Movie Review: 13 Hours [SPOILERS]

So last night, my wife and I made it out to see the movie, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. I’ve been asked by numerous people for a review of the film, so here it is. If you’ve read anything in the news about Benghazi, you know how it ends, It’s impossible to tell this story without a few minor spoilers, so while I’ve tried to keep the. to a minimum, if your intent is to go into this movie with an absolutely clean slate, this is one review you might want to skip. You have been warned.

The Film

George Orwell has been traditionally (though probably erroneously) attributed with the quotation, “people sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”

Whether or not he ever said those words, I’ve never seen them more masterfully portrayed than they are in this film.

Much has been made of the politics in this movie. The events in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, are, after all, an inflection point in our history that have impacted – and will continue to impact – the legacies of one, and perhaps two, United States Presidents.

But to see this, first and foremost, as a political film is to miss the point. It is not. The only politics in the theater for this film are those you bring with you.

President Obama is never shown in the film, is never referenced by name, and is heard only once for a few seconds, providing background commentary on the events of the Arab Spring in Libya that led up to the climax covered in this film. Hillary Clinton is never shown, heard, or referenced at all. While there is definitely a political subtext, you will likely interpret it through your own personal preferences and biases, and if you enjoy this sort of film, you will likely do so here regardless of your political bent.

And what, precisely, is “this sort of film?” One thing to note is that this does not carry the usual disclaimer that it is “based on a true story.” Instead, the caveat is that “This is a true story.”

The distinction is important. The film is told from the perspective of a handful of contractors employed by the CIA to provide security for a hidden “Annex” in Benghazi, a couple miles away from the consulate where the attack began. From the perspective of those men, the events in this film are what actually happened.

The best way I can think to describe those events is as a juxtaposition of two other “true-to-life” movies: Black Hawk Down and Hotel Rwanda.

The former comparison is obvious: It is a film about brotherhood-in-arms, camaraderie, and the shared understanding that only happens between people who repeatedly and completely entrust one another with their lives. It is also apropos, in that (as characters in the film state explicitly) one of the political sensitivities around the events in this film was a government desperate to avoid another “Black Hawk Down” scenario, turning Benghazi into another Mogadishu.

The second comparison is less obvious . . . so much so that it took processing through this film with my wife for me to grasp it. She’s the one who initially drew the link for me: This is a film about what it means to be totally and completely abandoned, helpless, on your own, fearing for your life, while at the same time entrusted with protecting – as best you can – the lives of those around you who are counting on you to keep them safe.

In Mogadishu in 1993, while there was the same red tape, the same delays, and the same bureaucratic ass-covering at work, whatever else they knew, the men on the ground knew that their leadership (in particular, Major General William Garrison) would do whatever it took to bring them home (which he in fact did, sacrificing his own career in the process). The men in Benghazi in 2012 had no such assurances. The key emotion portrayed almost nonstop throughout the combat portions of this film is . . . hopelessness. From the moment the shooting starts, there is a sense that none of them are getting out alive. The fact that most of them do is a testament to the genuine heroism of the people on the ground.

The comparison to Rwanda in 1994 is more of a “what if” scenario. The heroics of Paul and Tatiana Rusesabigina, as portrayed in Hotel Rwanda, saved 1,268 of their countrymen and foreign workers at the Hôtel des Mille Collines, fearing for their lives the whole time, and assuming they’d never make it out of the city alive.

One wonders how many more could have been saved if they’d had just a half-dozen highly trained and heavily armed contract personnel protecting them, as the CIA Annex had in Benghazi in 2012.

And this is where my own political biases kick in. As I said earlier, the only politics in this movie are the ones you bring with you. Here are some of mine:

The political dispute surrounding the Benghazi attack is captured in a single, throwaway exchange between two characters that goes something like:

CIA Paramilitary Contractor: They’re saying on the news that this started as some kind of protest about anti-Islamic films?

State Department Security: We didn’t see any protest!

CIA Paramilitary Contractor: Just reporting what’s on the news, bro.

It seems important to note hear that the most full-throated case for that (now known to be non-existent) protest was made by Dr. Susan Rice – currently President Obama’s National Security Advisor, and at the time his ambassador to the United Nations.

Dr. Rice, it must be noted, was on President Clinton’s National Security Council during the events in Rwanda in 1994, and has been quoted repeatedly as urging caution and inaction from the U.S. government in the Rwandan crisis, saying, “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November election?”

She claimed to have learned her lesson thereafter, saying “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.” And indeed she did, becoming a staunch champion of intervention against the genocidal Sudanese government during that country’s longstanding civil war.

But in Benghazi, with about three dozen American lives at stake, Rice again became an apologist for inaction for the sake of political expediency. Rather than admitting that this was a meticulously-planned terrorist attack (flying in the face of President Obama’s repeated assertions that al Qaeda and its affiliates were “on the run,” and threatening his upcoming reelection bid), Dr. Rice (and her boss, Hillary Clinton, and her boss, President Obama) chose to blame a YouTube video, and chose to hang three dozen Americans out to dry.

And for being on the wrong end of the most important national security crises of the last two Democratic administrations, Dr. Rice received a promotion from UN Ambassador (which, importantly, requires Congressional confirmation) to National Security Advisor (which does not.)

That inaction is another theme that ties these three movies together. In Black Hawk Down, red tape prevents General Garrison from sending everything he’s got to support his men, and he ultimately has to rely on a UN-controlled Pakistani armored convoy to get them out. In Hotel Rwanda, again the inaction of the US and the international community is center stage, as Rusesabigina eventually has to bully a UN commander into providing a way to safety.

In 13 Hours, one central theme is “Where the h**l is the U.S. military??”

We see the CIA personnel desperately calling for support from Tripoli, from Aviano Air Base in Italy, and from anywhere else within flying distance . . . all to no avail. We see shots of F-16s idling on a runway, ready to take off, but with their pilots inside with no orders. We see Glen Doherty – a CIA contractor and former Navy Seal – arguing with his superiors in Tripoli, assembling a hodge-podge quick response team, begging, borrowing, and bribing his way into Libyan air transport from Tripoli to Benghazi, and then battling his way to the Annex to exfiltrate the embattled Americans (giving his life in the process).

We see the shots from the American drone overhead . . . always watching, but never intervening.

We see the assumptions from the men on the ground that the watching drone is armed and will provide minimal air support, and the assumption that heavier support in the form of U.S. gunships is no doubt on the way. The understanding is that this is normal operating procedure. But thanks to the dithering bureaucrats (seen only on camera, when they are seen at all), the normal rules don’t apply here.

Conversely, we see the Libyan armored convoy that shows up to finally relieve the besieged compound, and the Libyan military transport that eventually flies them out.

The juxtaposition is stark, and is duly noted by the men on the ground.

Such juxtaposition is repeatedly and masterfully portrayed throughout this film. Michael Bay is, I think, an underappreciated director. That feels odd to say, given his critical and popular acclaim, but most of his notoriety is his penchant for making lots of things go “boom” in very loud and flashy ways. There’s certainly plenty of that in this film, but it’s the little things that were most noteworthy to me:

We see State Department IT Contractor Sean Smith enjoying “Call of Duty” during his off-hours, just moments before he is thrust into real-world combat for which he is woefully unprepared. A video game, we learn, is nothing compared to the real deal.

We see the U.S. Ambassador, in Benghazi to do a very important job, but protected only by two under-armed and inadequately-trained State Department security personnel in what is described as “the most dangerous city on earth.”

We see the six “rough men” of the CIA contract security team – men who have spent most of their adult lives receiving and doling out violence – spending the brief hours between firefights musing about their loved ones, their children, and the families they just want to get home to see one more time.

We see those same “rough men” with a child in their gunsights . . . a child who is using a cell phone (likely, it is implied, to provide targeting coordinates to the terrorists who are trying to kill them). We see those men unable to shoot a kid, even one who presents an immediate and deadly threat. It is left ambiguous as to whether their forbearance cost two of those men – Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty – their lives.

We see the CIA officers belittling and grumbling about the security team that hampers their ability to do their job . . . but when things come down hard, we see those same officers – men and women not equipped to handle a full-blown firefight, doing everything they can to support the people who are there to keep them alive. And in the aftermath, one of those who complained the loudest in the beginning sums it all up in the end: “I don’t know how you made it out of there alive, but I know how we did.”

The Heroes

One of the movie’s greatest strengths, I think, is its decision to forego the casting of “A” list actors in any of its roles. That, I think, made it more powerful than the star-studded Black Hawk Down, despite both being equally poignant and important films with similar messages. It made the necessary suspension of disbelief just a little bit easier: Instead of watching Josh Hartnett, Ewen MacGregor, Orlando Bloom, Eric Bana, and Tom Sizemore, I felt like I was watching Tyrone Woods, Glen Doherty, Jack Silva, Tonto Paronto, Boon Benton, Tig Tiegen, Oz Geist, Sean Smith, and Chris Stevens.

It felt that much more “real,” and allowed me to fully and completely respect the heroism of the real people involved, rather than their portrayals by actors with famous faces.

And make no mistake, this is first and foremost a movie about heroes . . . and not just the men who gave their lives . . . and not just the men who fought.

The CIA officer who repeatedly complains that her security detail is hampering her ability to do her job, but then spends most of the attack calling everyone she can think of and begging for air support to protect the men of that security detail: She is a hero.

Another CIA officer who bridles at the need for private security guards, and then spends the whole fight talking to his Libyan contacts, trying to figure out if the Americans have any friends left in the city: He is a hero.

The under-trained and under-equipped State Department security guard who panicked, got disoriented, and accidentally placed his colleagues at risk while driving them to safety in a bullet-ridden and burning armored car: He is a hero.

Even the movie’s “villain” . . . the risk-averse CIA station chief who started out the day just wanting to ride out his last assignment and retire – the pseudonymous “Bob” who, according to the movie’s perspective, might have saved the ambassador (while placing his own people and mission at significantly greater risk) if he’d let his security team off their leash sooner: He, too, is a hero.

And of course, the men of who placed themselves between their countrymen and women and scores of heavily-armed terrorists are heroes.

And the four men who gave their lives are heroes:

Tyrone Woods – the leader of the CIA contract security team in Benghazi who spent the entire movie warning of danger, only to be proven entirely right, and to give his life to save the very people who failed to heed his concerns.

Glen Doherty – the leader of the CIA contract security team in Tripoli who spent the entire movie cobbling together a rescue force and somehow managing to get it from Tripoli to Benghazi, only to be killed at the tail-end of the fight before he could see his efforts succeed.

Sean Smith – the State Department IT guy who was sent into the most dangerous place on the planet, unprepared and unequipped for what he would find there, and who went anyway.

And Ambassador Chris Stevens – the dedicated public servant with a vision for a better Libya, who voluntarily put himself in harm’s way in an attempt to make his vision come true, and who gave his life in the process.

Those are the names we know. But for me, the unsung and unappreciated hero of the film was a Libyan translator named Amahl. Amahl regularly places himself in harms way to help the Americans, going with them on dangerous operations despite having no combat skills or training. He’s there solely because he’s the only one fluent in Arabic. When the fighting starts, he’s “volun-told” to travel with the CIA contractors from the Annex to the consulate, because without an Arabic speaker there is no way for them to navigate the dangerous roads controlled by several hostile factions that stand between the two locations. He’s given a helmet, body armor, and a pistol . . . none of which he has the slightest clue how to use, and with the team makes his way to the compound, frequently under a hail of bullets. As they pile into the armored vehicle, one of the CIA contractors upon seeing Amahl in the ill-fitting protective gear, trying to figure out which end of the pistol to hold onto and which end goes “bang,” remarks to his buddy, “Welp . . . he’s not coming back.”

And yet, he does.

After returning to the annex, when the Libyan security forces charged with protecting the compound have all fled in anticipation of the coming attack, Amahl stays. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes he is told to get himself safely home, out of harm’s way, “We’re not going to need a translator any longer.”

“No!” he says, incredulous that the suggestion would even be brought up. “I’m with you guys.”

And he is. Completely.

And in a scene that left me with tears in my eyes, as the survivors are finally evacuated to the airport, they tell Amahl to get in the truck and come with them to safety.

“I’m going home,” he says.

And he does . . . in one of the film’s penultimate shots, we see Amahl shambling off down the street to his house. The American heroes get to retreat, to evacuate, to retire to lives as insurance adjustors with their wives and their children, with the hardest and worst night of their lives behind them, haunting their dreams and their memories.

Amahl, though, walks home past still-burning vehicles on bullet-riddled streets, back to his house in the most dangerous city on earth . . . back into a life with neighbors who, moments before, were trying as hard as they could – fighting and dying – in an attempt to kill him.

It’s an obvious truth, but one that bears repeating: Heroism is not a uniquely American trait.

The Takeaways

I said earlier that this is not a film about politics. And yet, for me, it was. As someone whose education and interests delve deeply into the national security realm, I’ve followed news of the story of Benghazi closely ever since it occurred. But this film drove home several things for me – things that seem much clearer now that I’ve seen them from the perspective of those who were there that night.

The Obama Administration’s Difficult Position: First off, I understand now that the administration’s decision to obfuscate the origin of the attack was not entirely political. Yes, as I noted above, politics was indisputably a factor. But in the immediate aftermath there was an urgent need to protect as much information about the CIA’s operations in Benghazi as possible. That played into the CIA station chief’s “stand down” order, as well as into the administration’s “You Tube” misdirection. You see, the movie makes clear that the CIA was there to interdict a very specific, and extremely deadly threat: specifically, the proliferation of “Man Portable Air Defense Systems” (MANPADS). These shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles are the sorts of things that literally keep people up at night, because they’re everywhere on the international arms market, and if someone can manage to smuggle one of these things into a Western country, one guy planted at the end of some runway at a major airport could start bringing down civilian airliners at will.

As Vice President Biden might say, that’s a Big F-ing Deal. And so it’s at least understandable why the administration adopted the posture it did for as long as that mission remained secret. What’s inexcusable is the fact that they stuck with that story after it was disproven, for the sake of political expediency and in order to win an election, even to the point of demonizing and discrediting the families of some of the victims.

The Democratic Legacy of Failure:
Second, this movie is just the latest chapter in a very long list of democratic inaction in the face of foreign policy crises. Democrats rightly criticize Republicans for often being too quick to act in the national security realm without an adequate plan for doing so. But the Democrats’ failing is the opposite one . . . time and again they would rather take no action at all, than risk taking one that might put their personal positions at risk. Action without regard for the consequences can be dangerous. But inaction without regard for the consequences can be just as dangerous.

Contractor Love: One of the most pleasantly surprising things, for me, was the fact that this movie focused heavily on paramilitary contractors . . . and for once they weren’t the film’s villains! As a government contractor myself, one of the things that irks me about Hollywood is how often they resort to the easy trope that contractors – being mostly American males employed by the for-profit private sector – are easy to demonize, and are thus often painted as the “bad guys.” I know first-hand the value of contractors: we are flexible – easy to hire, fire, and move around – and we often provide skills that can be difficult to find or efficiently allocate among the federal workforce.

In my case, the skills I bring to the table are a combination of solid writing, editing, and communications expertise, combined with a deep knowledge and understanding of national security strategy and policy. In this movie, the skills brought to the table by the film’s featured contractors were highly trained tactical expertise and weapons training unparalleled even by the military’s elite special operators or the security personnel employed by the government. When one of the CIA officers complains about being “handled” by her security contractor, saying that she knows what she’s doing because it’s her fourth (I think it was?) tour in-country, the security contractor protecting her laconically replies, “It’s my twelfth.”

And the film very accurately captures the disparity with which contractors are sometimes viewed by government personnel. I’ve experienced it both ways: I’ve had government clients who viewed me as an integral and valuable part of their team and didn’t care that I drew my paycheck from a private company. I’ve also had clients who thought that my contractor status made me a second class citizen – one whose presence they had to tolerate because they were told to do so, but one who couldn’t possibly be as valuable as a “real” government employee.

This film captures both perspectives . . . sometimes within the same characters, who grow to appreciate the presence and abilities of contract personnel over the course of the movie.

And the movie blows one all-too common misperception about contractors completely apart: Patriotism doesn’t necessarily draw a government paycheck or wear a uniform (or even, in one scene, pants). Despite being employed by a for-profit company, the contractors portrayed in this film were every bit as patriotic and dedicated to serving (and if need be, dying for) their country as were their colleagues serving in the military, the State Department, and the CIA.

I’ve never been called upon to risk my life for my country, but I’ve known contractors who have. And let me assure you, that portrayal is entirely accurate.

Hollywood Sea Change: Fourth, while it showed up only in subtexts, it was refreshing to see a film that was so unabashedly pro-American, and that didn’t tiptoe around political sensitivities. This was the movie about Benghazi that I wasn’t sure it was possible for Hollywood to make. But they did, and they did it right.

When I see a film that touches on politics, I’m used to leaving the theater feeling “lectured at” . . . either the film implicitly criticizes beliefs I hold dear, or implies villainy in people I support, or treats aspects of my worldview as inexcusably misguided and beyond the pale of a reasonable belief system. This is particularly true where the military and national security are concerned. One great example is “Lions for Lambs,” which I loved in spite of its overt and intentional “preachiness” in service to a pacifist worldview with which I mostly disagree.

It was nice to be on the other side for a change, and this seems to be a more and more frequent occurrence in Hollywood. It’s a welcome shift to observe.

Those Emails: Finally, there is one important tie-in to the ongoing scandal around Secretary Clinton’s exclusive use of a private, unsecured email system to receive and store sensitive (including highly-classified) information. At one point, the team assembled by Glen Doherty in Tripoli is joined by two Delta Force special operators, who tell Doherty that their mission is “classified document retrieval and destruction.” That is: two men voluntarily dove headfirst into the most serious firefight faced by American personnel in years outside of an actual war zone, for the sole purpose of protecting with their lives some of the same information Hillary Clinton was cavalierly storing on her private, unsecured email server. To my mind, that fact alone – and her casual disregard for it – should forever disqualify her from the role of Commander in Chief.

And speaking of Hillary Clinton . . .

To me, this felt like the biggest absence of the film – and it was an intentional one. This was the story of the men on the ground, and while we know in retrospect the names and faces of the people making the decisions that impacted their lives that night (among them President Obama, Secretary Clinton, Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy, and AFRICOM Commander General Carter Ham), the men and women in harm’s way at the time did not. Turning this into an explicitly political film would have detracted from their story, and I’m glad Bay chose not to do so.

But in my own mind, I can’t help but add in the roles Bay left vacant.

This election season has been a tough one for me. I’ve long been a “political junkie,” and have been looking forward to this election for a long time, due to the incredible stable of political talent on the Republican side of the aisle. At present, of the candidates still in the race, my personal preference lies with Marco Rubio. But more significantly than that I’ve been drastically disappointed by the role Donald Trump has played in this election. I think he’s a horrible person, makes a cartoonish candidate, and would be a dangerous President.

And yet . . . and yet . . .

I’ve long taken the position that if it came down to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, I would likely vote third party or cast no vote for President at all. I haven’t seen this matchup as a choice between the “lesser of two evils,” but simply a choice between “two evils.”

After seeing this movie, I’m not so sure.

First off, we know that the people on the ground – to include Ambassador Stevens, who was handpicked for the job by Clinton according to emails recovered from her server – warned that security in Benghazi was sorely lacking, and that the threat level was incredibly high. We know that his concerns went unheeded by State Department leadership, and were retroactively (and speciously) blamed on Republicans in Congress to score political points.

Second, we know that Clinton and others knew almost immediately that this was a premeditated assault that took a great deal of advanced planning. Their immediate concerns with protecting the CIA’s presence and mission in-country are, as I noted, perfectly understandable. But we know (again from Clinton’s emails) that much of their concern was with protecting her political future. To that end, she persists in lying about the nature of the attack to this day.

Finally, we know Clinton doesn’t take seriously any criticism of her role in the attack response or her handling of emails regarding that attack or any other sensitive information in her possession as Secretary of State. She stated as much explicitly on ABC News just a few days ago, when she told host George Stephanopoulos, “This [the latest revelations about highly classified information in her unsecured emails] is very much like Benghazi . . . Republicans are going to continue to use it, beat up on me. I understand that. That’s the way they are.”

She’s right. The two scandals are very much alike, but not at all in the way she thinks.

Earlier, I called the events of Benghazi in September 2012 an “inflection point in our history.” And so they are. And for me, this movie served as a personal inflection point as well. For the first time, this film had me wondering whether a President Donald Trump might just be a slightly less worrisome proposition for the security and future of our country than a President Hillary Clinton. Trump expresses a lot of ideas I find disturbing to the point of being dangerous. But Clinton has actually held the reins of power herself, and has already proven herself a danger to the security of this country. We now know from her emails that her intent was to use her involvement in Libya’s transition away from Qaddaffi as one of the “crown jewels” in a resume carefully calculated to commend her for the Presidency. Obviously, that didn’t work out so well, and the events of September 2012 are just one of many strands in her effort to paper over a disaster that is, at least in some part, of her making.

I’m as yet unresolved as to whether or not I could actually bring myself to vote for Donald Trump in order to keep Clinton away from the Oval Office . . . and I still have hope that I may never have to make that choice . . . but for the first time I am seriously considering it.

As I said, though, that’s my own political filters and biases talking. As far as the movie itself, do yourself a favor and go see it. And as my wife says, “bring Kleenex.” Regardless of the way you feel about this nation’s national security and intelligence apparatus (military, civilian, and contractor alike), you will come away with a newfound respect and regard for those rough men who stand, at this very moment, ready to do violence on your behalf.

Dear Fiona: The Hope Within

I said in my last letter that these final two missives would focus on faith. In the previous letter, I ended up largely focusing on the role of faith in the abstract. But on this Christmas Day, I want to hone in on exactly what I believe, and what that belief means with regard to my hope for you.

First off, I believe that every word I’ve written in these letters is derived from – or at least, is not contradictory to – a worldview based in the Christian Scriptures.

Let me be clear, I know many, many people who would disagree . . . people who would say that some of the things I’ve written in these letters are directly counter to Scripture. I respectfully disagree with them, and I hope in this final letter to explain why.

The foundation of my faith . . . one of the reasons I love being a Christian, was summed up beautifully by Jesus Christ himself when he said, flat out, that the entire religion he founded was rooted in two things: First, love God. Second, love everybody else.

Of course, wars have been fought over what, exactly, that means. Reasonable people (along with, sadly, a lot of unreasonable ones) can disagree over the answer to that question. Here’s what I think:

I think “loving God” requires the same thing that I’ve shared in these letters about loving another person: I think it requires first knowing yourself, and then unreservedly sharing yourself.

That’s not to say that people who haven’t performed an in-depth self-analysis, perhaps through years of therapy, can’t love God. It does mean that different relationships with God are going to look different for different people . . . because we are all in different places with regard to knowing ourselves, and different places in overcoming human nature’s natural reluctance to be vulnerable . . . vulnerable enough, for instance, to share oneself without holding anything back. This is, I think, one of the first distinctives about Christianity as I believe Christ intended it to be practiced: There is no cookie-cutter set of answers . . . no expectations we have to meet in order to “measure up.” Either we love Him enough that we are willing to share everything we know about ourselves without reservation (while simultaneously digging deeper all the time to know more and share more) . . . or we don’t. And the choice between those alternatives is up to us.

“But wait!” you might protest, “What about all the expectations in Scripture about how we’re supposed to behave?”

I think, if you drill down to their roots, such expectations are a result of reading Christ’s intent exactly backward. In I John 5, the disciple who was among Jesus’ very closest friends during his time on earth wrote, “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.”

Note well what John does not say. He does not say “If you want to love me, you have to keep my commandments.” It’s not a precondition or an expectation or . . . as the second half of the verse makes explicitly clear, a burden.

Rather, he says, “If you love me, you’re already keeping my commandments.”

And what are those commandments? Well, we already saw them boiled down: Love God; love others.

“Not burdensome,” indeed.

This gets at the next concept we’ve talked about here, which is another distinctive, I think, of Christianity: intrinsic motivation.

Other religions tend to operate via “should.” You “should” do this because God (or gods) will be angry if you don’t. In fact, this accounting of religion is so pervasive that for most of human history after Christ, people have attempted to imprint this view on the God of Christianity as well. We already saw in the previous few paragraphs that Christ never intended faith in him to be a burden, but even more explicitly, he overtly rejected the external leverage of “should.”

He didn’t coerce. He invited. Zaccheus, Bartimaeus, Nicodemus, the woman at the well . . . all of them were offered the chance for a relationship with Christ. And while all of them had issues (because after all, who doesn’t?) that relationship wasn’t precondition on “dealing with their stuff.” It wasn’t “do this, or else.” it was “Will you let me help you?”

As I said, many Christians have attempted to imprint external motivations on an individual relationship with Christ. This is most apparent in the notions of heaven (seen as a reward for such a relationship) and hell (as punishment for the lack of such a relationship.)

And that’s not to say that any particular view of heaven or hell is wrong. But it is to say that the notions of heaven as a “reward for doing good” and hell as a “punishment for doing evil” don’t necessarily even play into a genuine relationship with Christ at all. I don’t want a relationship with Christ because I want a mansion in heaven and a pair of angel’s wings. Nor do I want a relationship with Him because I’m frightened of burning in hell.

I want a relationship with Him because I love Him, and I trust that He loves me. The rest is purely incidental.

This brings me to the final reason I just love being a Christian. It is the one religion on the planet that is rooted in empathy.

I think, to truly love someone, you have to see the world through their eyes. I think, to at least some extent, that’s why God had to be born as a human being, to suffer the same pain and temptation and weakness we all suffer.

To empathize with us . . . to love us enough so that He could die for us.

Most of the Christians I know believe that Christ died for us because of our harmful choices and counterproductive decisions – our “sins” in the vernacular of typical Christianity. I used to believe that myself.

I don’t anymore. And I know plenty of people who likely believe that makes me something other than a Christian altogether.

But as I read it, the notion of a vengeful God who wants nothing more than to punish someone out of blind anger – and who is willing to take that anger out on his own son . . . because after all He has to take it out on someone . . . is inconsistent with many, many of the things we read about God in Scripture, to include the passages I’ve already mentioned here.

Rather, the God I see in Scripture is an empathetic God . . . one who sees the world through the eyes of some of its most downtrodden and hurting individuals, and who empathizes with them enough to heal them, both body and soul.

God is called many things in Scripture, by way of analogy to help us understand Him: Father, Shepherd, Lord, King . . . these are all pictures that help us associate Him with ideas that are familiar to us.

For me, the most compelling analogy is of God as the Great Physician.

Most people I know see sin as a result of the wrong things that we do every day . . . the ways that we harm each other or fail to be true to ourselves. Personally, I see it in reverse . . . I see the times we fail to love God, love others, and love ourselves as a result of sin.

I see sin as a horrible, insidious disease that is eating at us all the time. Its chief effect is total separation from God without any possibility of relationship with Him, and it is a malady we are totally incapable of eradicating on our own. Its infection and mortality rates are both 100%. All of those “wrong things” . . . the sins that so many believers obsess over and place at the center of the story? I think they’re just a natural result of a life unmoored from God . . . the inevitable result of not having Him there with us, speaking into our lives and hearts on a daily basis. They’re part of the story, yes . . . but far from its central plot point.

I see God, the Great Physician, as someone unwilling to let that condition stand . . . unwilling forever to suffer separation from the creations that he treasures so deeply.

So He determines to work out a cure for what ails us . . . a chemotherapy to kill that which pervades us.

But just like a particularly virulent chemotherapy, His cure is something so strong that only someone with a hardy constitution and a fully whole immune system can handle it without dying . . . without the cure killing them faster even than the disease will.

And in a world that is completely infected by sin, who will serve as that first test subject . . . the one whose body can be used to work out the cure so that it won’t kill anyone on whom it is used?

Enter into the world of time and space the empathetic Christ . . . the one who has forsaken the trappings of God-hood to spend time with the very lowliest of the low-lifes.

The one who was willing to donate His own body so a cure could be worked out . . . a cure that could end sin and its consequences for all time, even retroactively defeating the death of the test subject Himself.

The one who now holds out the syringe and offers to us the cure worked out in His own body . . . and who only asks that we take it.

That is what I believe. I believe Jesus Christ is a person . . . a person who not only lived, but lives . . . a person who gave up everything He had, for the ability to have a personal relationship with me.

And with you.

This is why I choose to write you these letters, culminating on Christmas Day . . . the day we set aside to celebrate the time when God pierced the fabric of space-time and entered into it at the most vulnerable place in all of human experience – the experience of a newborn infant, born of a destitute family in a downtrodden and conquered culture.

Of course, I can’t prove a single word of this. I can only tell you that it is what make sense to me . . . using all of my powers of reason and observation, along with a healthy dose of hope, all wrapped up in faith.

You may come to believe the same thing. You may not. My hope for you isn’t that you come to think what I do . . . but that you come to believe what is true. I believe this is true, and because I believe that, I hope you come to believe it too. But more than that, I hope you are able to work out and discover the truth for yourself.

This is why I hope you become a powerful, capable person. This is why I hope you learn how to think and process for yourself rather than relying on others to make your decisions for you. This is why I hope you learn how to discover and share your full and complete self. This is why I hope you learn how to love, seek, and discover truth. This is why I hope you learn how to use not only reason, but also faith and feelings to discover that truth.

Most of all, this is why I hope you learn empathy . . . empathy for yourself, and empathy for others.

Because the relationship I want with you is the one reflected in these letters: a relationship of two complete beings in harmony with one another, not because of expectations met or agreements negotiated, but because of intimacy . . . because they are fully known to themselves, to each other, and ultimately, to the same God who created and loves them both.

Because I love you. I love you so very, incredibly much that even after expending thousands of words in these letters trying to express how much I love you, I still feel inadequate to the task.

And despite my inability to express how much I love you, I hope you never doubt for one second that it’s true.

Love
~Dad

Dear Fiona: Be Completed

In the course of these letters I’ve talked a bit about faith . . . and a bit more specifically about my faith. I haven’t said much, because for me all of the things I’ve written in these letters are so integral to that faith that I felt it necessary to work through them first.

In these last two letters I’d like to tie things all together.

In my last note, I wrote that I hope you’re able to navigate the difference between a sometimes unhealthy drive to “be perfect” and a healthy sense of being complete in yourself.

In this letter, though, I want to clarify that “being complete” is not a one-time thing. It’s a long-term commitment to a continuous process. I’ve written elsewhere in these letters about holding on and letting go – that’s part of this process. I’ve also written about truth and the methods of learning it. That’s part of the process as well.

If your worldview remains static over time, it could be because you’ve discovered something true and held onto it through having it questioned and tested and challenged. Or it could be because you’ve held onto something for sentimental or psychological reasons, and your worldview has stagnated because you refused to consider alternative viewpoints. Only you will know for sure which it is, and only one of these approaches involves a “self” that is complete, and is constantly being completed.

And here is where faith comes in: because there will come a time in your life where you have to make a choice of what to believe, and when your choice cannot be 100% confirmed by facts and evidence and logic and reason.

And that’s ok, because while we have all of those tools to help us arrive at truth, we have other tools as well. And one of those tools is faith.

If you wish to avoid stagnating, it’s inevitable that you will come to have faith in something. That’s because, as we’ve discussed elsewhere, there are limits to human comprehension – limits that mean we can only learn so much through the tools of logic and reason.

To go further, you need faith.

The Christian Scripture, in Hebrews 11, provides the most beautiful definition of faith I’ve come across so far. It says “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

Things hoped for . . . things not seen. This is the stuff that reason and logic and observation can’t get to.

This is what I want to share with you about being completed . . . not, as so many people believe, that you need another human being to complete you, but that you need something outside of your own ability to see, hear, taste, touch, smell, reason, or explain. I’m sure that throughout your life you’ll hear – probably many times – discussions about science . . . about how reliable science is, about how to do science properly, or about how some people are “anti-science” because they choose to think or believe certain things.

Far less often will you hear about the limitations of science. Science can tell you so very many things . . . but only about that which can be observed. If it can’t be observed, science can’t speak to it. And so again we come back to the realm of faith.

And what a good scientist will tell you, but which far too few science apologists will not, is that there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with letting science tell you what it can, and taking the rest on faith. There’s nothing wrong with learning as much as you possibly can from your own observation, your own reason, and your own intuition . . . and then letting your heart guide you to that which cannot be observed, reasoned, or intuited.

There’s nothing wrong with hope. Remember . . . Faith is the substance of things hoped for.

But “hope” is an emotion . . . and people on both ends of the spectrum we’re discussing tend to distrust emotions. One end of the spectrum consists of those who distrust faith as something irrational . . . who rely only on the mind and what can be conclusively known to guide them. The other end of the spectrum consists of those who rely on blind belief even if it contradicts their own observations . . . rely only on what their trusted sources tell them is true. To quote one person I know who falls near this end of the spectrum, “God said it. That settles it.” I’m not sure there’s any true “faith” there . . . because there’s no true “hope” there . . . there is only what they know – or think they know. Hope requires doubt, by definition, and at this end of the spectrum there is no room for doubt.

At their root, I think both types of people are incomplete.

I think we are perhaps culturally conditioned to distrust emotions. They are considered unreliable and irrational and untrustworthy. But I think one’s emotions can be incredibly valuable in some of the very ways we’ve explored through the course of these letters. I think learning how to think through and assess and articulate one’s emotions can do a great deal to draw the map one needs to “know oneself.” I think emotions can help us process a need or a gap in our “selves” that we can’t necessarily discover just through reasoning it out or reading about it in some devotional.

That’s not to say that one should trust wholly to emotions, to the exclusion of either reason or belief. Rather, it is to say that all three have a role to play in the construction of a completed self.

And like knowledge and belief, a healthy emotional self will constantly be growing . . . exploring . . . discovering new depths. So the process of “being completed” is never truly finished.

So my hope for you is that you grow up learning, yes, to trust your observation and reason, but also your capacity to feel and believe. Because as we’re going to see in my next and final letter, once we open ourselves up to the “evidence of things hoped for,” it becomes pretty apparent, pretty quickly, just how much there is to hope for.

My hope for you is that you learn to love it, seek it, search it, find it, and hold onto it like the treasure it is.

Love,
~Dad

Dear Fiona: Be Complete

In this series of letters I’ve tried to introduce to you a number of concepts that sound contradictory at first blush, but aren’t. This one will be no exception.

In my previous letter, I wrote about being content with imperfection. We are all of us imperfect beings, and it’s easy at time to “make the perfect the enemy of the good,” never doing what we want or need to do because we can’t do it perfectly.

But while I hope you don’t spend too much time and energy obsessing about being perfect, I also hope you learn the difference between being “perfect” and being “complete.”

There’s a line from the romantic movie Jerry MacGuire, when the female and male lead finally get together, and Renee Zellweger’s character says to Tom Cruise’s character: “You complete me.”

I hate that line. Nobody should have to look to their romantic partner to “complete” them. In fact, in my experience it makes the relationship weaker when one party feels incomplete without the other.

This gets back to what I wrote in a previous letter about Marc Chagall’s Three Candles painting: A relationship is its best self when it consists of two complete people, bringing their whole selves into the relationship and, through that relationship, forging something that is entirely new, yet does not detract from the two selves that went into the making of it.

Tragically, much of our culture is built on making people – especially girls – feel incomplete without another person to “fulfill” them.

This is most vividly apparent in romantic relationships: I grew up in a very conservative culture where men were deemed incomplete until they found a “help-meet” for themselves (if you’re not familiar with that word by the time you read this, that’s a wonderful thing. It’s an out-of-context reading of Proverbs 31 . . . an interpretation of that passage to which I hope I can avoid exposing you for as long as possible.)

But if Proverbs 31 is used to shame men into feeling incomplete without the perfect woman, then it’s used to absolutely bludgeon women into feeling inadequate and second-rate unless and until they’re capable of essentially performing the equivalent of running several small companies . . . all for the benefit of their husbands.

Because in the culture I grew up with, most women were taught from a very young age that they needed a man to complete them. First they were to live at the behest of their fathers, until such time as they caught the eye of a young man. Then, once the man (always the man) initiated a romantic relationship (designed, of course, to culminate in marriage) they were to live at the behest of their husbands.

That’s not what I want for you. As your father, it is not my job to complete you. As a grown, adult woman, it will not be your husband’s job to complete you.

You complete you.

That is, again, why I want to train you up to be a strong, independent, creative and fearless woman. And that’s why it’s important to me to give you more latitude, more freedom, than many other parents feel they can give their one-year-old children. I am not most parents, and I do not want you to be most daughters. Because even as our culture becomes more and more aware of the ways in which women have been subjugated, relegated to second-class status, and made to serve as supporting characters in their own stories, most simply assume that passive awareness of these things will “fix it.”

I don’t think that. I think the only way to fight back against the pressures and tensions and expectations and shame that the world will heap on you – in many cases solely because you’re a woman – is to actively counter it, starting even now, so that by the time you’re old enough to comprehend those forces . . . by the time you’re old enough to read this letter . . . the habit of being complete will already be second nature to you.

And when you’re a complete person, all of those pressures and expectations don’t matter, because you can simply do what you’re going to do anyway, without letting them weigh on you. And then, if you decide you want to be a “working woman,” that’s ok, and the expectations of those who think you’re selling your family short by choosing that path won’t matter. If you decide you want to be an entrepreneur and go out and create something totally new, that’s ok too, and the expectations of those who think women are ill-suited for such endeavors won’t matter. If you decide you want to stay at home and raise a family, that’s ok too, and the expectations of those who think feminism means rejecting home and family won’t matter.

In short, being complete . . . being independent of the expectations and burdens that come with letting another person complete you . . . leaves you free to do whatever your heart desires.

And whatever that is, I’ll be behind you without caveat or reservation, cheering you on.

Love,
~Dad

Dear Fiona: Be Imperfect

In my previous letter, I wrote that I hope you are better than I am at letting go. This is one area where I’ll be less equipped to help you than in some of the others I’ve mentioned in these letters, for a few different reasons.

One is that, as I mentioned, the emotional scars and issues that will need letting go of look different for every person, as do the means of moving on and growing past them. I can talk through all manner of things with you – and I hope there are times when I end up doing precisely that – but I can’t necessarily be the one to tell you the best way to handle a particular solution. I can offer opinions and advice, but like I wrote a couple letters back, I hope to raise a strong and independent and wise and thoughtful daughter precisely so that you don’t have to rely on me to tell you what to think or what to do.

Another reason I may not be in the best position to walk you through the “letting go” process is the simple fact that, because I’m bound to make mistakes, at least some of the emotional scars you wind up with are likely to have me at their root. I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t plan to hurt you. But I know myself well enough to know that eventually I will hurt you.

I’m sorry for that. And I hope that we can work through it and both come out wiser and better and healthier for it. Because those will be moments I need to learn how to let go of, as well . . . moment that I need to talk through with you, ask your forgiveness for hurting you, and also learn how to forgive myself.

The reason that’s so incredibly hard for me is also the biggest reason I’m not always going to be the best person to help you in this area: I’m a perfectionist.

That does not, of course, mean that I always do everything perfectly. By the time you’re old enough to read these letters, you’ll be old enough to know that through painful personal experience.

What it does mean is that when I fail to do something according to my own satisfaction, it eats at me. It bothers me. It sticks with me for hours, days, weeks, sometimes even years afterward. It haunts me, in a way, until I can learn how to . . . well . . . let it go.

So my message for you in this letter is: Be imperfect.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t have standards or hold yourself to them. It’s not to say you should let everything fall apart around you.

But perfectionism is just as perilous as its antithesis. When you’re a perfectionist, often you don’t start something because you know how daunting it would be to do it in such a way that you would consider it “done properly.”

Other times, you start many, many things, but never finish them because they are never “quite right.”

Still other times you let things fall through the cracks that really need to be taken care of, because you’re trying to get that one thing you’ve been working on “exactly perfect.”

As a result, you end up with . . . not very much, at times. I know all three of these pitfalls very well, because . . . yeah . . . perfectionist.

And of course, being a perfectionist and being bad at self-empathy feed one another if I let them: My brain bothers me if I don’t have something exactly where I want it. Then I feel guilty because I haven’t lived up to the standards and desires I’ve set for myself. Then I feel ashamed that I can’t just let it go and move on . . . and so on and so forth.

So my hope for you is that, as part of learning how to let go of the things that bring you shame and get in the way of self-empathy, you manage to avoid the pitfall of perfectionism. I hope you’re able to do the things that make you happy and bring you fulfillment, that you’re able to bring them to closure, and that you’re able to let them go out into the world and have an impact on it.

So I hope this is one you’re able to figure out more thoroughly – and a lot sooner – than I’ve done. And I’ll be here to help you in whatever way I can. And perhaps in helping you figure out how to do this, I can figure out how to do it for myself as well.

Love
~Dad

Dear Fiona: Let Go

Dear Fiona,

Now that I’ve spent two of my longest letters thus far writing about how I hope you learn how to share yourself without losing yourself, and learn how to hold onto yourself in the face of challenges you will face, please bear with me as I turn all of this on its head.

I also hope you learn how to let go- unabashedly, unashamedly, and unreservedly.

“How does that work?” You’re probably asking at this point.

My answer is that, absent the previous exercise in getting to know yourself, learning to share yourself, while holding onto yourself . . . I don’t think it can.

Absent these steps, I think you end up where I was when I graduated college: Completely burned out to the point of depression and physical illness from trying to be so much, for so many, for so long.

I didn’t know how to let go.

Because I hadn’t gone through the exercise of knowing myself, I hadn’t figured out what that core of my being was – the core that is worth holding onto at all costs because it is what makes me, me.

Because I didn’t have that, when I shared, I wasn’t sharing myself . . . it was more like I was reflecting back whatever the person I was sharing with wanted to see, never quite sure what was me and what wasn’t.

And it was exhausting.

So as you’re learning to hold onto the things that make up your self, I hope you can also learn to let go of the things that are not.

I feel a need to clarify what I mean here on a couple of points: What letting go is, and what sorts of things need to be let go . . . at least in my personal experience.

To the former, when I talk about “letting go,” I don’t mean “cutting off” . . . at least not necessarily. When it comes to “letting go,” I tend to think of it as something akin to differentiation, as mentioned above. Sometimes – particularly when it comes to letting go of things, that might look like physically separating from them. But at other times, when it comes to letting go of a place, or a memory, or a person, I think it looks more like simply becoming at peace with the role that place, memory, or person has in my story . . . in the construction of my self . . . and no longer giving it the same psychological grip on me that it once had.

That might, in some cases, involve physically separating myself from it . . . the way recovering alcoholics must physically separate themselves from that which tempts them. But it might not. Some sorts of fusion and enmeshment are akin to an addiction, but there are other forms as well . . .

. . . which means that “letting go” might look different for you than it does for me, and “letting go” of one thing might look different than “letting go” of something else.

That brings us to the second factor :What sorts of things need to be “let go.”

Please don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that anything and everything is disposable. You will find many things – and particularly, many people – in your life that are worth holding onto and guarding carefully and sacrificing for. But you will also find many things – and even some people – who need to be let go.

For me, the key to knowing how and when to let go of something has been connected to the process of learning how to self-empathize. The things, and places, and memories . . . and people . . . who have most often needed to be let go are the ones who make that process impossible, the ones who are connected to places in my story that bear deep amounts of shame and self-condemnation, who trigger recurrences of that shame and self-condemnation with each interaction, and who lock me into the same messages I’ve been hearing with each recollection of those circumstances, preventing me from learning what I can from them and moving on.

Again, I’m not saying that means (necessarily) to cut such things – or people – out of your life. But I think “letting go” has to mean finding a way to coexist peacefully with them.

And that can look different for each one. It might mean throwing away an old possession or letter that has painful memories associated with it. It might mean creating new memories in a place that triggers older, more shameful ones. It might mean sitting down with a friend and spilling your heart out about something in the past between the two of you . . . or alternatively it might mean having to put some distance between you if the other person involved isn’t willing or able, for whatever reason, to move past the old wound.

Whatever it looks like, though, for the pieces of your individual story, I hope it’s a skill you learn much quicker and much better than I have. I tend to be something of a physical and emotional pack-rat, hoarding things and memories for their sentimental value in ways that are not always healthy, and which occasionally get in the way of my own self-care and growth.

I wish I was better at following the advice I’ve shared with you here, in this letter perhaps even more than elsewhere in this series.

So as you hold onto yourself and the things that help you grow, I hope you will learn how to let go of the things that hinder you.

I love you.

Love
~Dad

Dear Fiona: Hold Yourself

Dear Fiona,

We’re deep into the weeds now, and I’d like to continue going deeper. In my last few letters I’ve written about being, knowing, and sharing yourself.

The concepts around these things are hard enough for most fully-grown adults to grasp. I don’t know how old you’ll be when you read these letters, but I guarantee you that it won’t be old enough to make this stuff easy. It never gets easy.

And yet, as complex as all of this is in theory, in practice it gets even harder, because in practice you’ll be trying to work through all of these thoughts while being bombarded with the needs and desires and wishes and opinions and beliefs of every single person in your life . . . all at once.

How do you hang onto your self in all of that? How do you share yourself without disappearing completely?

To tell you the truth, I don’t know the answer . . . or rather, I suspect there is no single answer. The answer will be different for each person, because each person will have his or her own unique challenges, histories, subtexts, and internal monologues playing into the process.

I know that, for me, a big piece of it goes back to what I’ve written in a lot of my letters thus far about empathy, and what I wrote in one of the very first ones about truth.

You see, the biggest challenge for me in “holding onto myself” has been doing so when that self comes in conflict with the deeply held beliefs and opinions of people I value very much. It’s easy to SAY that one’s opinions and beliefs shouldn’t matter when it comes to loving and caring for another person, but shared worldviews and belief systems are at the heart of what makes a common culture, so when you’re challenging the beliefs and opinions of someone else, even in the context of a treasured relationship, you’re picking at the fabric of culture itself.

That’s not, in and of itself, an unhealthy thing . . . but it is a difficult one.

So the place I keep coming back to is empathy: Empathy for where someone is in their own journey. Empathy for the places I’ve been in mine. Empathy that doesn’t necessarily agree with what someone else believes and chooses to think or act on . . . but tries desperately to HEAR that other person, to hear their heart and their words and everything else that goes into the relationship I have with them.

I’ll tell you right now, some of the most difficult conversations I’ve ever had are the ones that involved telling the other person, not “I agree with you,” or “I disagree with you,” or even “I understand you” . . . but “I hear you.”

I think we’re hardwired to crave . . . not necessarily agreement, but . . . resolution, perhaps. Agreement, disagreement, and even understanding bring a sense of closure that isn’t necessarily provided with “I hear you.”

But I think that’s ok. Because as hard as it is, I think it’s ok for two people to be in relationship even when they’re not on the same page. I think two people, if they try hard enough, can disagree without harming their relationship. I think they can even maintain the relationship without fully understanding one another.

I don’t think they can do so without hearing each other.

How do we get there? How do we drive past the filters and barriers I talked about in my last letter about sharing yourself? How do we shut down our own filters and barriers and let someone in . . . even disagreeing with them . . . even knowing they disagree with us?

For me at least, that’s where what I wrote before about truth comes into play. I get there, myself, by realizing that even in a world where absolute truth exists (as I believe it does), my capacity to understand it is severely limited.

Most people, when they think of conflict in a world of absolute truths, see only a couple of possibilities. If we are in disagreement, that means that either:

I am objectively right and you are objectively wrong,

You are objectively right and I am objectively wrong, or

We are both objectively wrong.

Those who make room for a few more “shades of grey” might add another alternative:

I am partially right in certain areas or certain ways, and you are also partially right in other areas or other ways

Those who reject the notion of absolute truth altogether might add another:

I am subjectively right according to my perspective, and you are subjectively right according to your perspective

I’d like to propose yet another possibility:

I am objectively right, and you are also objectively right . . . but neither of us has grasped some external factor that resolves the apparent contradiction between our two beliefs.

Of course, that’s not going to be the case in every conflict or disagreement – perhaps not even in very many of them at all. But the mere possibility that it exists should give one pause. Because the notion that there are external factors yet to be considered . . . perhaps even cannot be considered given the limitations on human knowledge and perception . . . makes it highly possible – even likely – that anyone who believes they are objectively, absolutely, completely correct is mistaken.

Even if absolute truth exists.

Emergent theologian Brian McLaren, with whom I agree on many things and disagree on many others, wrote something very wise in this regard in one of his books. I don’t recall which book, or the exact wording of the quote, but it was something to the effect of: “I suspect that about 50% of what I believe at any given point in time is wrong.”

For McLaren, that meant holding what he believed tightly enough to defend it as true, so long as it was defensible, but holding it lightly enough to let it go when it became no longer defensible . . . not because the truth had changed, but because he had changed in his ability to comprehend and understand what was true.

What, though, does any of this have to do with you?

Simply this: Just because somebody says that something is true, that does not make it true.

Just because somebody desperately wants something to be true, that does not make it true.

Just because somebody else believes with every fiber of their being that something is true, that does not make it true.

Even when somebody has evidence purporting to back up what they believe is true, that does not necessarily make it true.

. . . even if that someone is me . . . and even if that someone is you. Just because you say, want, believe, or think you can prove something, does not make it true either.

You’ll have people all around you from day one claiming that you can’t rely on your own heart and mind to perceive and interact with and decide about the world around you. Those are the people who think they have a grasp on what is true . . . and some of them may even be right. But what they’ve failed to realize is that all of us – including they themselves – are relying on our own hearts and minds to perceive and interact with and decide about the world around us. All of us are grasping at whatever truth we can. Once in awhile, some of us even manage to find a bit of it.

They’ll tell you that they have objective evidence proving that what they believe is true, is true. But they’re relying on their own hearts and minds to perceive and interact with and interpret that evidence. They’ll tell you, no, others have already done the difficult work of interpreting it. But those others relied on their own hearts and minds to perceive and interact with and interpret it.

And deeper, and deeper, the rabbit hole goes.

Until at the heart of it all, all that’s left is the fact that someone, somewhere, used human intellect and understanding and emotion to grasp at something he or she believed to be true. And then, when things go deeper still, and someone tells you that a thing is true because God said it was true, they’re still failing to acknowledge the layers and translations and generations and iterations that true thing went through before it got to them, and from them, to you.

Does that mean God doesn’t exist? Or that His words and thoughts and guidance are meaningless?

Not at all! But it does mean that we have to dig through thousands and thousands of minds and fingers and pens that have been over it since.

So if someone tells you they know for certain that something is absolutely and unquestionably true because God said it, they may be right. They may be wrong. They are almost certainly overconfident.

At the root of it all, this is one of the many reasons why I want to raise you to be a strong, wise woman, capable of reasoned, intelligent decisions on your own behalf, and caring and empathetic toward those around you. Because if someone, somewhere is going to use their limited human capacity for understanding to interpret what may or may not be true, I’d rather it be someone with the depth of understanding to know what she doesn’t know. If someone, somewhere is going to attempt to work through human emotion to arrive at truth, I’d rather she do so with empathy.

If someone is going to work out for you what is or is not even the tiniest bit true, it might as well be you, working it out for yourself.

And if, at the end of the day, your own heart is all you have to go on, I want to do whatever I can to help you learn to listen to it, and listen well.

Love,
~Dad

Dear Fiona: Share Yourself

Dear Fiona,

In this letter I’d like to continue exploring the definition of intimacy I’ve been sharing through the course of these letters – the idea of “knowing yourself” as fully as you can, and then sharing that “fully known self” unreservedly with another.

As I noted in my previous letter, the first step is knowing yourself. That’s a lifelong process, but fortunately, one doesn’t have to complete Step 1 before Step 2 can begin. Once you’ve made a commitment to know yourself, you can begin to share yourself.

First off, let’s be clear about what this does NOT mean. It does not mean giving yourself control over your “self” . . . your choices and preferences and decisions and actions. Instead it means offering that self to another person for support, caring, love and companionship.

A lot of folks miss this distinction. When your mom and I got married, one of the things we had at our wedding was a reading on Marc Chagall’s Painting, Three Candles. This work really captures the distinction I’m trying to draw here. The candle-lighting ceremony at many weddings involves a husband and wife taking their candles, lighting a new center candle that signifies their new life together, and then blowing out the old candles that signify their single lives prior to marriage.

To us, the Chagall painting symbolized something else: A third candle that represented our life as a family, burning concurrently with the old candles that symbolized our individual selves. A lot of married couples refer to one another as their “better half,” but your mom and I each wanted to bring our full selves into this marriage, while also sharing ourselves fully within it. To us, the notion that “two become one” does not mean the “two” disappear. Hence the three candles in Chagall’s painting.

Obviously the most profound place this delicate balancing act occurs is in a marriage, but it is also a part of every deep relationship you will ever have. Because when you enter into relationship you can approach it in different ways.

You can do so with the notion that you will jealously guard yourself from being molded or changed by it. That seems, to me, akin to the dissociation discussed in my previous letter.

Alternatively, you can unreservedly surrender your self to the other person because you feel that’s what you owe the relationship. That seems, to me, akin to fusion.

My hope for you is that you instead learn how to exist as a strong and free and independent and differentiated person while sharing that person unreservedly with others. That’s why knowing yourself comes first. Because if you don’t start there, you won’t know how to hold onto it while you share in relationship with others.

It’s important here to remember something that I said very early in these letters when I first mentioned empathy.

Empathy does not mean “agreement.” Empathy does not even mean “understanding.”

Too many people base their relationships on these things. I’ve done so too often myself. I’ve lost very important, very valuable people from my life simply because when it came right down to it our relationship had been built on mutual agreement and understanding, and as we grew and matured, and one or both of us shifted in our beliefs and worldviews, that foundation was gone and the relationship along with it.

Building your relationship there is easy . . . or at least easier . . . because it gives you lots of connections to the other person with the expenditure of a comparatively short amount of time and effort.

But it’s a trap, because even the most staid and conservative among us will change over time. And as those changes occur, connection points based on fixed things like a particular viewpoint or opinion will snap.

Instead, my hope for you is that you will share yourself based on what I noted from the beginning is the true picture of empathy: The simple kindness of “I hear you.”

Before agreement, before understanding, the simple act of hearing is what orients us toward another person in the first place. Sharing yourself at that deeper level . . . fostering connection there instead of on some sort of mutual agreement about how the world works, is infinitely harder, because we have to get past all the filters and barriers in us that don’t want to hear someone who pulls us out of our comfort zone. It’s harder because sometimes they won’t be pulled out of theirs, even when invited. It’s so hard that in many cases it’s impossible.

But please never stop inviting, even if nine out of ten times the invitation is rebuffed. Because those few, precious times when it isn’t will result in treasured friendships you’ll carry forever – friendships that don’t depend on a fixed belief or opinion, and will thus be flexible enough over time to grow as you do.

And please know this, as well: I will never stop sharing myself with you. Even when we disagree. Even when we don’t understand one another. Even when we can’t stand to be in the same room as each other. I will always, always be here to talk, share, and empathize with you. I hear you. I treasure you. I love you.

Love,
~Dad

Dear Fiona: Know Yourself

Dear Fiona,

In my last letter I began to explore the thought of holding in tension the carving out of your own identity while still existing as a part of a social structure that can offer you advice and support. In this letter I want to dive more deeply into that seeming contradiction.

In an earlier letter I wrote about intimacy, and in particular about the definition of intimacy your mom came up with several years ago: Knowing yourself as deeply and fully as possible, and then sharing that “known self” fully with someone else.

The first step in that process, of course, is to know yourself.

How does that work?

To find out, I think we need to explore three concepts from social psychology: Fusion, Dissociation, and Differentiation

Fusion is essentially what I talked about in my previous letter: becoming so reliant on the will and opinion and desire of another person – so eager to please them – that you lose yourself and the sense that you are a unique and individual person.

Dissociation, on the other hand, is pulling away from a stressful situation or person to avoid becoming entangled and enmeshed with them.

Neither of these approaches is healthy. Both of them kill relationship, and both of them damage your sense of self – the former by overwhelming it, and the latter by breaking off pieces of it. When you’re “fused” with another person, you lose your sense of self out of a desire to please and fulfill that other person. When you “dissociate” from another person, you kill off the relationship entirely in an attempt to break that hold on you.

In between the two is Differentiation. Differentiation is balancing the two basic human needs for connection and autonomy. It is what allows you to hold onto yourself while continuing to pursue a relationship with another.

At the root of this concept is the notion that we’ve talked about in several of these letters thus far: intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. According to Dr. David Schnarch – whose writings have had a profound impact on the way your mom and I pursued our relationship with each other, got married, and have continued to grow in our relationship since then – differentiation involves having a “solid flexible self.”

At first glance, this appears to be just another contradiction, but Schnarch explains that it means the ability to change, rather than remaining rigid and “stuck” in your own comfort zone . . . NOT because of external stimuli, but rather because you yourself consider and think through and decide to do – and be – someone different than what you are right now.

Externally-motivated change is just another form of fusion: in which you’re entangled and enmeshed with the person driving you to change.

Internally-motivated change, on the other hand, helps you to grow and discover and BECOME.

And that’s what I want for you . . . to fully become yourself, and to have a clear and vibrant picture of who that is.

That’s going to be painful at time, because it’s going to involve setting up boundaries . . . boundaries around you, and boundaries around me. There are going to be times when you want me to do things for you, when instead I will help you work through how to do them for yourself.

That is part of getting to know yourself.

There will also be times when I want you to do things for me, when instead I will need to let you have the freedom to do your own thing, in your own way.

That is also part of getting to know yourself.

And as always, there is the delicate balance between the two . . . the struggling, fumbling manner in which we’ll figure out together where those boundaries lie, and how to negotiate them with each other.

But I’d much rather work through that process with you than run roughshod over your developing sense of self, imposing and imprinting my desires on you and trying to turn you into someone other than who you were created to be.

I won’t do that. I love you too much, not for what you do, but for who you are . . . now, and for the rest of your life.

And I’m so excited to continue getting to know you, as you continue to get to know yourself.

Love,
~Dad

Dear Fiona: Be Yourself

Dear Fiona,

In my last few letters, I’ve talked a lot about the fact that, while I hope to raise you to make wise choices, I also know that those choices will not always coincide with mine.

And that’s a good thing.

Too many parents try to raise their children up to be younger versions of themselves. Too many parents try to hold their own choices up to their children as a moral “good,” and insist that any other choice is therefore wrong.

That’s not what I want for you. I don’t want you to be a mini-me.

I want you to be yourself.

To be honest, that’s a harder road to travel than the alternative – for both of us.

It’s harder for me because there are going to be times when I want what I want . . . when I want you to do something that makes my life easier or less complicated. In those moments, having a daughter who is trained to act on my behalf and do what I tell her to do right away without questioning or hesitating would be . . . advantageous.

It would also be doing you a disservice. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t want you to learn to rely on external motivations – to be guided by fear of punishment or desire for reward. I want you to act out of what you know and believe to be the wise course of action.

I want you to be yourself.

But I can tell you from personal experience that it’ll be harder for you, as well. Living for other people is easy. It sucks, but it’s easy!

It’s easy because you don’t ever have to think. You already have all the “answers” right there in front of you, or if not, someone will be more than willing to tell you what they think your answer should be.

And when you’re driven by extrinsic motivations, you’re more than happy to let them.

I know . . . I’ve been there.

It sucks, because if you do that long enough, you lose the sense of yourself. You begin to wonder if you have any preferences, any desires, any motivations that are truly you . . . or if they’re merely a reflection of the people you’ve allowed to speak into your life.

You begin to feel like you’re not really there at all . . . like you’re nothing more than a conglomeration of other people’s thoughts and opinions.

I’ve been there, too.

Please don’t misunderstand me to be saying that you shouldn’t ever trust or rely on anybody else’s thoughts or advice. I’ll get into that a bit more in another letter, but I’m not saying that at all! To the contrary, I hope you surround yourself with the voices of people who know you, value you, and want what’s best for you, enough that they’re willing to offer you candid and sincere advice for those times when you need it to make a better decision. And though I’m sure you’ll choose such people for yourself, I hope to always be one of them.

But there is a difference between relying on the advice and experience of others who have been where you are, or who have insight into the decision you face, and relying on others to tell you what you ought to do, simply because they believe you ought to do it.

It’s a tough balance to hold onto . . . relying on others who might have more insight than you do in a particular area, without relying on them to make your decisions for you . . . without giving your self over to their control.

It’s a balance I’m still learning, and one that I’ll probably continue learning for the rest of my life. I hope that by starting you out as young as I possibly can in learning how to think, do, and learn for yourself, I’ll save you many of the heartaches and heart-breaks that I’ve had to deal with in this area.

And if not . . . because at some level heartache and heart-break are a necessary part of human experience . . . I hope to help you learn how to deal with them, take them into yourself, learn from them, and come out stronger on the other side.

I love you.

Love,
~Dad