Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Character-defining moments

There are certain decisions in life that feel like character defining moments. They can be huge decisions or small decisions, but through them you feel a significant shaping taking place. To you, the decision is far more than just about WHAT you will do. It's defining WHO you are and who you will be. Are you career driven or people focused? Are you trusting or skeptical? Generous or self protective? Are you following God's will or your own?  Are you acting out of fear or love?

What makes these decisions especially hard is that the best choice is not obvious. Your head may be telling you one thing while your heart says another. You lean one way one day and the other way the next. Your friend offers one piece of advice, another the opposite. The result is an even tug of war where you are left exhausted but frozen in place.

A few years ago I was faced with one of these decisions. My older cousin was very ill and I had a gut feeling that she would not make it. It was May and my prestigious internship was starting in a month. Something deep inside of me told me I should turn down the internship and fly home to help care for her. I agonized over this decision for days. Was this just me wanting to be a hero? Would me going home make a difference?  Was I afraid of turning down this tremendous career opportunity? Would I live regretting my decision, either way?

In the end, I made the easier decision. I took the internship. Five months later my cousin passed away.

To this day I still think about that decision. I look at the picture of my cousin sitting on my dresser and in some ways I feel I let her down. At the same time, my head tells me that if I'd gone home it's doubtful she'd have lived any longer or that I could have made much of a difference.


But maybe the decision wasn't meant to be about her, but it actually was about me. Are there times when we sacrifice, not for the other person, but for the sake of our own character?  Or, is that just another form of selfishness, like the do-gooder who inflates his own hero-image?

I'm seeing a counselor at the moment and we are talking about my high levels of anxiety.  I'm trying to understand why I struggle so often with decisions and navigating my inner voices.  My decision to go home to my cousin was just one of the many decisions I've agonized over in the past. I nearly fell apart over my decision to go to graduate school. I'm currently freaking out about getting married.  Once I even fought with myself for days over what shirt to donate to charity.

In talking to my counselor I've realized that although I've never confessed to being a perfectionist, I have a deep fear of messing up my life and living with regret.

Although my Christian faith has given me many wonderful things, it has also left some scars. As I child, I yearned deeply to hear God's voice. I wanted Him to tell me what to do, to give me opportunities to participate in his work, like the missionaries I read about in books. This good desire, however, resulted in extremely high levels of confusion and anxiety. Was that God's voice? Was that my voice? What if I got it wrong?

There are two messages within Christianity. On the one hand, our decisions are terribly important because they are either within God's will or against it.  We are led to believe that if we seek God's will earnestly enough, He will guide us to the right decision. On the other hand, we are assured that God can take even our mistakes and use them for good.

Unfortunately for me, the first message always rang truer. I felt something was wrong with me because I wasn't hearing. I had the spiritual version of FOMO (fear of missing out) and was always second guessing my choices, searching for - what I was convinced existed - the one right answer.

But the second message also began to lose some of its reassuring power.  Not everything works for the good of those who love God (Romans 8:28). Sometimes good people get cancer. Sometimes you make the wrong choice and you can't go back.  If you are a person of faith, the only true assurance is in a long-term, eternal sense. Life on earth is brutally unpredictable.

Whether you are religious or not, I think we all secretly want to be part of a greater narrative. We want to draw a heroic arc to our lives and look back content and proud.

But the truth is, although we make our millions of little choices, we only have so much control. We are the creators of our destinies, but our medium is untamed watercolor, not predictable acrylic.

To embrace inner peace is to embrace failure and uncertainty. It's to embrace the inevitability that you will mess up. In religious terms, you will sin. In business terms, you make the wrong investment or career move. In social terms, you will hurt your friend.  In personal terms, you will disappoint yourself.

As Westerners, we subconsciously embrace the Greek view that Perfection = No Mistakes. We run from our errors, like a bunch of Obsessive Compulsives fleeing dirt. 

But in the Hebrew view, Perfection means being whole and integrated. The only way to be perfect is to embrace your faults and heal, to live in Grace.

I will likely always struggle with making decisions. Whenever I make a hard decision I still feel like I'm peering over the edge of a high dive, my stomach churning, terrified to jump, while everyone stares at me. 

But is a belly flop really worse than eternal angst? Is an ugly watercolor worse than an empty sheet of paper?

We will all mess up, our decisions will not be "perfect", we will each suffer and, worse, cause others pain. But perhaps it's in that pain and in those errors that we reach the better type of perfection: we break, we grow, and eventually we are made whole again.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A Manual for Turning 30

Dear younger generations,

This month, I turned 30. To you, I’m sure that makes me sound really old, an adult even. The truth is I still feel like a kid, and I’m not as mature as you think I am. I’m also not as boring as you think I am – I just hide my fun side from you so that you will think I’m an adult and listen to me. Given that one day you too will turn 30 I thought I’d write you a little manual for what it will be like. 

     1.  You will become obsessed with Time. 

As you start approaching 30, you will become obsessed with time and your own age. You will shift from being the kid who grew up too fast, to being the annoying adult who goes up to kids and says “Oh my gosh, you’re so big! I babysat you when you were in diapers and now you’re graduating from high school!!”  

You will begin undertaking all manner of strategies to try to slow time down. You will celebrate your 29th birthday for the second year in a row. You will try to feel superior to the younger generations by saying things like, “Well, when I started college we didn’t even have Facebook.” Or “I bet you don’t even know who MC Hammer is.” 

This obsession with your own age will continue as a pattern in your life until you are about 70. When you are 70 you will stop because you’ll start comparing yourself to the stroke victims in your retirement home and feel young again.

2.  You will experience real regret

When you reach 30 is also about the time when you will start having real life regrets. They may be as big as getting divorced or not spending enough time with a parent who passed away. You may regret not being more focused in school or never taking that opportunity to live abroad. You will compare yourself to your friends and begin to see the paths you could have taken, the doors that have closed and might not ever reopen. 

Learning how to deal with regrets will be your big task for this decade. Will you see regrets as being part of a bigger, better plan for your life? Will you see them as learning opportunities and as experiments? Or will you wallow in them and let them shape your whole life? The key to making your 30s great will be to wake up each morning and remember all the ways you are blessed.

3.  You will (hopefully) stop performing for the peanuts

One of the best pieces of advice I ever read was from an article in the Wall Street Journal called 10 Things Your Commencement Speaker Won’t Tell You. In it the author said, “Don't model your life after a circus animal… Don't let your life decisions be distorted by the fact that your boss is the only one tossing you peanuts. If you leave a work task undone in order to meet a friend for dinner, then you are "shirking" your work. But it's also true that if you cancel dinner to finish your work, then you are shirking your friendship. That’s just not how we usually think of it.”  

When you reach your thirties it’s time to stop and think about what really matters to you and whether your time and behaviors reflect those values.  Are you letting your life be dictated by all the peanuts being tossed at you? Or are you motivated by more lasting values? If you don’t stop and reflect now, you may one day find that the ladder you’ve been climbing your whole life was leaning up against the wrong wall.

So teens and 20-somethings, I hope you look forward to turning 30. It’s really not all bad. You’ll still have your health and your energy, but also more confidence, a fatter resume, and a bigger bank account. You’ll also finally find clothes that look good on you. 

And as my math teacher once taught me, 30 is always greater than 29. So embrace it!

Good luck!!

Your (older) friend,

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Why the stories we tell matter

To change the world, first shape the story 

The other night one of my housemates invited a group of friends over to watch a documentary about the war on drugs.  It was heart-breaking. So many people are living behind bars for relatively small offenses, separated from children and parents. 

It would be one thing if it worked, but despite our highest incarceration rate in the world, drug use hasn't declined. Each year we spend the equivalent of Uruguay's GDP feeding a system that's leaving poor communities still poor and broken families still broken and no one any safer.

Minority communities are impacted disproportionally. Not because they use more drugs, but because they get caught more often. Black Americans represent only ~13% of crack users, but they make up ~90% of crack defendants in courts.  Which leaves me wondering, where the heck are all the white crack users? In their corporate offices?

Shockingly, today there are actually more African Americans under correctional control or in prison than were enslaved before the Civil War. 

There are times when the brokenness of our world hits you and you wonder, WHY? I'd like to think that most of us are generally well-intentioned. And I'd like to also think that our policy-makers are trying their best.


At the risk of making a complicated problem sound simple, I propose there are two main underlying forces at work:  our  stories and our systems.

To understand someone's actions you have to first understand their beliefs. And to know what they believe you have to listen to the stories that they tell. Then it's important to look at the external system around them to see what behaviors it rewards and punishes and the chain reactions that result.

Together stories and systems shape so much of our identities, our policies, and our communities. They are bigger than us, yet often invisible.

In this post, I want to talk about one of these forces: the power of story.

Four powers of stories

#1: The power to create order out of chaos

What is a story?

A story is our summary of reality; it's the picture we use to help us put life's puzzle pieces together.

In every story there is a protagonista mission, and the enemy.   Stories shape what we think of as right or wrong, good or bad.  Stories galvanize us to action by framing the problem and thus framing the goal.

The war on drugs evolved out of a story. It began about drug users as the victim protagonistand has become about drug users, the enemyIn the 19th century, drug abuse was primarily seen as a health concern. Drug abuse was a problem of the middle class and addiction was treated with doctors rather than prisons. 

Then immigrant and minority populations started using drugs - Chinese laborers used opium, Southern Blacks used cocaine, Mexicans used marijuana - and beginning in 1870 drugs became a criminal concern and these "job-stealing" groups were targeted.

Today, we've inherited the story that drug users are the enemy, but we've forgotten the context that it came from. We've sidelined facts that don't fit this story and we've let it shape our policies.

When good people do bad things it's often because they throw out the puzzle pieces that don't fit their picture or they can't see the other pictures that are possible. Stories are essential to our sanity, but to keep us from unintentionally hurting other people we need to mindfully practice breaking them down and reconfiguring them to see new perspectives and opportunities. 

#2. The power to stick

For better or worse, our brains are wired to remember what is good or bad much better than what is true or false.

Stories usually start out as a set of facts arranged against an emotional backdrop that gives meaning to these facts, including defining what is good and bad. This backdrop is what makes stories far more sticky than a list of cold hard facts. 

Their stickiness means stories tend to live beyond their expiration dates. Over time, the facts may change and dissolve, but the shell of the emotional backdrop remains and gets passed on.  

In the war on drugs, we've held on to the emotional back-drop that drug users are bad. Yet we haven't updated our stories with new evidence that structural problems are the worse enemy.

Nazis became Nazis because their story had expired. They were no longer victims, and yet they continued to live out of their victim story in their new position of power, becoming oppressors.

If we aren't careful, men in the U.S. may soon face a new form of inequality as they attend college less and have no paternal rights over fetuses. 

If we don't step out of our stories to assess where we are and check the new facts, we risk pulling too hard and dragging our enemy through the mud in our tug of war.

#3 The power to give purpose

Many years ago a group of Americans, who saw themselves as helping, began transporting large quantities of second-hand clothing to a poor community in Central America. The local textile industry, however, couldn't compete with the free clothing and eventually closed, laying off workers. Sadly, the charity took a long time to adjust its strategy because in their minds, they were the heroes. 

The Christian Right has been criticized for imposing faith on politics, but it began because a group of Christians in the government felt they were living closeted lives. They decided they wanted to be more open and authentic about who they were. They saw their religiously motivated policies in light of this goal.  

In nearly every story, we see ourselves as either the moral hero or the justified victim. Stories give us purpose and boost our egos by framing our role in a positive light.

But we must remember that even stories with noblest missions can have the worst consequences and even stories with the worst consequences can have the noblest mission: e.g. generosity or authenticity. 

Good people can do bad things if they don't take time to consider the broader consequences of their good intentions.

#4 The power to build community

Stories are like tuning forks that take the world's cacophony and create resonance. We are fundamentally social creatures and we like being part of a group; stories are the notes and rhythms that mark a group and keep it in sync. 

But to keep us in sync, stories have to be continuously repeated.

As a result, communities are forever reiterating their stories. Students stand and say the pledge of allegiance. Church groups sing familiar songs and recite creeds. Battles are reenacted and history lessons are taught. Families remind their children of their values and their roots.

If your story is full of hope and progress, you may go to college without even thinking about it. You show hospitality and kindness, because that's just what your community does.

But stories focused on defeat or revenge can lead to a cycle of pain.  Inner city kids get into drugs and drop out of school. The Middle East continues its never-ending wars.

Often our most powerful stories are our most subtle ones. They are the water the fish doesn't notice or the glasses we forgot we were wearing but that shape everything we see. The reason so few people fought slavery hundreds of years ago was not necessarily evil intent but rather lack of attention. Today, I'm very likely supporting child labor or some other evil because it's not in my community story, I'm not aware.

Stories are fueled by the almost hypnotic and reinforcing effect of the communities that live and repeat them. 

Good people do bad things when they fall into the trance of these powerful stories and lack the courage to sing a different note.

How do we create a better story?

Framing a story is much more than media spin. A story is about the fundamental way we view a problem. 

To re-frame a story you have to first change yourselfYou must step out of your story and see that there are other possible valid stories. Secondly, to change other people, you have to uncover what others care about and re-frame the story around their values.

Job #1: Change yourself
Perhaps the most critical human skill is the ability to pause and temporarily step out of yourself. It's what my former professor, Ron Heifetz of Harvard, called "going up to the balcony."

When you go to the balcony you ask yourself - what story am I living? What story is shaping how I interpret world events and other people? What mission directs my actions and what standards have I been using to judge if I'm right or wrong?

We will always be blinded in some way, but the more we can practice "going up to the balcony" the more we can free ourselves from being trapped by stories that may not be helpful and may need refreshing.

Stepping out of your story takes work. It takes listening to other people. It takes learning your trigger buttons. It takes examining evidence and testing your views against something outside of yourself and your community. 

It also takes holding onto your core - the goal is not to become a chameleon nor to try to live in a vacuum free of stories. Stories are also why people are motivated to do good things.

Rather, the goal is to live more mindfully. By temporarily stepping out of your story you strengthen your capacity to choose your actions and beliefs instead of simply defaulting to your past or to your culture. 

Ironically, the first step in making the world a better place is becoming self-aware enough to realize that 


Job #2: Change others
Secondly, if you want to reframe the story you have to convince other people. 

To do this you must reframe the story around one of their deeply held values. 

Here's an example:

Last year, This American Life ran an episode on the environmental movement. They wanted to know - why is it that Conservatives are still failing to champion environmental policies despite the strong evidence of climate change?

With candor and insight atypical of a politician, a Republican suggested it was because Liberals had grabbed the issue first. If Liberals were for it, Conservatives were going to be against it because (a) you can't trust Liberals and (b) you have to be different to win elections. Conservatives went on to portray the environmental movement as being overblown, bad for the economy, and infringing on personal freedoms. 

But consider if Conservatives had claimed the issue first. Might they have framed the story entirely differently?  Could the story have been, "We must protect God's creation, it's our biblical duty"? Today, some environmentally conscious Christian groups are indeed trying to change hearts and minds by reframing the story this way. 

To change someone else's story, first understand what fundamental value they are trying to defend, e.g. the economy. Second, open yourself up to considering this value; they may be addressing valid concerns that you have not adequately accounted for in your own story. Third, help them see how their story imposes upon one of their other equally important values, such as the biblical directive to carefully manage the earth.


The War on Drugs is starting to change. The story is starting to portray drug users not just as enemies but also as victims, not just as cause, but also as effect, leading to policies that focus on structural issues and prevention. People, like me, are becoming more educated and as a result, politicians are finding a little more courage to not tow the party-line of being "tough on crime" and instead be fair on crime. No doubt, we'll need to continue to revise our story as we test new solutions and understand the drug problem from different perspectives.

Stories are like ever swinging pendulums. We never frame them quite right - we usually swing a little too far right and then a little too far left. But the important thing is that we realize when we are off the mark and that we never stop trying.

The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander
The House I Live In, Documentary
List of Countries By Incarceration Rate, Wikipedia
Hot in My Backyard, This American Life 5/17/2013 episode

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

My friend's hilarious response to my PMS Poem

This morning I got this amazing email from my friend Anna in response to my last post. Oh Anna, you are the best, this is hilarious!

Some days you wake up hating the world...
"BUT I WUV YOU!" - the World

Some days you tell your boyfriend to leave you alone, but then call him a jerk for ignoring you.
Ah, mixed messages. We all send them:

Some days making eye contact with another human being feels like a great achievement.
"Just lean forward a little bit mooooreee......"

Some days you feel left out but you don't want to join in.
You can come join our circle--we sit together but we never talk!

Some days you wish this was acceptable behavior for adults:
It totally is, just show your adult wisdom and maturity by putting this down on the floor first!

Some days you understand why God flooded the earth.
This little girl is in sympathy with you:

Some days you wonder why God saved Noah.
"Isn't it obvious? I'm extremely handsome."

Some days looking at your Facebook feed feels like reading 101 reasons why you suck.
Don't listen to the feed!

Some days the sound of laughter makes you want to hurt someone.
I'll join you in smacking this guy down!

Some days you wonder how there can be so much peace in the world since this is the fifth person you've wanted to hurt all morning.
But that is all there is--there are actually only five annoying people in the world! You've reached the limit!!

Some days you look up flights to Australia.
Don't go there--its far away from here! And dangerous! look at this succinct summary of their national history:

Some days your bladder hurts because you won't get out of bed to pee.
Ah...well...there are options!

Some days you know you are spoiled and ungrateful because you are grumpy. So then you get grumpier.

Some days you cuddle with your old stuffed animal because it's the only thing that understands you.
"Understand I do."

Some days you sacrilegiously sing "Were you there when they crucified my Lord" just because it's the saddest song you can think of.
The obvious solution is to go sacrilegious in a hilarious direction by watching this again!

Some days a friend smiles at you and you turn away to cry because it feels like the nicest thing anyone has ever done for you.
Like this?

Some days you daydream about ways to break your arm so that you don't have to go to work - if you fell from your two-story window you could probably break it without killing yourself.
But if you bling your sling, then you can still go to work!

Some days you forget that the bad mood you isn't the real you.
Its not you!

Some days writing a Pissy PMS Poem makes you feel a little bit better.
And some days your friend hopes that their PMS poem supplement will also make you laugh.

Love you, friend!!!!!!!

Monday, February 17, 2014

When the PMS Monster Attacks

Some days just start off wrong. You wake up as Ms. Hyde while Dr. Jekyll stays peacefully and unconsciously snoozing. You roll over and stare out the window hoping the sky will be gray and vomiting sleet at you. Because sunshine would be obnoxious.

Yesterday was one of those days. But as I lay in bed (at 11am) under my covers in a fetal position, I decided to do the grown-up thing. I'd use my words and write my feelings down. So I pulled out my phone and began to channel my grumpiness through my thumbs.

Because some days you just need a Pissy PMS Poem.

My Pissy PMS Poem

Some days you wake up hating the world...

Some days you tell your boyfriend to leave you alone, but then call him a jerk for ignoring you.

Some days making eye contact with another human being feels like a great achievement.

Some days you feel left out but you don't want to join in.

Some days you wish this was acceptable behavior for adults:

Some days you understand why God flooded the earth.

Some days you wonder why God saved Noah.

Some days looking at your Facebook feed feels like reading 101 reasons why you suck at life.

Some days the sound of laughter makes you want to hurt someone.

Some days you wonder how there can be so much peace in the world since this is the fifth person you've wanted to hurt all morning.

Some days you look up flights to Australia.

Some days your bladder hurts because you won't get out of bed to pee.

Some days you know you are spoiled and ungrateful because you are grumpy - which makes you even grumpier.

Some days you cuddle with your old stuffed animal because it's the only thing that understands you.

Some days you sacrilegiously sing "Were you there when they crucified my Lord" just because it's the saddest song you can think of.

Some days you daydream about ways to break your arm so that you don't have to go to work - if you fell from your two-story window you could probably break it without killing yourself.

Some days a friend smiles at you and you turn away to cry because it feels like the nicest thing anyone has ever done for you.

Some days you forget that the PMS you isn't the real you.

Some days writing a Pissy PMS Poem makes you feel a little bit better.