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? 


what NOT to say to someone who is grieving

in my life time i’ve faced a fair amount of grief. i’ve also spent a significant amount of time with others who have experienced losses of all kinds: large ones, expected ones, shocking ones, seemingly small ones. one thing remains universally similar across losses. they are all significant (read “VERY SIGNIFICANT”) to the person who has suffered them.

given the personal significance of experienced loss, those in the grieving individuals’ support systems often have little idea of how to best respond. so, without thinking, all manner of comments from benign to glorious fall off the tongues of people with the best of intentions. all too often, however, these comments create further pain, coming off as insensitive at best and hurtful at worst. for example, someone is not necessarily malicious when they say to a grieving person, “i know EXACTLY how you feel” but these particular words are rarely accurate or comforting. so...by way of helping you identify what NOT to say to a friend who is grieving, i offer the following suggestions (all based upon actual comments made to myself or people i know).

do NOT say the following things (or variations of them):

when a person has died:

at least they had a life insurance policy.

God just needed another angel.

it was their time.

it was for the best.

now you can move on.

were they saved?

this all serves some greater purpose.

you must be so relieved that they are in heaven.

i was just sooooooooo sad and shocked when i heard. i cried and cried. i have been telling everyone about “such and such’s” passing. i can’t believe how sad i am. i, i, i...

my mom/dad/grandma/neighbor/friend/dog/gold fish died and....

when a relationship or job ends:

you’re better off without that loser/stupid job.

it’s about time.

i was waiting for you to recognize what a hot mess your relationship/career was in.

you’ll find someone/something better. 

i just knew this wasn’t the right one for you. i could tell. i feel so glad for you but i also know it’s stressful. i, i, i...

when an object(s) is lost or taken (or perhaps when a home burns down):

God must have some lesson for you to learn.

now you will get to know what it means to “rely” in a new way.

you didn’t need those things anyway. all you need is God.

you’re being given the gift of simplicity.

with ANY form of loss:

i know EXACTLY how you feel (usually followed by long, rambling memorials to all of the loved ones, relationships, jobs, or things that they themself have lost).

instead, consider:

while some of the statements above (or variants of them) could well be delivered with love after some time has passed, most of these sentiments do nothing but hurt at the time of a loss (or shortly thereafter).

people who are grieving need space. they need to be heard. and loved. and fed. they are likely shocked and frightened and surprised by their own strong emotions so they rarely need you to bring any extra drama. they need someone to come and pick up their dirty laundry to return it washed and folded. they need to be sat with while they blabber on and on or cry in silence or stare into space. they need to be asked what is comforting to them. some will want to hold your hand while others will hold out hope that you won’t want to hug them. basically, they need you. not your words. maybe not even your actions. certainly not your platitudes.

next time you hear of a loss and you feel called to the individual suffering it, don’t try so hard. embrace the awkwardness of silence and not knowing what to do or say. ask a good question such as, “what do you need?” and then be quiet and listen. in waiting, being still and available, and “being with” there is comfort. there is deep speaking to deep and in our times of loss this is where we can be found.



a few days ago i had coffee with a friend. in our time together i shared some sadnesses i had recently faced. among his empathic responses was a suggestion that i might be encouraged by a reading of the minor prophets. i was taken aback. this is a colleague-friend. a psychologist. a person who never gives platitudes or easy answers or passes off engagement by recommending a book/song/movie. a person who lives authentically, who sweats and swears, and is one of the few therapists i refer my own family, friends, and clients to. one of the last things i would have expected to hear from him was a suggestion to read the bible, and the old testament at that. because he knows me well and i trust him deeply, however, i sat down with habakkuk later in the day. half way into the second chapter i came across the following words and couldn’t move past them. they had nothing to do with why my friend had encouraged me to spend some time with this small book and yet they spoke deeply to me. this is what i read:

“look at that man, bloated by self-importance - full of himself but soul-empty.”

let me re-phrase:

“look at that person, bloated by self-importance - full of them-self but soul-empty.”

soul-empty. i know what that condition feels like. i fear that most of us do in this self-promoting, social-media-presence-maintaining, 24-hour-availability-driven reality in which we live.

i often feel as though we’ve traded in self awareness for self promotion; presenting ourselves for loving ourselves. we have resorted to giving the world outside of us the power to determine the condition of our internal world and can do so in more immersive ways than we ever thought possible. i am every bit as guilty of this as every other person who relates to these words.

often i find that my soul has been neglected for days while i’ve been busily attending to all kinds of other “entities.” like filling my stomach with water rather than food, i feel full but have no real nourishment to sustain me. i’ve gone to work and returned home, i’ve cooked dinner and done the dishes, i’ve updated my status’ and posted instagram photos, i’ve kept track of my twitter feed and responded to emails. i’ve watched entire seasons of shows, been distracted by mindless youtube searches, and pinned inspirational quotes to pinterest boards. i’ve spoken to large audiences and volunteered at church. i’ve texted “i love you’s” and “you are amazings” and “don’t forgets...” but i’ve forgotten my self along the way. not the self i project out into the world, not the self that bumps into others or posts things online or dresses to go out but, rather, the self that resides deeply in my core. the self/soul that needs quiet to be known, stillness to be understood, and intentional care to be healthy and strong. funny, how i never fail to charge my electronics but i frequently force my self to run on empty. rarely do i ignore a message indicator on my phone while i routinely ignore those coming from the deepest part of my self.

so i re-read the words i found this evening and wonder in what ways my soul emptiness is related to my need to feel/look/be important out and about in the world. let me re-phrase: when i buy into being “important” in the world, what impact does that have on my sense of sturdiness/groundedness/health? what does it mean if i only feel important in relation to my actions and interactions? why do i notice when i loose “followers” here and there? why do i feel a tinge of discomfort when an unflattering photo is tagged or a published opinion is challenged caustically? why does it matter that my instagram photos never seem to draw more than 20 likes? do any of these things really have anything to do with who i am at the core and with who i invite you to be with me?

it matters because, whether i like it or not, i’ve bought in. i have filled my life to over flowing once again and have failed to maintain the norms that i know i need to be truly available to either myself or others. when i do this, i am reminded of what it feels like to be soul-empty and yet to feel “bloated.” to inflate my importance in the world and to it and yet to feel completely un-attended to by my own self. to fear making space for soul care because i know i will find it empty and uncomfortable and awkward at first. and those things should be avoided at all costs...right?

i am vulnerable to soul-emptiness when i do not create space to stay in touch with my self and with Love. i am likely to fall prey to petty comparisons and revert to the use of social media “measuring sticks” when i forget to attend to the message indicators of my body, mind, and heart. when i know what i need to be grounded, to be able to handle a truthful assessment of my strengths and weaknesses yet don’t make sure those needs are met i put myself at risk for soul-emptiness. when i lose touch with an ability to handle the consequences of my actions/assertions or don’t make time to fully feel my feelings or know my thoughts i passively feed the emptiness. i know these things, yet even still, they are hard to attend to.

a soul-full existence for me includes a deep recognition of being gazed at and loved by True Love. an ability to wait. to be still. to be content as-is. it requires discipline and diligence and solitude. it also opens the door to a deeper way of relating. rather than needing to be simply important, the soul-full person is simply able to be with others, open, available, and groundedly present.

it is inconvenient to make space for this kind of living. it is counter cultural and may mean that we loose followers and “friends” along the way. it is beautiful and uncomfortable. painfully difficult and amazingly simple. steady. soulful. soul-full. and important. and far from emptiness of any kind.


rising to the occasion

when our children were very young my husband and i began taking them to a monthly ecumenical prayer service at a local college that happened at 7:30 on the first friday of every month, year round. in the winter we’d drive, through storms, up the hill, past the law school, and navigate the dark, wet walk from the parking lot trying to shake the feeling that staying home would have been so much cozier. in the spring we’d notice the laughing students headed out for much rowdier evening fare and have to remind ourselves that making our way to the sanctuary would feel rewarding once we were in it. every time we made our way through the front door,  we’d see the hundreds of candles up front, smell the musty realness of the building, feel the slippery cold marble against soles of our shoes, and be greeted by the hosts with whispered welcomes and hearty hugs and know, in our guts, that we were in exactly the right place.

the first time we entered those doors the few assembled guests looked at us like we were crazy. this was a prayer service. a long one. with many songs sung in latin. over. and over. and over again. between the songs there was silence. a lot of it. in a room with not a single element to absorb extraneous sounds. this was not a place for children. what were we thinking? and yet, the four of us sat through that first service in complete awe. we each noticed different aspects of the hour. the flickering candles reflected in the gleaming marble. the scent of the incense. the sound of voices repeating phrases until they melted into a harmonic almost trance inducing soundtrack. silence. 

for much of our kids’ growing up lives that monthly together time was a significant part of our individual and corporate routines. while there were certainly times we weren’t in attendance as a foursome, more often than not, we all gravitated to this space which fed us in unique and deep ways. because connor and kaija knew what to expect this had become a part of their rhythm. they knew that they could get something out of the time if they simply gave themselves to it rather than waiting for it to end. sometimes they would bring colored pencils and sketch books, other times they’d lean against us or each other and close their eyes to day dream or nap. typically, on the way home, we’d feel closer, more connected, and they would mention feeling akin to grounded lightness. regularly, the songs we’d sung that night would come up throughout the month as sources of encouragement or comfort. 

a few weeks ago i found a bulletin from one of those evenings several years back. according to the date on the sheet, our kids were in 6th and 8th grade and we had brought friends whose kids were in 4th and 1st grades. while we had prepped our friends’ kids for the evening, it’s hard for people to understand just how silent and sacred a huge marble former abbey can feel when it’s lit with so many candles and filled with so many people. the bulletin belied the experience of our friends’ kids. every inch of the paper not printed with text was filled with penciled notes between these girls and kaija. “this is sooooooooooo boring” wrote the 4th grader. “when will we be out of here?” she penciled near by. “soon” wrote kaija. “draw a picture during this song.” in another corner she wrote, “it only seems long now. later you’ll feel like it wasn’t that long.” tic tac toe games peppered other free spaces and goofy drawings others still. at the bottom of the back page kaija wrote, “almost there. way to go!”

when i was growing up my parents presented me with options to do what i think of as “rising to the occasion.” i recall lectures that they took my brother and me to where we were the only people under 30 in the room. we sat through church with them. they took us to restaurants where kids didn’t normally dine. they expected us to be able to handle being bored, sitting still, and to learn to be comfortable in a variety of settings. they also respected us and our real selves. they brought things for us to do quietly when appropriate. they didn’t ask more of us than they knew we could handle (the lecture was 45 minutes long, church an hour once a week, and there were plenty of opportunities for us to be embodied and otherwise engaged elsewhere in our lives). they engaged us in smart conversation and also let us chose the subject matter. 

there was a certain sense of capability that i developed from these experiences. i felt as though i was able to get through times that were less than stimulating. i grew to love getting to be among interesting grown ups and given that i’d had experience with such i knew how to be in those settings. i developed an appreciation for silence and stillness and the commensurate skill to navigate times filled with both not because i was so great at it or naturally inclined in these ways. rather, i was offered opportunities to practice. to tolerate. to learn.

i am noticing more and more that we have fewer and fewer natural opportunities to learn  the skills of sitting still, being mindful/thoughtful, tolerating boredom, and, even, doing one thing at a time. why attend a continuing education workshop in person when you can do so online and mulit task through it? why have our children sit through a service with us when “children’s church” is so much more fun? why make a phone call when a text can get me an answer without all the need for “hellos” and “how are yous?” and other “extraneous-ness?” why sit still, be bored, on uni-task when we don’t have to?

for me, i find it important to ask myself to rise to the challenge of doing so. the more i ask myself to focus, to do one thing at a time, to sit in a restaurant not looking at my phone, waiting for my meal or to attend a continuing education workshop sans my computer i develop new abilities. i enter into the material (or the meal or the relationships with those around me) more deeply. my senses become more highly attuned. i settle down and synthesize more. my experiences take on a richness i might otherwise miss. most basically, i find out i am capable. i can think and taste and tolerate.  i can wrestle (with information or tastes or conversations or people that are new). i don’t need to be entertained or distracted by devices at all times. i am able to regulate my emotions and ask myself to tolerate discomfort and fidgety-ness and awkwardness. to get through these feelings in order to get to the profoundly rewarding place of feeling able to be present. no matter what.

and so i challenge those of you who would like to feel like more capable, competent humans to ask yourself to rise to the occasion. to learn to be quiet. bored. still. to practice these skills and master them. once you’ve developed some stillness/boredom/self soothing muscle, i beg you to look for the spaces in your life and routine where you might invite children, adolescents, or young adults to practice the ability to rise to the occasion. to handle silence. to tolerate boredom. to learn to sit (reasonably) still. and to learn to feel that you, and they, are enough.


the way in which we watch

the way in which we watch says a lot about us. do we moan and complain? criticize and judge? attend with half of our vision directed elsewhere? overpraise and compare? notice that which is status worthy or tweetable in order to inform our friends and followers far and wide just how on top of things we are? or to join in the global conversation?

as the red carpet coverage broadcasts from southern california, i am reminded of the way in which i watch so much of what is before me. in our home, the academy awards are the super bowl and, in a few hours we will sit, ballots in hand, to see who takes what home and who says what memorable thing. as a young adult i watched every minute of pre show coverage and followed the after parties as well. every part of the show fed my interest in pop culture and anthropology. now i watch with a sadness of sorts, realizing my own tendency to hope too much about that which really isn’t “fair” and/or doesn’t matter in the eternal scheme of things. 

why is so much of our western living organized around competition?

why are we so free with our expressions of criticism and praise (opposite ends of a strikingly similar continuum) and so sparing with our commentaries on grace and peace?

why do we love to comment on that which we would “never go see” or “not be caught dead in?” why do we love to hate?

tonight (or at whatever event is your own personal super bowl), as we gather around the television to see who fate favors with a few glorious moments in the spotlight, what if we watched with a lightness and kindness that spread throughout the room? what if we chose to comment on that which we appreciated, looking for those things with new focus and care? what if we looked empathically toward half-starved, double “spank-ed” (the undergarments, not the actions), heavily made-up super stars whom we love to hate or hate to love (because they make us seem oh-so-ordinary-and-plain) and wished them inner peace in a world of outer criticism?

in a world where only certain few ever walk a red carpet it is completely within our power and control to treat everyone as if they are worthy of it. why not start tonight? at home? with those on the screen and those you watch with? especially yourself.


what (middle schoolers) we all need

in a completely stretching gesture, i spent last weekend with middle schoolers. not just an hour or two but the entire weekend, friday through monday. living with them. sleeping on a bunk, eating with them, and hanging with them at free time. i learned a few new dance moves, got called “adorable” a lot, and, above all else, grew.

the venue was an amazing coastal camp facility (go twin rocks!) and the event “jr high jam” (sponsored by northwest yearly meeting of friends). i had been asked to speak and said yes because several families who i love have middle schoolers that would be attending. it seemed like a fantastic opportunity to get some bonding time with them away from our normal fast paced meet ups. when i said yes i didn’t really think much about the fact that there would be far more middle schoolers there than the ones in knew and that i would be responsible for 6 sessions of teaching time.

my first session friday night felt to me like a colossal failure. while i could tell that i had captured a few kids’ attention and interest, others were talking over me, making bizarre faces in response to my silly visual aid (“hello my name is” stickers stuck all over me), or were clearly all-together checked out. that night, as i lay sleeplessly in my bunk until the very early hours of the morning, i realized that i’d rather speak to a room of 500 adults/ph.d.’s/m.d.’s/academicians than this room of 50 kids. i felt completely out of my element. i wasn’t sure i really had what it took to capture the attention of this age group and felt insecure about my ability to give them anything substantive that they would remember. i felt defeated and had barely begun. committed to the task, however, i rolled out of bed the next morning and attempted to ready myself for the upcoming session. 

this time, things flowed. as i made my way through my material i began to realize that there was very little that was different about this “audience” than others i had been with in the past. as i spoke from what i knew (what it is like to be a very flawed and less than perfect person in a world that promotes idealized notions of beauty, intellect, and ability) to who i saw them to be (very flawed and less than perfect people in a world that promotes idealized notions of beauty, intellect, and ability) they responded. over the course of the six sessions we shared together i came to some important awarenesses about what middle schoolers, actually what all of us, need.

what middle schoolers we all need:

1 people who see amazing/good/true/unique/frequently overlooked qualities in us and call them forth.

whether we like to admit it or not, we are all prone to sizing people up and responding to them from there. it’s human nature. it’s hard to wait to notice how people are inside before we respond to their outsides. it involves being uncomfortable and not being in control of any given moment.

i was blessed by the insights these kids who had never met me had about me and felt challenged to live into these things more fully. on the flip side, unlike their parents or the other adults in their lives, i was getting a little away-from-home snap shot of who these young people were. with no prior experience with many of them i was able to simply look for the positive things i saw and affirm them. i had the freedom to observe them without preconceived ideas of how they would behave and find uniquenesses to validate in them. 

to the kid who likely has a difficult time focusing and attending i was able to say, “you really seem to be able to do a lot of things at once. i can tell you’re listening to me and you’re also trying to get your neighbor’s attention and you’re folding your note paper into an airplane all at once. wow. what is that like? is it a helpful thing to have such a wide focus or does it make life hard?” to the student who hung back and seemed uncomfortable with the constant group setting i could say, “i am so impressed that you participated in recreation today. i get the sense that that wasn’t easy for you. way to go!!” to the kiddo who is constantly being told not to doodle on her notes or fidget while listening i was able to say, “do what you need to do to be able to pay attention and remember. if that includes standing up and pacing in the back, do it. if it means drawing while i talk, do it. your body is doing an excellent job of giving you clues. how can i help you listen to them?”

we all benefit by encounters with people who see us with new eyes and who call out what they see in loving ways in order to help us learn and grow. 

2 to see amazing/good/true/unique/frequently overlooked qualities in others and to call them forth.

these 11- 13 year olds needed to see things about me and be able to comment on them. they needed to be able to see that their words impacted me and touched me. they needed to be respected for their opinions and thanked for the relational risks they were willing to take when they spoke relationally with an adult. similarly, i needed to see amazing things in the kids who couldn’t sit still, who were inflexible and/or entitled, or who acted in less than respectful ways.  it stretched me to look at this group of people to whom i felt completely out of touch with eyes for what would connect us and what i could relate to.

it’s easy to assume that those we haven’t yet learned to relate to are “wrong,” “different,” or even “bad” and, therefore, miss opportunities to stretch ourselves and grow. there is something very powerful, however, about being flexible enough to risk meaningful communication with people who are very different from us. the vulnerability in doing this invites others to be authentic in return. from there, genuine connection can occur.

3 safe spaces in which to practice living into these amazing/good/true/unique frequently overlooked qualities.

it can feel very difficult to try on new skills/traits/abilities within the context of people who know us well. unwittingly these familiar people are likely to comment on our “rehearsals” and we are prone to take these comments as underhanded criticism. for instance, when you’re an introvert trying to learn how to navigate social situations, the significant others in your life might over-praise your efforts making you feel as though your introversion is not acceptable. the spaces between how we’ve trained others to think about us and how we’d really like to be can be scary. when we are navigating these spaces, moving from old habits into new ways of being, we need open, affirming, and non-judgmental allies around us.

4 new ideas and information that challenges us. 

we all need information that is a bit beyond our intellectual grasp. left to ourselves we gravitate toward that which is familiar or easily understood. doing so keeps us stymied.

before i had met this group i had a strong notion of what i thought they could handle. over the course of the weekend, however, i found myself adding much more sophisticated content to my talks. the reality was that the more complex information i introduced, the more the campers seemed to engage and attend.  our brains work on the principle of “use it or lose it.” it’s important to ask more of ourselves than we think we can expect at times. it, quite literally, grows us to do so.

5 opportunities to try new things.

one of my favorite experiences of the weekend came in our final session. it was monday morning and we’d been together since friday afternoon. we had learned and eaten and played and lip sync’ed together and we were preparing to depart for home. i had been talking with them about how to be their most authentic selves for the weekend and how focusing on being loved (by God, by those that genuinely know and care about them, and even by them selves) could provide them with an always available comforting  space. before they left the retreat i wanted to give them the gift of teaching them how to access that internal place in a very real and practical way. i knew i was taking a huge risk and that i might fail miserably but i chose to go with my gut and ask this assembled group of kids to spend 10 full minutes in a completely silent contemplative prayer exercise. the three boys who had sat up front and struggled to pay attention all weekend said, outloud, “there is no way i can do this. no way.” one staff person looked at me like i had lost my mind. i went on anyway. after the first three minutes with some giggles and wiggles the room became completely silent and still. by the end of the time over 3/4 of the students had smiles on their faces as they lay on their backs, eyes closed, imagining the sturdiness of the LOVE i was asking them to imagine. if i would have listened to my fears i would not have given these kids this opportunity to stretch themselves and they would not have been able to feel the success of such a mature feat.

we all need spaciousness when it comes to taking risks. we benefit from experiences that are new to us. leaning into these keeps us flexible, empathic, and actively engaged in life. it also makes us mature.

this week, might you look for opportunities to experiment with and explore this list? might you ask others for what they see in you, or speak into someone else’s life in meaningful ways? might you stretch yourself intellectually or experientially? and, above all else, might you nurture safe spaces for yourself and others in which to get that which we all really need?


february is NOT JUST for lovers!

february is a dreaded month for many. on the heels of multiple holiday and new years celebrations, people who move through life “un-partnered” turn the calendar to february and sigh. or roll their eyes. or feel suicidal. i’m not kidding. even those who are in romantic relationships or committed loving communities often feel a sense of heaviness when doilies and lace and hearts show up on the supermarket shelves. here’s my response to the upcoming holiday, however. i want to take the month back. i want to stand on top of parking garages downtown in big cities and yell, at the top of my lungs, “february is not just for lovers!” as soon as i write this, however, i realize that, perhaps it actually it is, but not in the way we might think.

i don’t know about you, but i love a whole lot of people in a whole lot of ways and these people are every bit as in need of february love as the daily loves of my life are. 

my dentist and his support staff recently welcomed me so warmly that i realized my strong feelings of gratitude for them. i love the familiarity i have developed with the members of my weekly dance class and have come to look forward to intersecting with a planning team i meet with each week. i frequent the lanes of certain checkers at the market and my feelings for the person who has cut my hair for the past 20 years goes well beyond love. we have genuinely shared life. i have decided that these are all varieties of love that i want to celebrate this month.

it is so much easier to do this when i drop the traditional february expectations. while i would be thrilled to make valentines for every person i encounter that matters to me, it wouldn’t be possible or wise to attempt this feat. half way through the making process i’d be burnt out and resentful having spent more of my time than i could realistically afford. what i can do, however, is commit myself to truly seeing the people i interact with, respecting their uniqueness and personhood. as brene brown says about her exercise options, “the 10 minute walk i take is better than the 5 mile run i don’t take” so is the fumbling, on the fly loving gesture i can make better than the perfectly crafted one i don’t have time or energy or resources to make.

and so, i can leave a simple thank you note, scribbled on scratch paper for the person who clears my plate at a restaurant, in the mailbox for the postal carrier, or the person who will eventually clean the bathroom at target. i can take 3 minutes to fill out a comment card and praise the sales associate or server or can ask to be transferred to a manager after a customer service call to praise the rep who has assisted me. i can blot my lipstick on my friends’ rear view mirror or scribble traits i admire about my office mates on our shared white board. i can text affirmations to people (e.g: “you are smart.” “i’ve noticed the way that you go out of your way to...” “you are a gifted teacher/parent/writer/snowboarder/student/cook/social networker/friend/etc.”). i can speak first and with focus to all the children present before i get too involved with their parents. i can get down on their level. i can drop off a plate of cookies (even store bought ones) at the dentist and tell my fellow dancers that i truly notice them and enjoy seeing them each week.

i was recently loved like this and it was a profound experience. knowing i’d faced a very challenging week, a young adult friend left me a message, in the middle of a week day, stating that she had decided to play hooky from a class and wanted, along with her fiance, to take me bowling. right then. immediately. how soon could i get to a bowling alley? the reason this was so meaningful to me was that i have a secret love of bowling that not many people know about and that i am not a person who typically receives spur of the moment offers for silly fun in the middle of the week. this opportunity to be loved so spontaneously and specifically spoke deeply to me. it made me realize how my efforts to love might accomplish this for others. 

so, this month, i am committed to the ways in which february can be for lovers of all kinds. i can take relational risks big and small and do so boldly, being willing to handle the awkwardness (and rejection) that might (but often doesn’t) result. will it always work out well? no. will i attain perfect consistency? absolutely not. might i sometimes end up feeling like a fool. sure. even still, i want to take back the month (and the year) and love as often and as fully as i can afford to. not with the kind of love or gestures that leave me resentful or overspent but, instead, with the kind of small do-able intentions and actions that make small dents in the hard hearts around me. like my dear friend tanner (age 14) said at his last swim meet, “i’m learning how to pace myself and i want to get it so that i don’t have anything left in me at the end of the race.” i want to love at the level that my capacity lasts to the end but doesn’t have much left when i get there. finding that balance can be tricky. and oh-so-worth-it.