Personal, Stories Told

It’ll be stronger than it was before it broke

First published Sept. 20, 2013. I have a complicated relationship with the futon in my family room. My wife and I bought it while we were still married. The day we brought it home, I regretted the bright blue mattress cover that we chose. Later, as my marriage splintered apart, I spent a year exiled to it at night. I couldn’t resent the situation, for it would acknowledge that our marriage was over. I resented the futon instead, and then it was the one major piece of furniture I got in the divorce, the only thing I owned on which I could sit. I made myself feel glad to have it. Then bouts of mournful insomnia expelled me from my new bed back to the futon, as there I could always eventually find sleep. Now I start my nights on the futon, but wake later and stagger off to bed. More than a dozen years in, I’m no longer happy with its style, springs are starting to poke out on the sides of the mattress, and I still hate its cover. But I fall asleep on it so reliably that I’m reluctant to replace it. A new couch might not carry that nocturnal magic.

Futon1

My relationship with my futon is not as complex as the relationships with those I love, of course. I’m thinking specifically of my youngest son, a teenager. He broke the futon the other day.

My boy lives fully in the moment. He makes no plan and weighs no consequences. Once at motion, he tends to stay there; Newton would be proud. If you spent a day with him you might call him absentminded, but that would be an injustice. He becomes consumed by his activity and the world falls away. His inner world is his best friend. He lives there.

In that state, he has damaged or broken many things. I used to think he was careless or, worse, deliberate, and so I meted out consequences of loud and harsh words, limitations of his freedom, or both. But slowly, thankfully, I’ve come to see the truth: the boy means no harm. He is surprised when he damages or breaks something.

Even though these things are just things, they do belong to somebody, usually me. They have an important purpose or some sentimental or emotional value, and I feel the loss.

My son matters more than these things, and so I absorb those losses. But it’s also my job to help shape the child. Trying to help him to be more self-aware was a losing game that frustrated both of us, so I gave it up. Perhaps time and life will bring this growth naturally. Meanwhile, I intend to teach him to repair the things he’s damaged, both physical objects and relationships. All of us sometimes damage our relationships through our quirks and limitations. All of us need to know how to make amends.

He was standing at the TV deep inside a video game when, in a moment of exuberance, he leapt backward and landed on the futon. I am sure he’s done this many times. But he was much smaller and lighter before a major growth spurt this summer, and the poor futon could no longer bear him. The main beam supporting the mattress split wide, and the futon collapsed.

I called my dad, who made custom furniture for a living for many years, and described the damage. “Easy,” he said. “Get some wood glue and some long wood screws. Glue the board together along the break and then drive the screws in every inch or two. It’ll be stronger than it was before it broke.”

I assembled the materials and the tools and called my son. I showed him what to do and had him do it. As he worked, I spoke gently about repairing damaged relationships. He is my son, and I love him, and he will always receive grace from me. He should accept no less from those who are in his life. But when he causes damage, he needs to try his best to fix it, if he can. I hope my words connected with him.

Futon2

The repair is ugly, as we couldn’t quite get the halves of the board to line up on one side of the break. My son didn’t have enough strength to drive the screws all the way into the hard wood, so he started them and I finished them. As we put the frame back together, I could feel our relationship coming back together, too. I hope he felt the same way. After we finished the repair we turned the futon back over and sat down on it. It supported us as before the break, and I could see the satisfaction of accomplishment in him. Here’s hoping this creates a connection in him that he can mend things broken, including relationships. That he should. That it’s satisfying to do it.

“It’ll be stronger than it was before it broke.” Was Dad really talking about my relationship with my son?

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Essay, Faith, Personal

Unrightable

First published Dec. 18, 2008. A friend has wanted to talk lately about the hard work of forgiveness, so I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned about it over the past few years.

No More Sake
Photo credit: Matt Reinbold

Not long enough ago I hurt someone pretty badly and was hurt back as badly in return. We had cast down the china teacup of our relationship and it shattered. The best repair we could manage leaked through its glued seams. It wouldn’t hold and we came apart for good.

That experience taught me a lesson that seemed paradoxical at the time but is now so obvious that it’s elementary: Getting over being hurt means accepting the pain. It doesn’t go away as long as you deny it. It doesn’t go away as long as you ruminate on it, where it builds resentment. Acceptance is the only way through; acceptance accomplishes most of the healing. As I worked at simply letting myself hurt – and it hurt a lot – the pain diminished and disappeared, and I came to no longer hold anything against that person.

Because I’m given to foolish fantasies of a harmonious world, I also learned a second, more difficult lesson. I always thought that when I forgave, it was to be as though the wrong never happened and that I should be reconciled to the one who hurt me. God says that when he forgives, he remembers our sins no more. He gives second, fifth, ninety-fourth, and seventy-times-seventh chances. But while God loves reconciliation, he also does not want me to keep putting myself in harm’s way. Two people can simply not be good for each other. Maybe one or both have a nature that’s toxic to the other. Maybe the number or severity of past hurts make it too hard to rebuild trust. Maybe their needs conflict in too many ways. So sometimes the best way I can care for myself is to let the other person go. I’m sure that a few people are best off having let me go, too.

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Personal

Meditations on forgiveness and reconciliation

You can't buy happiness

After writing here about the first anniversary of my being fired from a job, where I believe my boss manipulated me and treated me badly, I’ve been thinking about forgiveness. I said in that post that I’d started the process of forgiveness over this. But I haven’t finished it yet.

I believe firmly in forgiveness as the pathway to inner peace. I don’t know about you but I find peace to be crucial to my ability to access joy.

Peace and joy are occasional but regular themes on this blog. They don’t come naturally to me. I worry about the future and I ruminate over bad memories. Also, I deeply want to right wrongs. There’s a certain power in these traits when I channel them well, but they can also consume and paralyze me.

In my 20s I learned how to let go of unwanted thoughts and how to breathe deeply to let peace in. I learned to accept that in life something is always wrong, and while I should act on the wrongs I can fix I must otherwise lean into what’s good. I’ll always find some good when I look for it.

Ice cube croutons

Even now, in my 50s, I have to deliberately practice these things. They may never come naturally. Who knew a healthy inner life would take so much maintenance?

But when I haven’t forgiven, none of those practices work very well. Forgiveness cleans the slate.

I have suffered this wrong, absorbed this loss, and moved forward in my life. But I still harbor extremely negative feelings toward my former boss. Even though she was fired shortly after I was, I still wish for greater justice. So my forgiveness is not complete. I trust that it will be, in time.

I feel sure that I will avoid her in the future. She still works in my industry in this town; we could easily cross paths again. My forgiveness will not mean that I should behave as if nothing happened. Someone who has treated me this badly earns the judgment of “unsafe.” While it’s not impossible to regain my trust from there, it’s extremely difficult. It should be.

I’m behind on blogging again. Too much of my blogging time has gone to other priorities lately. For the rest of this week I’m going to repost my essays on forgiveness.

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Personal

One flies the nest

My wife and I drove to Bloomington a couple Saturdays ago to see my older son, who had just moved into his first apartment.

It was a milestone day. My goal for my sons all along has been for them to begin independent lives of their choosing. They have owned their choices and through them appear to be seeking meaning, connection, and happiness.

And here’s my firstborn, working a job with a future in an industry of his choosing, settling into his first home.

My son and I share a common trait: home is very important to us. We spend a lot of time there and we want to make it reflect the best of who we are. I look forward to seeing what he makes of his home.

Here’s a photo of me in my first apartment. I was so happy there. I had real life challenges to figure out, and I was frequently not happy with my life overall. So it goes for pretty much everyone. But I knew that I could go home and recenter myself and just enjoy my time. Whenever I haven’t had a home like that, my mental health has suffered.

Read the story of my first apartment, and how I grew into adulthood in it, here.

At home in 1992

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Personal

The wilderness years

One year ago today, I was fired from my job leading software engineers in a startup.

I’d been unemployed before, but never had I been so brutalized on my way out the door. I’ve had plenty of time to process it now, and I believe that the new VP wanted all of her own people in place. Two of my three peers were fired within her first month, and a third saw which way things were going and quit a month later. I didn’t feel great about things, but having just lost my father the last thing I could handle was a job search.

I was politically well connected and well liked, and I believe she knew it and realized she’d have to play a longer game to get rid of me. She strung me along with promises of a big promotion, and gave me duties she said were in line with that role but which ultimately removed me from the day-to-day duties of leading the engineers. I also participated heavily in preparing for the company’s Series A funding round. The lead investment firm, by the way, praised our engineering team, saying it executed better than any engineering team in their portfolio.

After the funding was secured, I found I had little to do. I started being left out of meetings and decisions. The VP also started questioning my ability to lead, offering as evidence that the chief architect and head of DevOps had lost respect for me. When I asked those two gentlemen about it, both expressed what looked to me to be genuine puzzlement over the VP’s statements. And then the axe fell, and I was out.

Astonishingly, six weeks later that VP was terminated.

As I’ve written before, it was very challenging to cut through my intense anger as I searched for my next job. But I managed to land a position that started the first of January. I still led engineers, albeit with a lesser title. It was a decent enough place to work and so I got on with it and tried to put what had happened behind me.

In January, a remarkable thing happened. The CEO of that startup contacted me to apologize for how badly I’d been treated. At first, it felt like he’d reopened the wound. But after my emotions settled, his apology helped me start the long process toward forgiveness.

I stayed at the new company just five months. I was lured away to an engineering leadership role at a growing, vibrant company with better pay and more responsibility — more than I had at that startup. I’ve been there about five months now, and I’m pleased to report that I’m truly happy there.

I’m happier than I’ve been in my career since 2011, when a big company bought the company I worked for. I’d been extremely happy there in a great job working with great people I trusted and enjoyed, but the big company ruined everything. I decided to try my hand in the startup world, which I did starting in 2013. I worked for three different startups between then and 2018.

But since 2011, it’s felt like I’ve been wandering in the career wilderness. I’m glad the wilderness years are over.

You can read all the posts in this saga here. If you’re curious, my LinkedIn profile is here.

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Personal

The feelings are the path

We sold the rental house we owned up in Lebanon. The deal closed Friday.

You might remember that after a longtime tenant moved out early this year and we started renovations to rent it again, a beam supporting part of the house failed. Read about it here. Our son and his buddy, who have some experience repairing foundations, thought they could tackle it. But they soon realized it was over their heads.

As we looked through the rest of the property we realized it needed lots of costly repairs and updates, probably including demolishing the garage.

Leaning garage

After everything else we’ve lived through in the last three years, the stress of this was staggering. It overwhelmed us. We needed to step back. We locked the doors and walked away for a month, pretending the house did not exist.

This wasn’t the only thing going on in our lives. Both Margaret and I started new jobs this summer. Margaret’s mom passed away. There’s much more, equally impactful, but it all involves stories that belong more to other people than to me and so aren’t mine to tell.

Margaret and I finally agreed that we have neither the emotional nor the energy reserves to handle all of these rental-house projects. There was no good way for us to pay for it all anyway. So we got a Realtor, listed the house, and waited anxiously. After several weeks a flipper made a barely acceptable offer, which we eagerly accepted.

This house hanging over our heads was a source of constant worry and anxiety for me. I felt like I was being stalked by a wolf.

I’m easily anxious, and I feel things intensely. I probably learned to be anxious along the way but I was born with deep feelings.

I wish I had learned to handle my feelings when I was younger. But my family didn’t know what to do with me when I was lost in deep feelings, especially anger and sadness. It just wasn’t in their wheelhouse. What I learned to get through those formative years, unfortunately, was that I had to stuff my deep feelings down, put them away, pretend they weren’t happening.

As I entered adulthood I found this left me handicapped in forming healthy relationships and in handling stress.

Since then I’ve done a lot of work and have come a long way toward being able to handle myself. I learned that when my feelings run deep I need to pause and give them space to run their course. While I’m experiencing deep feelings, I don’t always think straight. Trying to think then often only prolongs those feelings needlessly. It’s best to just notice them, feel them, let them roll. When they subside and my head is clear, I can make good choices about what to do.

It often takes a lot of time for intense feelings to pass — hours, sometimes more than a day. I hate it. It robs me of the energy and attention to do things I’d rather do, and delays me taking needed actions on whatever triggered the feelings.

But I’ve made it work, and by my late 40s I had found greater equanimity than I’d ever known. Learning how to do this was the best gift I ever gave myself.

These last three years put me to the test. It has truly been one incredibly difficult thing after another. I didn’t have time to process one thing before two or three more piled on.

I’ve had to keep pushing forward. Hard choices kept needing to be made, and we made them. We had to keep working so that we could stay fed, clothed, and sheltered. Everyday life had to be lived — groceries bought, cars repaired, grass mowed, dinners prepared, bills paid.

Layered difficult feelings about our various challenges soon intertwined, became indistinct. I was just raw all the time and could only vaguely explain why.

I tried to cope with alcohol, a dead-end street that I detailed here and here. I tried to cope by escaping with Margaret on getaway weekends. Those were good for us, but only temporarily suspended reality. I tried to cope with leaning into my hobbies. I may have made more photographs in 2019 than in any other year of my life.

But mostly I’ve coped by being angry. Really angry. I’ve wanted to blame somebody, anybody for all of this. I’ve had to work very hard to keep from it.

I’ve also been well beyond my capacity for a long time. I’m in a sort of defense mode, pushing away hard everything that feels like a threat. I’ll bet if I could think more rationally about things I’d see most of them aren’t threats.

I finally figured out about a month ago that being in this angry defense mode feels safer than letting go and feeling what I actually feel about all that’s gone on.

So I’ve gone back to fundamentals. When a wave of hard feelings comes, I let it. I don’t judge it, I don’t try to figure out what triggered it, I don’t even label it as any particular feeling. I just let it happen.

Fortunately, these waves tend to come when I have quiet time alone, rather than in the middle of dinner or a meeting at work. Unfortunately, a lot of my quiet time alone comes after bedtime. I let the feelings roll for an hour, maybe two. But then if they haven’t passed I take one of the pills the doctor prescribed and am asleep within a half hour.

But while the feelings roll, I hold them loosely, and muster as much compassion as I can that I have to feel them at all. That we’ve had to experience all these serious difficulties. That we don’t know when good times will return.

These feelings are not here to harm me; they are not my enemy. They are not obstacles on my path. They are the path.

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