Category Archives: Things intended for my children that the rest of you get to read too

Dear Ivy: Connect

My Dear Ivy,

This one is a hard one to write. It won’t be the first time I try to share with you the importance of something I’m not very good at, myself. But it may be the most difficult.

It is this: In order to put into practice what we’ve talked about in the previous couple of letters, it is important for you to seek connection.

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Dear Ivy: Empathize

My Dear Ivy,

How does it work, this thing we talked about yesterday: Holding onto your self with security and serenity, knowing who you are and why you are valuable, while caring deeply and giving generously to the people you love?

There’s a word for this: Empathy.

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Dear Ivy: Love

My Dear Ivy,

There’s something I hope you know by now. Something I’ve probably told you multiple times a day, every day of your life. Something that, if you don’t know it, means I have monumentally failed as your father.

It is this: I love you.

I hope you know that. I hope you always know it. Today I want to talk a bit more about what it means.

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Dear Ivy: People

My Dear Ivy,

I wrote yesterday of hoping that you grow up to be a woman who is comfortable making big decisions for yourself. The thing is: There are lots of possible criteria you can use to make those decisions, and some of them are better than others. Throughout these letters, you’ll see several examples of my own criteria for making decisions. My goal, though, is not to impose my criteria on you, but to share them with you in the hopes that they will be useful to you as you cultivate your own.

Today I want to share about one of the most important of those decision-making criteria: People.

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Dear Ivy: Decide

My Dear Ivy,

Following up on yesterday’s letter, I wanted to focus this one on something I wish I’d learned a lot earlier in life, and was a lot better at putting into daily use than I actually am. I wrote yesterday about the “Fear of More Options” and reconciling yourself with regrets. What that means in practice is: sometimes, you have to just decide.

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Dear Ivy: Regrets

For his first Christmas, I decided to write an open letter to my firstborn, Tristan, each day starting with the first of December and culminating on Christmas Day. When my daughter Fiona came along, I decided to make it a tradition to write a series of such letters for each of my children. If you wish, you can read my letters to Tristan here, and Fiona’s here.

For Ivy’s first Christmas, I was too emotionally spent and mentally exhausted at the end of last year to capture the thoughts that would do her justice. As hard as 2020 has been, I’m in a better place this December, so I’m doing it now. As with Tristan’s and Fiona’s letters, my goal is to share what’s on my heart for my daughter. The rest of you are welcome to read along too, if you like.

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Fiona’s Letters

  1. Dear Fiona: I Love You
  2. Dear Fiona: Watch This!
  3. Dear Fiona: Cultivate Empathy
  4. Dear Fiona: Let’s Talk
  5. Dear Fiona: Love Learning
  6. Dear Fiona: Love the Unlearned
  7. Dear Fiona: Love People
  8. Dear Fiona: Love Yourself
  9. Dear Fiona: On Being a Sister
  10. Dear Fiona: On Being My Daughter
  11. Dear Fiona: I’m Sorry
  12. Dear Fiona: Times and Places
  13. Dear Fiona: No Shame
  14. Dear Fiona: Do . . . just do
  15. Dear Fiona: Baffle Expectations
  16. Dear Fiona: I Hear You
  17. Dear Fiona: Be Yourself
  18. Dear Fiona: Know Yourself
  19. Dear Fiona: Share Yourself
  20. Dear Fiona: Hold Yourself
  21. Dear Fiona: Let Go
  22. Dear Fiona: Be Imperfect
  23. Dear Fiona: Be Complete
  24. Dear Fiona: Be Completed
  25. Dear Fiona: The Hope Within

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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.


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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.


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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.


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