or talk loudly enough to be heard. i was shocked when the mother completed her entire order and payment without ever removing an earbud or interrupting her call. i wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt. i kept waiting to hear, “what hospital?” or “i can’t believe you’ve called me mr. president!” or “is triple A on their way?” i wanted to believe that the call was so important that it absolutely couldn’t be interrupted to order her daughter’s lunch. instead, i overheard mentions of where they’d vacationed the week before, who was there, and what she made for dinner while pointing and gesturing about what to include or omit on the sandwich being made for her. clearly, the person with whom she was talking was much more real to her than any of us in her embodied context. she made that overwhelmingly clear.

we all have experiences like this. they leave us feeling stirred up and wanting to righteously  point out the rudeness that we have witnessed to the person who perpetuated it. we want to rant, and we do. and then, when we’re bored in line or awkward in public or just alone we turn to our own devices to entertain, comfort, and distract us from those in our embodied/real environments. they keep us even from real interaction with our selves. we are all, i suspect, guilty of choosing the digital real to the embodied real from time to time.

no longer can we say, “so and so avoids their real life by spending their time with video games,” or “we’re facebook friends but not real friends,” or, “sure i watch porn online but it’s not like i act out in my real life.” we just can’t. our digital lives are part of our real lives and it’s up to us to make sure we maintain a balance, keep ourselves capable of embodied connection, and be willing to put our devices fully away from time to time. 

and so, ask yourself, “what is my real?” observe the ratio of digital real to embodied real in your own life and weigh in with your self about where adjustments might be made. every time you feel tempted to evaluate someone else’s success or failure in navigating the balance, let it go and give them reason, healthy/embodied/compelling reasons, to connect with you in real time and with real meaning...where ever that may be.


kids in hot cars

last week the news was rife with warnings about leaving children in hot cars. it’s a real problem, causing real deaths. on one morning news show a very brave father chose to disclose his own terrible reality of having forgotten his sleeping child in the back seat of his car on a hot day when he was under a particularly heavy load of stress and distraction. his child died. i have nothing but empathy for this person’s grief.

after this truth telling, heart wrenching interview, the reporter went on to give tips to prevent such scenarios from recurring. his final suggestion was to place your cell phone next to your child’s car seat and leave it there while you drive. when you get out of the car you will remember to get your cell phone, thus noticing your child.

let me continue by saying, i am the last person in the world competent to judge others. as i’ve grown my own contemplative/mindfulness practice i have worked diligently to notice more and judge less. these thoughts are based on exactly that. i have no interest in judging parents who have or will (for whatever reason that either does or does not make sense to me) left/leave their children in hot cars. what i do have interest in is noticing that we might, as a culture, remember to find our children in the back seat if we leave our cell phones there. that we might forget to notice our children are there but not forget to retrieve our phones catches my attention.

what else might we have remembered in the past that we now rely on our cell phones for? sure, they’re handy tools and they afford us a wealth of conveniences, but are we really comfortable assigning them as much life sustaining power as we have? 

as we launch into a new week how might we live differently if we put as much energy into remembering to charge, update, and keep present our embodied relationships as we do to charging, updating, and carrying our phones? how might our experiences change if we really, fully had them instead of photographing/recording them? what time might be freed up if we only looked at our phones periodically rather than every time they indicated something new had happened. might we stay more present to those in the seats of our metaphorical (and physical) cars?

just once (or perhaps more than once) this week might we take the risk of putting our phones in the back seat of our lives and leave them there not to remind us of the embodied people and experiences that live there but, instead, to free us to them.


guns: what i would write if i were not afraid

years ago my precious cousin kindra told me she wished i would write a blog titled “what i would write if i were not afraid.” she said that she felt such a title might give me internal permission to write with less care about what people might think. kindra...this is a post for that blog.

i’ve experienced a lot of internal conflict this week and it is only tuesday.

it all started on sunday when a friend’s fiance invited me to her birthday party. i am big on celebrating people so i accepted the invitation without much thought even though the gathering included a round of lazer tag, an activity i have consistently avoided. i talked to myself while i drove to “ultra zone.” surely i had overreacted all those years ago when i declared that i would “never, ever run around in the dark shooting at children who had been amped up on birthday cake and coke” and expressed concern regarding the wisdom of frequenting such places altogether.  i went on to justify my participation by reminding myself that i would be shooting people with what boiled down to a presentation pointer in the casing of a glorified squirt gun in a room filled with black lights and the sounds of 80’s music.  “stop being so ridiculous and intense.” i told myself. “lighten up.” minutes later, vested up and emerging from the dark staging room with my 7 friends and 30 children we didn’t know, the red team posed for a picture. what stuck with me all day was not the weighty vest, the awkwardness of running around in a small space with people i didn’t know, or the “hot kid” smell. what stayed with me was the pose i struck when holding a gun in front of a camera. “tough” doesn’t quite cut it. “bad ass” might just say it best. i was uncomfortable before i saw the photo published on instagram. after seeing it, i squirmed.

a day later, late at night and too tired for rational decision making, i clicked through news stories about the shooting at seattle pacific university where several of my children’s friends attend. i have a thin skin when it comes to these events. while the homicide in my own family happened nearly 19 years ago, it left my sister in law and three nieces dead and my mother in law, who witnessed the killing, severely traumatized. one of my nieces was five months old when she was shot by her father. it’s hard to not feel weak in the knees when you know that some other family, maybe one much like your own, is being told that their loved one has died at a crime scene. not quite tired enough to actually sleep, i foolishly navigated to video coverage of an “open carry” event that had happened earlier in the day in another part of the country. people of all shapes and sizes were shown milling about public spaces of all sorts with their “long guns,” rifles, and hand guns slung over their shoulders or clipped to holders on their belts. a young man who was interviewed claimed that “defending [their] right to carry [their] weapons [was] the MOST IMPORTANT THING.”

i went to bed feeling sick. it wasn’t so much my political position on guns that created this reality. it wasn’t even my passion for non violent communication or my personal history with gun related human death. what made me squirm was how i, myself, had posed holding that stupid lazer gun the day before. 

things didn’t get better when i woke up this morning and learned that the police from my own city were headed to a school where an active shooter had not yet been detained. the images from the “carry in” mixed with those of the parents who were waiting to hear from their children in my mind. then i thought of myself, holding that stupid plastic gun, and realized that even i have, at some level, bought in to the idea that a gun makes me cool. it may sound like a stretch, but, trust me, i’ve never struck that tough a pose while holding anything else in front of a camera.   

what is it about guns that makes us feel powerful?

something needs to change. just because we can carry guns doesn’t mean we always should. when any persons’ life has been ended by violence perpetrated by a person with a gun it seems to me that one of the least empathic responses would be to organize a mass display of weaponry in casual and proud ways. guns, in and of themselves, cannot be bad. they are simply objects. when, however, we become inoculated to their potential, calloused to the reality of the impact that those that shoot them can create, or blindly accepting of all types in all places, i believe we need to think more deeply. struggle. reason. understand. and act.

i have watched mild mannered, mature adults as they have scanned their screens while gaming, pushing buttons to release digital ammunition, and marveled at the intensity of their focus and animation as they engaged their targets. i’ve observed whole-house nerf wars in my own home and wondered what it was about popping out from hidden spaces and shooting someone that elicited glee in individuals who rarely emote openly. i took in the recorded images of adults milling about big box stores and coffee shops with guns and wondered what it might feel like to be among them. while i think i would likely feel fear i know that i would also feel anger and this anger would not be simple. it would be complex and multi-faceted and loud and confusing and, very likely, ugly.

it’s exactly these kinds of complex and difficult feelings that all of us face from time to time. these feelings make us feel powerless, marginalized, mis-understood, alone, and far from bad ass. some of us more than others. i have to imagine that most individuals who choose to turn a gun on a person feel them in a unique and difficult way. some times we turn to habits to help us through such feelings, some times substances, at other times we internalize the difficulties and hurt ourselves with ruminating and depression and anxiety. some people confront the complexity with words, some with actions, some with passivity, some with denial, some with escape and some with guns.

in my opinion, guns will never work as a method of finding personal power.

we must spread this message. we must spread it in a multitude of ways in a multitude of settings. we must spread it with our choices regarding our children’s toys and games and with what we choose to become comfortable with in the way of play. we must spread it with how we model and engage conflict resolution. we must spread it actively and passively, with words and actions, with those we know and those we don’t know yet. we must spread it in our homes and classrooms and, yes, i believe, even in our courtrooms because power comes from who we are inside and not what we carry and there is no human dilemma unsolvable by personal power channeled appropriately rather than through the trigger of a gun.


the person behind the curtain

the other day, i said to a friend, “i have a ridiculous amount of empathy for anyone trying to raise a child today.” i paused a moment then added, “i also have a ridiculous amount of empathy for anyone trying to grow up today.” after a beat i just went for the full message i wanted to convey, “oh shit,” i said, “i just have a stupid amount of empathy for anyone who even tries to get out of bed these days.”

i meant it.

why? because i am a person who tries to get out of bed and i know lots of others who try to do the same. i also know the thing we all need more of is empathy. 

here’s the thing: life is really hard. really. hard.

i’ve known this for a long time and yet it never ceases to amaze me how many ways this adage proves itself true. even still, we mostly keep on living. our lungs take in oxygen, our hearts pump blood, and we breathe and blink (as my daughter so beautifully states). difficulties we could never imagine present themselves. situations so absurd they border on comical (if they weren’t so terrible) knock us off course. rumors are spread, cars are smashed, jobs are lost, chemicals become so familiar to our systems that we sacrifice relationships for them, children suffer, people die, others live (especially the ones that are so hard for us to live with), and hurts of all kinds trickle into our lives like ants seeking a crumb on the kitchen floor. they congregate, it seems, until we feel hopeless or numb, overtaken and overwhelmed, defeated.

the most frequent action i notice, in response to the events and occurrences that make life hard, is isolation. “what would people think?” “they would never understand.” “this is all my fault.” “i suck!” “they have it so together.” “i am a magnet for this crap.” are all messages we play like a scratched vinyl record over and over in our heads. eventually the messages take hold and we hide away in our literal or intrapersonal closets.

what we show on the outside is oh so different from the mantras occupying our minds and keeping us hidden away. like the man behind the curtain in oz, we construct falsified selves that keep people so distracted or mesmerized or revolted or whatever that no one thinks to stop and evaluate whether or not this “wizard” is actually real. our false smiles, our impeccable appearances, our “i’m greats,” our excuses, and a plethora of other habits create smoke and mirrors. in our certainty that our pain is a reflection of our worth or that our suffering is an indication of our lack, we hide ourselves away. sharing our hurts, revealing our wounds, being honest about how much empathy we need all become impossible feats when we’re sure they’ll garner us nothing but more judgement, pain, and rejection.

none of this helps. 

it’s time to pull back the curtain. it’s time to let ourselves know that we are only human. it’s o.k. for others to realize this as well. sure, we’ve trained ourselves and the people in our lives to think of us as great and all powerful but we aren’t and there’s such relief in that reality. there’s comfort in your humanity greeting my humanity and expecting nothing more. or less. from this shared space we can welcome each other with the open arms and gracious acceptance that empathy paves the way for. we may not know the perfect thing to say. we might bumble and disappoint and need to actively fight our tendency to judge and label. we might have to appear unprepared and less than perfect, but we’ll be real and honest and known and loved from there. and Lord knows, we all need that. and we need to give it as well.

so i begin this week with the curtain open and my humanity up front. i welcome yours as well...even if you think i do not. one thing is for sure...our hurting, real, vulnerable, beautiful, frustrating humanity is the one thing that we most certainly share.


buying friends and followers

two emails hit my inbox at nearly the same time today. one was from an acquaintance who is a licensed professional counselor expressing surprise and sadness in response to her adolescent clients’ drive to acquire friends and followers on social networks. she was wondering if i could suggest resources for these kids (and their grown ups) regarding how to live healthily in this new race-for-friends reality. the second was from a stranger who had been “checking out my online presence” and wanted to extend to me a “special opportunity to expand my reach and build my following.” long story short, for a mere $100 he was offering to provide me with 1,000 facebook likes, 1,000 new twitter followers, or 10,000 youtube views. how thoughtful.

this is not a first. when my blog hit a certain number or followers and my professional facebook page began getting more traffic, the offers started rolling in. they elicit the same thought every time. “you think you’re having an impact now? just wait and see what will happen when you APPEAR to be having an even larger one!” who cares if the followers/friends/likes/views come from real, embodied people; if i SEEM important, i will become important.

it sort of makes me feel sick.

what makes me feel this way isn’t only the offers. it’s my response, which is, every time, to consider them. it is embarrassing to admit this.

i believe at the core of our being is a need to be seen. to be known. in my own narrative this is why God wired infants’ eyes to be able to focus only about as far as the crook of their parents arms to their gazing eyes for a long while after birth. it’s why we long to be gazed lovingly at as we grow. this same need is also why we are so sensitive to negative looks. critical glances. evil eyes.

in our current digital reality we so often trade the wishlongingneed to be known for an ability to be seen. we’ve traded self awareness and self love for self promotion. we/i toy with buying followers, friends, and likes. even if we don’t spend money for them we spend time and energy and attention to garner them. sometimes there is no cost and it’s pure fun or connection or information giving/gathering.

but sometimes it is not those things. sometimes we really believe that the numbers are what matters. 10,000 views are better than 500. 50 likes means more than 10. and so on and so forth. even if, perhaps especially if, we don’t admit it...we notice.

so i ask you now to hold me accountable and i am willing to do so for you. let’s gaze at each other in all the meaningfulgrowing ways and not in the inflatingthefalseself ways that we so naturally gravitate toward in today’s “bigger is better” economy. remind me that love is the only currency that buys friends and likes and that having followers pales in comparison to being known.


gun control

this post is the chapter i contributed to the book just moms: conveying justice in an unjust world. to read the other thoughtful chapters revolving around the challenges and joys of raising empathic, social justice minded children, you can order the book here:  http://www.barclaypressbookstore.com/Just-Moms.html

Gun Control

Doreen Dodgen-Magee 

Doreen Dodgen-Magee is the mother of Connor and Kaija and wife of Thomas. She relishes celebrating people and collecting unique experiences. A psychologist in private practice, she maintains a busy public-speaking docket and is passionate about empowering people to live countercultural, relationally rich lives. 
Her insights on the impact of technology on families can be found at doreendm.com.
TWELVE, and full of seventh-grade machismo, Connor hopped in the van after school with a mind full of ideas and a mouth full of plans. Sharing excitedly about his day, his diatribe ended with, “And all the guys and I have been talking, and I know what I want to do with my allowance. There’s a new airsoft gun I want to buy.” In a flash I became angry and agitated. Airsoft guns, which are realistic-looking guns that shoot small, round pellets and are used by middle school and high school boys to play “war,” were all the rage at the time. Any gathering of boys was sure to be peppered with talk of models of such guns and descriptions of face masks and other padding made to protect one from the inevitable bruises that come with a good backyard battle.
We had discussed “airsofting” at length in our home by this time. Connor had made a case for buying a gun and we, very reluctantly, let him use his own money to purchase one—with several clear stipulations. One: The gun could not look real. (He chose a clear plastic model with bright-colored insides, like a crazy water gun. It met our criteria.) Two: He could only use the toy when we approved of the people with whom he was playing. Three: We were not willing to tolerate this activity becoming an object of his obsession. The gun and one package of pellets would be his limit. We were not willing to entertain further pleading or incessant talk about the newest and most advanced guns, accessories, or strategies for “fighting.” And the stipulation supreme: We wanted to hear from him, as he engaged with this activity, how he aligned his desire to play war with his self-proclaimed pacifistic ideals. For me, this was the most important issue, and I wanted it addressed sooner rather than later.
Weeks passed and Connor fought a few battles. Bruises marking where he’d been hit healed, and still, nothing about his views on pacifism and airsoft guns changed. He just didn’t see the connection, he said. He was just playing a game, no different from the board game “Risk,” only with “running and moving,” he said. He also said he was drawn to the features on a new model of gun. 
That’s where everything went south. 
In the van, while Connor was merely commenting on what he’d been immersed in all day, conversing with friends, I found myself thrown wildly and deeply into a hole of unresolved pain. Ten years earlier my world had been rocked by a gun. This gun issued real, life-taking bullets, was far from bright and colorful, and was wielded by an angry and vindictive individual. The weapon’s similarities to all guns deeply impacted my ability to be neutral regarding all L-shaped objects with triggers and barrels. On this particular occasion in the van with my son, I completely lost my ability to respond rationally.
“When you have dealt with the death of your sister and nieces to gun-shot wounds made by their husband and father, then you can buy a new gun! When you have cleaned your three-month-old nieces’ blood out of your mother-in-law’s hair, then you can buy a new gun! When you are mature enough to understand how ridiculous you and your friends are, and you understand the idiocy of this ‘game,’ then you can buy a stupid new gun!
The words came flooding out of me. Involuntary, loud, angry words. I was shocked and Connor was stunned. Leaning as far back as he could without falling out of the window, his face was white and his eyes were wide. My face was red and my eyes gushed with tears. We were at a painful crossroads. In that split-second I felt little difference between what had happened ten years earlier, on my mother-in-law’s lawn, and Connor’s desire to play war. Both had guns as central features, both involved power struggles and displays of violence, and both were out of my control. My emotional reaction sprang from the same well—I’m ultimately out of control over anyone but myself.
Throughout history kids have “played” their way through battles and wars. Researchers, historians, sociologists, and psychologists explain this as part of a child’s attempt to master the concepts of power, conflict, and resolution. In moments such as this, however, no descriptions help. My brother-in-law Dave (married to my husband’s sister) had no history of violent behavior, and yet shot his way into my mother-in-law Margaret’s home, killing his wife, Laura, and their three young daughters before throwing the gun down at Margaret’s feet and taunting her to pick it up and kill him. She was there with him for thirty minutes before any help arrived. Margaret lived the rest of her life from a place of deep woundedness and trauma. As her caregiver for these remaining years, I saw, firsthand, how guns can take and impact lives. 
While Connor had only been two at the time of the murders, he had grown up knowing how his aunt and cousins died—knowing how I felt about guns. It was not a nebulous issue. I was opposed and firmly believed that comfort with any kind of gun was unnecessary. He, however, felt he could hold on to a pacifistic worldview and still “play” with toy guns. He hadn’t played with them at all as a young child but now he was twelve and, while he was incredibly sensitive about relationships, highly compliant, and very loving, he never manifested concern about my feelings surrounding guns. In this moment, with his mom yelling at him across the van’s front seat, he no longer had the luxury of disregarding my feelings. They were bold and loud and in his face.
I pulled over. I got a hold of myself. We talked.
At root, the murders had forever changed me. They’d made crystal clear the point that I ultimately had very little control of the events shaping my life. They demonstrated that loving people is risky and that, sometimes, those you love will make choices influencing their lives and the lives of others in profound and painful ways. The violent deaths had served to focus my fear and expand my sadness. I could never again say “that will never happen to me” in relation to the reality of physical violence, in my own family or elsewhere.
During my roadside encounter with Connor, though, I came face-to-face with the reality that his experience was just that. His. Connor’s. While we may have shared a home, a lifestyle, and even, for a period of time, a body, we remained, uniquely, our own people. We agreed on some issues and differed wildly on others. He did not belong to me or have a lifetime subscription to my values and ideals. He was fully his own person, with his own independent thoughts, beliefs, and experiences. This realization has turned out to be the hardest reality of parenting for me.
I have attempted to assure myself that Connor’s upbringing will lead him to an adulthood filled with meaning, intention, and integrity, infused with expressions of grace, love, and empathy. In doing so, I have at times tried to tell myself that I must make sure he believes certain things, ascribes to certain values, and is far beyond being “normal.” Normal twelve-year-old boys, however, are intrigued by guns. Normal twelve-year-old boys are easily influenced by an object-obsessed culture. My son is intrigued by guns. My son wants new things. My son is normal! 
While this realization should have been a relief, it hit me as a disappointment. Since his birth I had been happy to discover the many ways in which Connor was not normal. His strong relational bent set him apart from his same-age male counterparts. His early and advanced language skills supported his drive to connect. He loved to entertain and took pains to do so. He was aware of spiritual things and also of the temperament and preferences of others. He was smart and capable and, if I had anything to say about it, not normal.
I didn’t want to be normal either. I wanted to be the informed mom. The “oh-it’s-no-sweat-setting-boundaries-plus-giving-all-the-grace-and-love-possible” mom. The mom who raised a nontraditional boy. I was convinced that, if I was such a mom, the outcome would be a boy who was confident and strong and not macho or violent. The result, in my imagination, would be a boy who does not play with guns. Ever.
The problem, however, was that in my attempts to buck gender and evaluative stereotypes, I unconsciously told myself that if Connor showed any traditional “boy” traits, I had failed at the job of parenting. I had convinced myself that I could control Connor’s interests, passions, and behaviors; that I knew what was best and most healthy for him; and that the ultimate goal of his life should be extreme excellence and maturity by my standards at all times. Each time this proved not true, I felt increasingly out of control, like a failure, and convinced all was not well in the world of our mother-son connectedness. As a therapist I piled on the self-doubt, fear, and condemnation, telling myself that if things were amiss within this connectedness, Connor would certainly fail to thrive outside of it. But somehow, armed with my psychological knowledge and teeth-gritting determination, I have been able to partner with my husband and God to parent Connor in such a way that Conner is emerging from the nest free from much of the unhealthy striving and concern about the opinion and approval of others that has plagued me. 
In fact, my son has shown himself to be thoughtful about his actions, teachable, and appropriately confident in ways that I am not. He can stomach my disapproval of the games he plays with toy guns, he is willing to listen to my curiosity about how he can square his self-asserted pacifistic ideals with these games, and he’s confident that he can live as a dedicated-to-peace man and still airsoft in the backyard with friends for an hour every few months. He takes stands about things he thinks are important. He is active in pursuits that expose and attempt to eradicate human trafficking. He quit playing video games that involve any violent content because he believes they are created by an industry that too powerfully affects young people. While I don’t understand how he can take these strong stances while still shooting his friends with an airsoft gun, it’s not up to me to make these decisions for him. That reality makes me crazy.
Letting go of my deeply dredged desire to control my children is difficult on good days and impossible on hard ones. It involves me coming to terms with my own lack of power and acknowledging the reality that it is neither fair nor realistic for me to measure my parenting success or personal prowess by my children’s behaviors, beliefs, or moral standing. Neither can I force them to take on the values and standards I believe to be in their best interests. My striving to teach, to expose, to mirror, and to empathize is just that: mine. Their desire to take what I offer, to shape their own behavior, intelligence, and values are just that: theirs. I can structure and shape their experiences to a point. I can educate and share resources and personal knowledge. I can build a community of support for them to reference when I am not who they want. I can put child locks on the knife drawers and “play with me” signs on the Fisher Price doctor kit, but I cannot control the inner workings of my children’s motivational selves or temperaments.
As I write this, the increasingly outspoken pacifist, seventeen-year-old Connor and his all-sides-of-the-table friends are out back, playing with their airsoft guns. These young men, confident, deep in faith, and rich in intelligence, are the exploring, work-in-progress young men they are supposed to be. Their laughter is infectious and this game is but a game—not my game but theirs, only one tiny activity in their arsenal of many. I don’t endorse it, but I deeply endorse them. I don’t like I, but I deeply love them. This love is risky and engaging and requires me to give up control at appropriate times and in measured increments. Doing so hurts and heals, challenges, and fulfills. What more could I ask of this crazy, complicated, conflict-inherent process called mothering?