Oct 072017
 

Now and again, I find the work of an author so compelling, their book deserves a mention not only in my list of recommended books, but as a separate post. “Reset Your Child’s Brain” by Victoria Dunckley, MD is such a work.

Dr. Dunckley, over the past 20 years, has been documenting a disorder she christened Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS). It is caused when the human brain—especially in children and young adults—is chronically over-stimulated by electronics. Symptoms of ESS in youth include, but are not limited to, inability to focus, poor sleep patterns, falling grades, meltdowns, defiance, fits of rage and loss of friends.

I have wondered whether our growing addiction to laptops, tablets, smartphones, television—and the games, apps and programs that animate them—have an impact on us. However, I was unprepared for the enormity of Dr. Dunckley’s findings. It’s difficult to know where to even begin.

Perhaps most disturbing is the evidence that youth, who are often seized for hours every day in “fight-or-flight” mode, face greatly increased levels adrenaline and cortisol in their system. In that mode, the body moves blood to the muscles and away from other critical organs…like the brain. When that happens, the development of the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex can be impeded with potentially long-term adverse effects on cognition and executive function.

Secondly, the blue light emitted by virtually all screens disrupts the body’s levels of serotonin, dopamine, and melatonin, which disrupts sleep patterns and can lead to mood disorders, stress and general dysregulation of the body’s metabolic, physiological, or psychological processes.

The author does NOT leave the reader without solutions. She suggests that any person, but especially children and young adults, who show signs of ESS, avoid all electronic screens for a period of at least three weeks to see if the body is able to re-regulate and return to a healthier relationship with the outside world.

If you have children, know of children, or even care about children, this book is worth your time and attention.

Sep 152017
 

A friend recently left her youngest son at college, and is struggling with the emotions erupting inside her. I was reminded of a piece I wrote many years ago when we took our son to college. (Posted previously in November of 2016.)

“What’s happen’n here is a long goodbye.”
                                          Country artists Brooks & Dunn

Why, I wonder, is saying goodbye sometimes so very difficult?

When we took our son, David, to college many years ago, leaving him was harder than I imagined it would be. The morning after we returned home, I awoke early and could feel his absence weighing heavily on my heart. What made me so sad was the realization that the young man I would encounter in the future would be a different person. He would always be the son I love, but he would be my son in a different way—increasingly he would become be his own person. What’s confusing is that my sorrow did not erupt from a desire to have him remain the boy I had known. Quite the contrary, I was in awe of the thoughtful, responsible, creative, enthusiastic young man he was becoming. I was so amazed that I often kidded him by telling him I was sure the hospital must have given us the wrong child!

So if the deep sadness does not come from saying goodbye to the young boy as he became a man, then from where did it emanate? What I was coming to realize is that there was a second person to whom I needed to bid farewell—a person far more difficult to leave behind. I had to, I came to discover, say goodbye to the father I knew myself to be. I would always be available when he needed me, but the simple truth is that he would need me less. I would be less important—or maybe important in a different way—as he began to make his own way in the world.

And while I could love, and be inspired by, the young man we would welcome into the family, I was less comfortable with, or confident in my ability to welcome, the father who must show up. I could no longer treat David as if he were merely revision 1.01 of the boy who left us. But could I stop myself from offering the unsolicited advice that seemed so necessary when he was younger? How could I give up the fear that if I don’t watch over him—if I didn’t co-manage his life—that the suffering he would inevitably face would not destroy him? Where would I find the strength to know that he really did have the wisdom to create his own life?

Saying adieu to the father who is over-protective, the one essential to his son’s success, the one who must protect him from the oft-scary world…that is a really long goodbye.

Nov 162016
 

On a recent Operation Snowball retreat, I was deeply moved by a wise, kind and generous young man struggling to find himself within a difficult and heartbreaking life. When he and I spoke, I talked of the need for him, as he became an adult, to redefine his relationship with his parents. That conversation reminded me of a piece I wrote many years ago as our son left for college.

“What’s happen’n here is a long goodbye.”  

Country artists Brooks & Dunn

Why, I have been wondering, is saying goodbye sometimes so very difficult.

We recently took our son to college to begin his freshman year. Leaving him was harder than I imagined it would be. The morning after we returned home, I awoke early and could feel his absence weighing heavily on my heart.

What made me so sad was the realization that the young man I encounter in the future will be a different person. He will always be the son I love, but he will be my son in a different way—increasingly he will be his own person. What’s confusing is that my sorrow does not erupt from a desire to have him remain the boy I have known. Quite the contrary, I am in awe of the thoughtful, responsible, creative, enthusiastic young man he is becoming.

So if my deep sadness does not come from saying goodbye to the young boy as he becomes a man, then from where does it emanate?

What I am coming to realize is that there is a second person to whom I must bid farewell—a person far more difficult to leave behind. I must, I discover, say goodbye to the father I knew myself to be. I’ll always be available when he needs me, but the simple truth is that he needs me less. I am less important—or maybe important in a different way—now that he is beginning to make his own way in the world.

And while I can love, and be inspired by, the young man we are welcoming into the family, I am less comfortable with, or confident in my ability to welcome, the father who must show up. I can no longer treat my son as if he were merely revision 1.01 of the boy who left us. But how do I stop myself from offering the unsolicited advice that seemed so necessary when he was younger? How do I give up the fear that if I don’t watch over him—if I don’t co-manage his life—that the suffering he will inevitably face will not destroy him? Where will I find the strength to know that he really does have the wisdom to create his own life?

Saying adieu to the father who is over-protective, the one essential to his son’s success, the one who must protect him from the oft-scary world…that is a really long goodbye.

Oct 052015
 

It was an unexpectedly tender moment. On a recent Sunday morning, as I sat at a local coffee shop, a friend approached. “Roger, I know you advise people on occasion. I was wondering if we might chat for a moment.” I’m not a counselor, but as a friend, I readily agreed to explore her obvious pain. Tears began to fill her eyes. “I discovered my daughter snuck out of the house late last night to be with her friends. She has never done such a thing. I don’t know what to do.” 

 Moments of vulnerability, when two people face our unknowingness with honesty and courage, are rare, but so pregnant with possibility. When we choose to inhabit those moments raw and childlike, they offer miraculous opportunities to learn together. All I know of parenting and adolescent psychology are random, often misguided, thoughts gleaned from being a parent. Since I know little more, if anything, than she, perhaps we could allow our experiences and wisdom to collide, and then simply be open to what we might discover together. 

 Seeing the pain in her eyes, I asked if she could let everything drop away and discern the deepest emotion prompting the tears. She paused, thought, and said she really didn’t know. I asked if I could suggest one—I knew what would be at the heart of my tears if I was living her life in this moment. “Are you frightened? Afraid? I suspect you love your daughter more than life itself. You feel yourself losing control, and are simply frightened something will happen to interrupt her life in some horrific way.”  

 With that, fresh tears appeared. In that moment, I knew we were touching on emotions all parents share and understand in much the same way. 

 She went on to explain she and her daughter had an argument several weeks earlier, and it was never truly resolved. “Our relationship is changing in ways I simply do not understand. I know it must change as she becomes an adult, but this feels so frightening.” 

 I asked how she discovered the conceit of the previous evening. She revealed she had surreptitiously taken her daughter’s cell phone and looked at the previous night’s texts. “She’ll be angry when she finds out I looked at her phone.” 

 The relationship between parents and children is complex and often confusing. There is little I know for sure, but I have a fundamental belief: love and honesty must gird the foundation of the relationship. But honesty is so very difficult when we forget to take the time to search deep inside, and show up stark naked and deeply vulnerable. 

 Fear, misunderstood, turns quickly into anger. The reptilian remnants of our brain flood the cortex with neurotransmitters that disable our ability to think. In those moments, we allow anger to throw us unbidden into the craggy terrain called retribution. “How dare she discount my wisdom as a parent? I’ll show her who’s boss!” In the short term, retribution can feel good. In the longer term it annihilates relationships; fractures the foundation built of honesty and love, and replaces them with compost made of distrust and disrespect. I know this dysfunctional path all too well. 

 There is an alternative to retribution. For thousands of generations in native cultures, humans believed in reconciliation rather than retribution. How can victim and perpetrator face one another to simply understand the pain and heartache that allows sometimes horrific actions to emerge? So often, just being heard is enough. We simply want others to see us, and acknowledge and honor our pain. 

 In the end, there is no painless path into relationships, especially with those we love. If there was, what value would they truly hold in our lives? Pain, and the often unfathomable heartache that comes when we fear the loss of those who mean the most to us, is the price we pay for love. 

Jun 142015
 

As we approach the 4th of July, my thoughts turn to the founding of this nation, and a person I particularly admire: Thomas Jefferson. I admire his wisdom and depth of knowledge across many disciplines. In this moment however, what gives me pause is not his insight into the failure of the Divine Right of Kings and emergence of democracy. I am reflecting on what I can only imagine was his, and his wife Martha’s deep understanding of the value of human life.

Martha Jefferson had seven children. John Skelton, conceived with her first husband, died at the age of three the summer before she married Thomas Jefferson. Of the six children she bore in her ten-year marriage to Thomas, only two daughters, Martha and Mary lived into adulthood. Two daughters and a son died as infants. The sixth died of whooping cough at the tender age of two.

Burying children must be one of the most difficult things any parent can do in life. Today, we consider it to be contrary to that natural order, but in times past, it was certainly not unusual.

For most of human history, life expectancy has been short… perhaps 25 years for our hunter-gatherer ancestors. During the early 1600s in England, life expectancy was only about 35 years, largely because two-thirds of all children died before the age of four.  Life expectancy was under 25 years in the Colony of Virginia, and in seventeenth-century New England, about 40% died before reaching adulthood.

I wonder, as a result, if our ancestral parents had a very different sense of the miracle of life. Did living with such a profound understanding of life’s fragility permit them to look upon their adult children with deeper appreciation and love?

Judi and I had, and still have, two children. In the 30+ years since David was born, I spent few moments worrying about his or Kathryn’s successful journey into adulthood. Medical science gifted us with a sense of safety, and belief in the vigor, rather than fragility, of human life. I always believed, regardless the malady, a trip to the doctor or the emergency room would present an appropriate remedy.

I wonder how my relationship with them might be different if Judi and I had had six children and buried four of them before David and Kathryn reached adulthood. How could it not be? How could I not see them as even more miraculous than I do now? How could I not worry every day I might yet have to lay one or both of them to rest before my life ends?

Not long ago, I was introduced to a man whose 18 month old son succumbed to sudden infant death. My heart breaks for him. But it cannot possibly break in the same wrenching way it would if I had shared the horrific experience of having to say goodbye to a child.

I am thankful there are support groups for parents who have lost children. But in this age, a grieving parent must search for others who share their unimaginable pain and heartbreak. Martha and Thomas did not have to search for support groups that would gather from hither and yon. In virtually every direction, there were others who shared intimately in their loss. Caring hands and hearts were everywhere. No matter where they traveled, there were others who understood, as did they, just how astonishing and miraculous human life truly is.

Do I wish a return to a time of ever present grief from the loss of children? No, I certainly do not. But I am aware of the paradox that, in our safety and comfort, we have surrendered some amount of wisdom and appreciation—perhaps significant amount—for the miracle of life itself.

May 222014
 

There are moments that emerge unexpectedly that remind me to slow and be witness to miracles.

Many years ago, I published an interview with a favorite author, Peter Block. One of the most touching moments came when I asked about his children. He said, “I always knew that the kids were the most important thing that would ever happen to me in my life. And If I was ever going to witness a miracle it was watching them grow up.”

At the time my own children were…still children. Today, as they continue to find their paths into the world, I have a much more vivid interpretation of Peter’s words. I woke this morning to a text from my daughter, Kathryn, with an attached picture. She said…Necklace

10 years ago, you bought me a beautiful and unexpected present for my 8th grade graduation. Today, I wore the same necklace to receive my Masters degree from John’s Hopkins! Thanks for everything dad. I love you.

I am reminded of a letter I wrote to her when she participated in a Kairos retreat in high school. The words I was given are truer today than when I wrote them so many years ago…

Why is your presence in my life a miracle? How else can you describe the flowering of someone so beautiful from soil that so often seems coarse and arid? As hard as I have tried, as much as I wished to be a perfect parent, I grieve over the endless times I failed. I am saddened by the hundreds of times you longed only for a listening and compassionate ear, and I found it necessary instead to attempt to fix or teach. I lament how often the stress of my life intruded on yours in the form of unjustified anger and frustration. I mourn the lost opportunities when a different kind of attention would have nourished you in more abundant ways. And yet, in spite of my failings, you emerge as a caring, compassionate, fervent young woman. Beauty is always a miracle. Too often we simply fail to take the time to sit quietly and be witness to it.

I am thankful every day for David and Kathryn, and that I was chosen to help shepherd them into this world. But days like today remind me to sit quietly and simply be witness.

Oct 292012
 

 

No matter what tragedy people are experiencing, their suffering is alleviated when they learn that others are standing with them. Some of my best teachers of this truth have been younger leaders. One in her twenties said, “How we are going is important, not where. I want to go together and with faith.”*
Many years ago, when our son was just a tyke, we visited a popular Renaissance Faire. Parking was difficult, forcing us to park on a muddy incline. As we tried to leave, the car became hopelessly mired, and I became frightened I would be unable to get it out. Before long my fear turned to frustration and then anger. David, who was strapped into a car seat in the back, began to cry and received the brunt of my emotion. We eventually extracted the car. On the way home, I fretted about my inability to control my emotions and the destructive nature of my words to the son I loved so much. When we arrived home, I pulled him aside and said, “David, next time this happens if you try not to get upset, I will try not to get so frustrated.” He turned to me and said, “Dad, next time let’s not park in the mud!”
I am happy to report that in more than 20 years since that afternoon, I have managed to avoid muddy embankments. I wish I could report similar success in avoiding being ambushed by my emotions. While I have managed on occasion to set initial conditions for the future based on compassion, caring, love and faith, I have, far too many times seeded it with my lesser self. Too often I have faced the world and allowed my insecurities about who I am to unleash fear, frustration and anger…and in doing so, have left those in my wake feeling less.
After apartheid ended in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission aimed to heal the nation through restorative justice as oppose to retributive justice. Victims and perpetrators faced one another. Victims told stories of the horrors they faced, and in many cases, those responsible admitted to their failing, regret and sorrow. Time and time again, victims reported great joy at being deeply heard, and sought no retribution. In the spiritual traditions of Hawai’i, Ho’oponopopo is a process to move beyond violations of the human spirit through forgiveness and reconciliation as opposed to retribution.
Our actions change the future, but over time and distance we can never predict its trajectory. The same is true for the emotions with which we germinate the future. Every change in initial conditions reverberates through the interconnected web of relationships that make up the complex adaptive system we refer to as Pacha Mama. And while I wish I had never parked on that muddy embankment, the fact that I did would have receded from memory many years ago had it not been for the way I did violence to my son. I grieve to this day for my inability to avoid that quagmire, and my inability to seed the future with forgiveness and reconciliation. David deserved better…and so did I.

So Far From Home by Margaret J. Wheatley, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2012
Aug 262012
 

 

Tomorrow morning you will begin a chapter in your life beyond my understanding. I could not be more proud—more in awe—than I am. You have worked diligently to arrive at this moment, and in that journey I have witnessed in you a sense of purpose, dedication and joy, the depths of which astound me. The strength you have called upon to arrive here is inspiring.
The journey you and your cohorts from Teach For America will embark upon is courageous, important…and overwhelming. Last week. Andrew said that, while his task is to teach middle school science, his goal is nothing short of breaking the cycle of poverty. Millions have tried, and poverty still persists. But try we must, and I am thankful for the 5000 TFA corps members who will begin this year to help ensure that an excellent education be available to every child. I believe it was the theologian Frederick Buechner who first wrote that vocation is where our great joy meets the world’s great need. From what I witnessed last week in Baltimore, you and your cohorts have found that vocation.
As you begin, I know there will be moments of overwhelm…many times you will be tempted to use the word failure to describe a time spent with your students. But remember this; no act of love and caring ever deserves such a moniker.
As you move into the coming days, weeks and months, life will hand you crises…times in which you may feel lost, confused and even alone. You have the strength, wisdom and creativity to overcome the loss and confusion, and you have friends surrounding you to help you feel less alone. Your Mother and I are here, and we believe in you with every ounce of our being.
I once told you of the time when I was in high school and a huge banner of Snoopy hung in our church. He was smiling and leaping into the air; the inscription below said “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God on Earth.” If that is true, than the joy I feel at this moment for having you in my life, is that most infallible sign.
Go get ‘em Pumpkin…the world awaits your great joy.
Aug 122012
 
      “Truth never happens in real time.” Those are the first few words in the book “Sacrament of Fear” written by an old friend, Will Dresser. The moment I read them, they captured a profundity I did not completely understand. Perhaps I do now, if even just a little.
On July 28, I rode the final leg of the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa—affectionately known as RAGBRAI. RAGBRAI is the oldest, largest and longest bicycle touring event in the world. This was the 40th annual trek, and 10,000 riders registered for the 7-day adventure. Additional souls can ride any segment, so, on July 28, there were somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 riders who peddled from Anamosa to Clinton—across the beautiful, rolling farmlands of eastern Iowa.
I left Anamosa at 7:15 a.m., and for the next five and a half hours, hundreds—sometimes thousands—of bicycles were captured between the west and east horizons of my world. It was amazing. I have never experienced anything like it in my life.
I will admit my euphoria ebbed and flowed as I rode. There were times every muscle ached. Due to the dearth of natural padding in the nether regions of my backside, I wondered if I might have a “dead end” before reaching the final miles into Clinton. Even though each of the small towns along the route offered refreshments, music and warm welcomes, I took only two short breaks. I feared if I stopped longer, I’d never convince my tender derrière to return to its rightful position saddled atop my metallic steed.
Arriving in Clinton, I felt a bit of a fraud. Lining the streets for the last several miles were thousands of local families, sitting on the front lawns, waving flags and signs, cheering us all on. “You’re doing great!” “Congratulations!” “Well done!” They were yelling primarily to the brave souls who were completing the grueling 7-day ride. Even though I had ridden only 69.4 miles, it was the longest ride of my life, so I allowed myself to accept the warm greetings and congratulations of the kind people of Clinton.
Some weeks later, however, I realize the truth of the ride was not in my euphoria at my accomplishment. It was in the message enrobed by my effort.
Our son, David, is webmaster for the Quad Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau, the QCCVB—if you go to VisitQuadCities.com, his are the fingertips that animate it. Over the past four years, he has hosted Judi and me for numerous events and extravaganzas. I love witnessing his great delight in having us there to support and enjoy the things that have become important to him. He has come to love the QuadCities and the two states that encompass them.
It was David who encouraged me to challenge the final leg of the 40thannual RAGBRAI. But this invitation into his world was different from those that brought us here before. It was clear, if I accepted, I would be on my own. Neither he nor Judi had any desire to put their body to this test. They were happy to act as “support crew,” and enjoy a leisurely drive from point of departure to the spot were riders dipped their front tire into the “Mighty Mississippi”, attaching an exhilarating exclamation point to the end of the journey.
When I finished that sunny afternoon in Clinton, Iowa, David’s only question was “Dad, did you enjoy it?” The euphoria I felt made my reply clear. But it wasn’t my words that answered his real question…a question many of us have of our parents. The truth, unavailable in real time, was that, having put so much of myself into this event—training for weeks and exerting most every muscle for more than 5 hours—was a tangible expression of my love and regard for him…and who he is becoming in this world. The physical act said more than I could ever put into words.
I have been reminded yet again that our actions do speak louder than words, and the intensity of our actions often speak to the depth of their meaning.
I do love who you are, David, and who you are becoming, more that words can ever express.
Jul 102012
 
Too often, that which has the capacity to make our lives most fulfilling leaves us precisely when we need it most.
I was reminded recently that in any two-person conversation, at least six personalities show up.
On your end are two versions of you: (P1) the real you—the person you are in that place of deep trust, honesty and love; and, (P2) the you who actually speaks—complicated by your past, culture, emotional highs and lows, biases and prejudices.
Speaking from the other end are the same two versions of your partner (P3 & P4).
The final two people who participate are (P5) your biased version of your partner and (P6) his or her biased version of you. They do not see you as either of the two people who represent you, and you do not see them as either version of themselves.
Lets recap:
P1—Real, sincere you
P2—Complicated you
P3—Real, sincere partner
P4—Complicated partner
P5—The partner you perceive
P6—The you your partner perceives
Let’s take this buggy for a spin and see how it rides. Scenario: You are a mom who walks into your teenage son’s room…it’s a disaster! You storm out of the room. P1, the loving Mom who walked into the room has left the building, replaced by P2, the Mom who suddenly fears the boy she loves is destined to end up on drugs and in the gutter!
Meanwhile, the son just texted his girlfriend. They’re going to a movie and he needs the car.
You and your son meet—or shall I say collide—in the kitchen.
P3, the son who just spent an hour straightening up his room and feels pretty good about his progress, lets loose with the opening salvo. “Mom, can borrow the car to take Shelly to the movies at 7?”
“Are you kidding,” says frightened Mom (P2) to her son who she now sees as slovenly, selfish and ungrateful (P5). “Not until you clean your room!”
Happy, carefree son (P3) has now exited, replaced by P4, the son who is suddenly ultra defensive and sees you as too demanding…a person who never credits him with anything (P6). “All she ever sees,” he convinces himself, “are the few, little things I forget to do!”
P2 is now talking to P5 and P4 is replying to P6! Confused? Ever have a similar encounter with family, neighbors, customers, suppliers, co-workers…or the mechanic you think overcharged you for car repairs?
If the conversation includes five people, trust me, hundreds of personalities vie for a hearing.
Why is it, when we most need to be the essence of our best self, we get lost in the emotion of the moment and show up as someone we often don’t even recognize?
The truth is, I misspoke when I suggested six personalities show up in a conversation between two people. If you review the collision between you and your son, the trusting, honest, loving people both of you have the capacity to be, exit the conversation early and never reappear.
How might we invite our true and authentic self to remain in the world…and extend the same invitation to those about whom we care most? I think we might be astonished by life if you and I could talk, and leave the other four out of the conversation.