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? 


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.