In The Company Of Explainers

In The Company of Explainers

Years ago I began a long course of psychodynamic psychotherapy. You look closely at your early life and discern new meaning about the events that shaped you. Of course, finding new meaning and actually changing how you live are two entirely different things. If your therapist is good and you are willing to work hard, eventually the new understanding might lead to a new way of living, one that is healthy and whole.

Murray Bowen was the psychologist who developed Family Systems Theory. He described eight key markers of families. Virtually all the markers have unwieldy names. (Psychologists are not necessarily good wordsmiths.) One is “Multi-Generational Transmission Process.” In other words, if you really want to know why you save little tiny pieces of string and put them in bags marked “Strings Too Short To Save,” (I know of someone who actually did that…) you probably want to look deeper than your own idiosyncrasies. Just looking one generation back to your mom won’t get it done either. You need to look to her mother, and her mother before her. We are shaped by legions.

I come from a long line of explainers. Explaining is a well-developed art form in the world I inhabit, and in the generations preceding mine. We believe with Socrates that the unexamined life is not worth living. So we examine. Boy, do we examine. When you examine, you talk. And when you talk, people get nervous. Which means you often have “a lot of explainin’ to do.”

Mark Nepo writes in Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, “There comes a time when you must shed your lifelong need to explain yourself and start to just be yourself.” The reasons you have chosen to be yourself exist. You know them. Nobody else needs to know them. They can watch you in your unfolding.

In the opening credits to his novel Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry writes this warning: “Persons attempting to explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise “understand” (this book) will be exiled to a desert island in the company only of other explainers.”

I lived on that island long enough – the island of explainers. I want to break the cycle of the “Multi-Generational Transmission Process” to become a family of people who do not live in fear because of what others might think. I want to have grandchildren who simply become who they are, instead of spending their lives explaining why they are not living the life someone else wants them to live.


It takes a lot to stop the momentum of the Multi-Generational Transmission Process. But I’ve got shoes with thick soles, and I’m diggin’ in.

Just Say Yes

Just Say Yes!

I was talking with my friend Jennifer. Somewhere during her 20s she decided her anxieties would not get in the way of living. So she started saying “Yes.” Life offered her some rather fascinating assignments. She brought her wisdom into my life.  Last year she gave me a pendant inscribed, “Move and the way will open.” I wear it most days.

I was looking at it one day when it occurred to me that somewhere I had read a quote from the great UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold in which he said pretty much the same thing. I found it in his book, Markings:

At some moment I did answer yes to Someone – or Something – and from that hour I was certain that existence was meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.

The quote gives extra meaning to my favorite Hammarskjold quote, also from Markings:

For all that has been – Thanks! For all that shall be – Yes!

“Yes” becomes harder the older you become. Instead you want to say, “Later.”  But you know good and well the amount of “later” is rapidly diminishing. You’ve already built your kingdom. You’ve slain your dragons. Can’t you just sit back and relax? Well, maybe you can. Maybe you have been driven by the productivity demons, and your “Yes” means it’s time to stop and smell the salty air blowing off the bay. On the other hand, maybe you cannot sit back and relax. Maybe you have been called to say another kind of “Yes,” one that is going to keep you striving in a new direction, for a different cause.

Both of my mentors kept saying yes, one into his late 80s and the other to 99. The almost centenarian called each “Yes” a conversion. He said he had gone through five of them, all involving loss, but all involving a new beginning as well. The writer Mark Nepo says “Yes” is the bravest way to keep leaning into life.

If love makes the world go round, then “Yes” must be the energy that keeps it spinning. Yes, I believe it is.

And so it goes.

One More Piece of Flying Debris

One More Piece of Flying Debris

In a recent speech, celebrated author Brene Brown said when we are going through times of trial, and fighting shame, we need someone who will steadfastly walk through the muck and mire with us. I have always identified those people as “Friends who stay all the way to morning.” Brown went on to say we wrongly assume several friends will be available to travel through the dark night with us. The truth is we will be lucky to have one or two good souls who will stay with us all the way to morning.

Ironically, we tend to take these one or two fellow travelers for granted, while we go off chasing the approval and love of those who will never have the inclination to be truly available to us.  I think of all the wonderful people who have shown care to me over the past several months. Many email me every couple of weeks. Others call regularly. Some have advice. Some just want to “check in.” But only one has been there with just the right words, day after day, night after night, whatever the time, whatever the season.

I was there when this friend struggled through a divorce almost 25 years ago. My friend has returned the loyalty. He flew out to Colorado on a moment’s notice. He calls every Monday evening, and again on the weekend. We often talk for hours. He is the soul mate who never lets go. His name is David.

David and I share Eastern Kentucky roots. We are both graduates of Kentucky Christian University. We both left the Appalachians for the Northeast. We both have known great joy and great suffering.

When we share a difficult story with the wrong person, Brene Brown says it “becomes one more piece of flying debris in a dangerous storm.” This is why we must be careful with whom we share our deepest selves. Some will not be able to hear the information because we have disappointed them by proving to be human. Some will be so disturbed by the cause of our shame that we must minister to them, instead of being comforted by them. Some will be quick to judge, with arrogant confidence.  You must be cautious when sharing a difficult story. You must share it with someone who has earned the right to hear it. You must ask, “With whom am I in a relationship that can bear the weight of this story?”

For me, it was David. I am grateful for all the good souls who have checked in on me. But in the middle of the night, I know who I am going to call.

Do you?

Authentic Living

Authentic Living

My children are card-carrying members of Generation X, a group that has hung onto its desire for authentic living longer than most. We Baby Boomers had the 60s, with our Vietnam protests and flower child experiences and such, but it didn’t take long to turn into raw capitalists. After all, it was our generation that presided over the astronomical increase in CEO salaries, as the one percent got richer and everyone else started shopping at Wal-Mart.

Richard Rohr suggests that when we approach the second half of our lives, our hearts are drawn back toward the authenticity that enticed us during our college years. But I went to Bible College. Instead of following my heart to become a television newscaster, I devoted my college years to denying myself and taking up the cross. Unfortunately I had these pesky doubts. If I was going to be in the army of Jesus, I needed some proof. Night after night I placed empty Pepsi bottles outside my dorm window and prayed for God to fill them before morning. “Since I’m going to work for you, you’d better prove yourself,” I fervently demanded. But alas, morning came and the bottles were always empty. If I wanted more Pepsi, I was going to have to buy it like everyone else.

I missed the drive for authenticity the first time around. I was too busy being the obedient fundamentalist. Actually, you don’t have to be a fundamentalist to miss authenticity the first time around. During our formative years most of us trade authenticity for approval. Over the years, however, the desire for authenticity never goes away. It may go down into the basement and hide in the corner behind the furnace. It may wait a long time, but it never goes away.

There is a reason people avoid the pursuit of authenticity. It is not good for one’s retirement account, let alone reputation. There is a great line in the Wizard of Oz. “Hush, Dorothy whispered the tiger. You’ll ruin my reputation if you are not more discreet. It isn’t what we are, but what folks think we are, that counts in this world.” And so it is.

When you decide to live authentically, you not only change your own life, you bring a whole parcel of people with you. A number are kicking and screaming. Your authentic pursuit is their nightmare. I know of a man in Colorado whose wife decided to join the Peace Corps. They are both in their early 60s. He is a therapist who loves his practice and also loves his wife. Her search for a fulfilled life is his problem. He loves the Colorado mountains. He does not want to enter the Peace Corps. But he is closing down his practice and moving to Nicaragua. Maybe searching for authenticity would be better done before you get married.

But we do not know enough about authenticity when we are young and unmarried. We are unformed, amorphous. Through family and work and community and tribe we begin to discover both who we are and who we are not. Like learning to walk, this discovery process is always filled with scrapes and bruises. It is no wonder we are well into the second half of life before self-nurturing insights finally stream into our consciousness. Unfortunately, by then we are tired, very tired. It takes a lot of energy to keep up appearances. So we sometimes ignore those prompts, preferring instead the quiet lull of boredom and routine. After all, we are free creatures; we each get to decide who we will be.

I have decided to opt for authenticity.