When it comes to love, don’t ask ‘why’ but ‘how’

Yesterday I started working on a Valentine’s day project that was inspired by a thought that came to me during my morning meditation. Here is the email I sent out to my list of loved ones last night. I invite readers to spread the love this week. Ping me if you want in on my list.

Dear friends:

On February 7 an insight came to me during my morning meditation: When it comes to love, don’t ask ‘why’ but ‘how.’ We could waste a lot of time pondering the why to no end. Asking why seems to imply that our loved ones “earn” our love by being or acting a certain way. Fact is we love whom we love. Why do we need explanations?

What truly matters is how we express our love. Do you show it through words or actions? Do you shout it from the mountaintops or send it out quietly into the universe? Most pertinently of all, do you love in ways that are consonant with the individual needs of others, or only in the manner you’re comfortable with?

These thoughts inspired me to do something for Valentine’s day as a way to reflect on how we show our love for others. Here’s the deal: Below I share with you something in my life that I love very much, but instead of telling you why, I’ll tell to you how.

If you are so inspired, I invite you to send me (and anyone else you wish) a Valentine’s day email about *how* you show your love for someone or something in your life. This can be anyone or anything at all: animal, vegetable, mineral, or something entirely abstract. The object of your love can even be you! (Major bonus points for sharing how you show love to yourself.)

While this is a mass email for expediency’s sake, if you choose to participate in this project, I will reply to you with a personal message. Yes, I am cleverly engineering it so we all get e-Valentine’s on Feb. 14!

So here is my share:

I love my garden. Continue reading

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The ethics of program design in youth development

One of the higher compliments anyone can pay me for my work is something along the lines of “I would love to take that workshop myself!” or “My high school- / college-aged kid could use that program!” or better yet, “Everyone could use a program like that.” Technically, I design programs for so-called “at-risk” youth, but all that really means is being sensitive to certain needs and understanding the institutional context of their lives. What I am actually striving to create are programs with a much wider appeal—wider because in the end they aren’t aimed at “troubled youth,” but at our shared humanity.

As human beings we all unfold in our own time, and that process is never smooth or evenly-paced. Some of us encounter great challenges very early on. This may appear to “set us back,” but only if we succumb to the bad habit of measuring ourselves against others, or—more accurately—against some kind of social norm that demands we be self-sufficient and clearly on our way to some narrow, preconceived notion of success by our mid-twenties. Another view is to approach these challenges as tests. And if we have the tools and the space to reflect on those significant life experiences, we can use them as learning opportunities and even a source of strength.

Note that this is a very individualized and forgiving view of human development, and one that can resonate throughout a lifetime if we continue to sit with it. Within this framework, I am creating a support system for young people during the critical, early years of emerging adulthood, when many of them exit care with the scantest of resources. The outcomes I shoot for are nothing less than what many people wish for their own children: personal well-being and professional fulfillment. We want to give them the very best so they can be their very best. But how can this happen if we push them through programs that are designed according to preconceived and misguided notions of their capabilities?

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It’s National Adoption Month: Here’s to my other dad

It’s a happy coincidence that National Adoption Month should begin on my adoptive father’s birthday. I’d been following the conversation on adoption and loss on Twitter and it caused me to reflect on this very special relationship that has spanned decades of my life.

My Daddy Gary entered my world when I was seven and legally adopted me around the time I was nine. I remember my mom attempting to explain why this was happening, but I didn’t comprehend then—and am still trying to piece together now—the reasoning behind the decision. Yet what was plain to me even as a child was my father’s obvious agitation at the course of things. I remember sitting in the passenger’s seat of his car, seeing his hand clutch the stick shift, and noting an unusual graveness about him. —I will always be your dad.

The memories of my adoption are not pretty: I recall a dark courthouse, a self-important judge (“Say ‘yes, sir!‘”), and my dad, at a distance, looking uncharacteristically crestfallen. I walked out of that building with a new surname I was reluctant to use, not out of any dislike for my stepfather—I was already deeply attached to him—but the frightening sensation of being separated from the clan and severed from the thickness of family history. (My Daddy Gary also bears the name of the stepfather who adopted him, but rather than appreciating this poetic symmetry, it felt doubly estranging.) And then there was the insupportable weight of betrayal: The image of my happy-go-lucky father so visibly crushed would haunt me for years.  Continue reading

A three-strand theory of love and attraction

“You can be in love and still have a life, you know? You can build something.”

Jennifer Egan, The Invisible Circus

One of the really brilliant aspects of Egan’s treatment of her protagonist’s coming of age is its depiction of teenage watchfulness. At 18, Phoebe reads the world and the people around her for clues on how to build a life and make connections. Unsurprisingly, romantic relationships are a particular point of fascination for her. Here is Phoebe, spying on her sister’s former high school sweetheart and his fiancée as they hunt through apartment listings in the paper:

Carla exclaimed at something she’d found, set down her cigarette and circled the item with a stubby pencil, her other hand groping for Wolf as if for a pair of glasses or a cigarette pack, finding his wrist without lifting her eyes from the paper. The gesture transfixed Phoebe—the inadvertence of it, the thoughtlessness. Wolf rose from his chair and leaned over her, his chest to Carla’s back. He kissed her temple, breathing in her smell while his eyes perused whatever it was she’d found in the paper. The sheer ordinariness of it all confounded Phoebe, as if any one of these things might happen several times a day, with no one watching. They belong to each other, she thought, and found herself awed by the notion—knowing someone was there, just there, reaching for that person without a thought.

Phoebe, trying to wrap her head around the difference between this calm vision of domestic partnership and the wild, youthful romance she saw Wolf share with her sister, asks him how those two relationships compare. He answers, You can be in love and still have a life, you know?

Continue reading

The 12 traits of “flourishers”

This is one of the many gems from sociologist Corey Keyes‘s keynote at the 6th Conference on Emerging Adulthood. He was explaining the concept of flourishers: those individuals who report that “every day” or “almost every day” they experience happiness, but less so for emotional reasons (feeling happy) than from psychological and social ones (positive functioning). He listed out the twelve traits that are much more pronounced in flourishers than the rest of the population, and I’m eager to share them with you:

Flourishers…

  • don’t procrastinate
  • have a high degree of self-control 
  • feel highly capable
  • are deliberate (They know what they want out of life.)
  • have a high disposition to apologize (At this point I start raising my eyebrows because I’m five for five.)
  • have a malleable mindset about their own intelligence (They know that they don’t know everything and are open to being wrong.)
  • have higher levels of curiosity (They like to explore and expose themselves to new and challenging situations.)
  • they have an OCEAN personality
    • open (Again, they’re intellectually curious and open to novelty.)
    • conscientious (Again, they are disciplined and planful.)
    • extroverted (This is where I start docking points.) (Also, why do psychologists spell it with an ‘A’?)
    • agreeable (They’re compassionate and cooperative.)
    • not neurotic (Go ahead and dock some more points here.)
  • have an initiative for personal growth (They want to grow and they have a plan for how to go about it.)
  • learn from adversity
  • are motivated by mastery of the process rather than the outcome (They aren’t motivated by money; they’re all about the journey.)
  • feel loved and cared for

Keyes delineates these traits because he is committed to promoting a concept of mental health that is more solid and robust than our current understanding of it as the “absence of mental illness.” He suggests that we design our interventions with an eye to cultivating these traits in our young people. If we truly want to set them up for a life beyond subsistence or even “settling” (this is Keyes’s term for the complacency of the merely “happy”), then we must go above and beyond independent living and job skills and aim for the personal and professional fulfillment of our youth.

For this reason I especially like the last trait. One of the many things I admire about The Brotherhood/Sister Sol is the fact that they codify love in their theory of change and mission. We don’t talk about love with our young people nearly as much as we should.