Stand Against Meanness

My wife, foster son, and I were spending time with some old friends at Downtown Disney, when towards the end of the visit they were having a very hard parenting moment in a public space. Something which we can sympathize with. After we said goodbye and parted ways, we passed two women – one who appeared to be in her 50’s and her daughter who appeared to be in her late 20’s. My wife and I overheard them laughing at our friends and making fun of them. The older woman said laughingly she wanted to videotape them and post them on YouTube. I looked at them with appall. My wife said to them, “No, you will not videotape them. That’s not nice.” Older woman: “What do you care?” My wife: “They’re our friends.” I said, “They are having a hard time. Leave them alone,” trying to draw out some compassion from her. The older woman said, “You should mind your own business.” My wife: “You should mind your own business and leave them alone.” Older woman: “I was talking to her [referring to her daughter], so you shut up!” Me: “We will NOT shut up. You should mind your own business and not talk about to videotaping people to post on YouTube when they are having a hard time.” The daughter had the better sense by calling to her mom to basically stop. We walked away as the older woman said some more unkind things to us and disappeared into a store.

As my wife, our sleeping foster son, and I were leaving the park area on the tram, I processed over the audacity of that incident, being awakened to the very reality of meanness. I know meanness exists. I hear about mean incidences. I see meanness. And then I collide into outright meanness, and it brings that reality to the forefront of my mind that there really are mean people in our world. While on that tram I started to think that some people I’ve encountered are mean because they live under the universal premise that this is a dog-eat-dog world and so you have to be mean to get anywhere. Otherwise, you’ll be trampled on. Meanness for them became a mechanism for survival, at least in their minds. Any kind of meanness is not okay, but then I realized the meanness I encountered was something else. There are people who find it funny that you’re struggling or hurting, and they will make fun of you for it. They are amused by your suffering and will think to embarrass you for it because it’s humorous to them. They’re bullies. They laugh at others who are having a hard time and tease and demean them publicly, if they could. All of this is enjoyable to them. And I realized there’s another word for this kind of meanness: evil. It’s pure evil to take pleasure in others’ pain or suffering, no matter what. You may disagree, you may have different points of view, or you may have different beliefs and philosophies on things, but no one should ever take pleasure in other people’s pains. It’s not okay. It’s evil. That woman was evil.

I felt the need to write this blog, because we need to take a stand against meanness and evil. Against bullies. Against people who take pleasure in others’ pains. I want as many people as possible to read this. There’s a need to speak out against the injustice of laughing at others or making fun of others for having a hard time in life. The stand against injustice is not out of hate towards those who are unjust, but out of compassion and care for those who are targeted. The prime motivation must be the latter. If it’s the former, then we ourselves run the risk of becoming mean like those we stand against. That doesn’t help the world. I wish I said more to the woman. I’m a slow processor by nature, which at times works to my disadvantage. At the same time, I’m glad I didn’t say all that I would’ve said that occurred in my mind later to not become like her. A mature, responsible, compassionate, and just stance for others is needed. I invite your thoughts and feedback on this subject.

Foster Dad 21: Want the World to Know

Dear Peanut,

Two years ago on this day, July 30, you came into our lives and a new story began. You are now two years and ten days old. It started with a call from our foster agency that told us there was a little boy in the hospital looking for a loving mom and dad. We said yes and drove to the hospital within an hour. Your mama went into the NICU to meet you while I waited outside with our other foster son, like an expectant dad in a waiting room. I waited for an hour and a half before I got to see you. You looked like a peanut, hence your nickname. The first word I used to describe you was, “spirited.” When you were sad, it was dramatic. When you were happy, you were exuberant. When you were excited, you were passionate. Spirited. You didn’t sleep or eat well for the first six months. We worked hard at creating a safe, warm, and creative environment for you so you could rest and feel confident in exploring your world. I wanted you to know you were loved by your mama and dada, yes, but through us also by God.  So many people love you, including your Jei Jei. I wanted you to have the freedom and desire to be curious, to explore, experiment, and enjoy the things in creation and culture. So throughout the first two years of your life, we regularly took you to the L.A. zoo, the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, and The Huntington Library. You explored the world of nature and art. At 20 months old, you could recognize a statue from going to The Huntington Library, and say, “Sta-ue,” or a painting and say, “Awtwok.” You could point out a gazebo and say, “a-ebo.” You can experience something wonderful and say, “Beau-iful.” We introduced you to music in the park, at festivals, through videos, at church services, and by singing with you. You’ve watched bears with us in Alaska, played at the beaches in Maui, and been to geeky comic conventions.  You’ve ridden a horse in Arizona and you’ve ridden a favorite train in the mall. As of a month ago, you love going to Disneyland where you enjoy the rides and the musical shows. It’s really funny to see you amazed. Rarely do we see you in complete silence. But when you watch a show that has music and dancing, you are silent and motionless. You hardly blink. You love to sing and dance. Some mornings, you get up from bed and want me to dance with you. You learn my corky moves very well. You’ve learned to “pray, pray” before meals and to have your nightly prayers with Mama before bedtime. I am thrilled to introduce you to this world, though it can be a tough world. I want to shield you from the ugliness, some of which is in me, but I know I can’t shield you forever. I can show you that there is also tremendous beauty in this world by God’s grace and how you can deal with the ugliness.

You discovered a lot by age 2 and 10 days. You can sing most of the ABC song, the classic version and the Usher version!  You can count to 14. You know at least ten colors. You know all the Avenger characters. You’re obsessed with Superman and Spiderman. You like pretending to be Superman, having me fly you through the air while you extend your arms straight out. You even toot the theme song! You’re great at using your imagination. You like to wrestle me on the bed, jump on top of me on the bed, and push me off the bed so you can roll off the bed and land on me. You like to hug other kids you just meet, maybe because we’re always hugging and kissing you. Your favorite movie is Frozen, which is the only movie you’ve seen. You get excited at Disneyland when we say we’re going to see Elsa. Don’t worry. It’s totally fine for boys to like Elsa. You like Mickey and Goofy. You spontaneously dance, like you have music in your heart. You like doing things together – Play-Doh, Legos, playing with blocks or trains, dancing, singing, drawing, painting, reading (especially pop-up books), and reading from your children’s Bible. Your favorite go-to story is David and Goliath. You really, really love bubbles, watching bubbles, blowing bubbles, making bubbles… You are a very picky and peculiar eater. Your favorite foods are spaghetti, pizza, hot dog, spam, chicken, egg, fries, sashimi, edamame, and most things with soup or sauce. You hate vegetables, and will pick them out no matter how small they are. I mince the vegetables finely to blend it into the sauce to “trick” you into eating your greens! You skipped the baby food stage. And milk is your absolute comfort food. You really don’t like going to bed. You fight it every night and it drives your mama nuts, because it will take her up to 2 hours to get you to sleep. But it’s because you don’t want the day to end. You want to play and live! Your tantrums are apocalyptically terrible! We’re teaching you about calmness and peace, and you’re learning about limits and patience.  You’re getting there.

One day you will read this. And it may be at a time when you question whether you’re really our son and if we’re really your mom and dad. I understand if you have to wrestle with this. You’re not our biological son. We didn’t start off that way. You being born was a miracle in itself. God knit your soul and body and brought you into this world. Never doubt the miracle you are. Then God sovereignly placed you into our lives. Though biology does not connect us, our love united us. The love between a parent and child is unbreakable. I can’t love you anymore than I have and do right now. Even if you had my biology, it wouldn’t change a thing. I can’t tell you how much it melts my heart to see you love your mama and me. Now, we’re looking towards formally adopting you. But that’s just paperwork. Because your mama and I adopted you in our hearts and into our lives a long, long time ago. You can be sure that you were never without a family. Some stories begin differently, but they’re really great stories.

I can’t express to you how proud I am of the beautiful, little boy you’re becoming. I can’t express to you how excited I am about the man you will become. I can’t express to you how deeply honored I am to be your father. And I want the world to know it.  – Love, DaDa

Foster Dad 20: You Don’t Have to Be Here

The child attorney told us, “You don’t have to be here,” a statement that echoed what all the other attorneys, FFA social workers, and DCFS social workers told us, that we don’t need to be present at the court hearings regarding our foster child. Our current DCFS social worker repeatedly reiterated to us that foster parents don’t attend court hearings, trying to tell us that we don’t have to attend and it is unusual that we do. I don’t know how true that is, but it’s what she tells us.

I think the attorneys and workers perceive that it’s troublesome for us to attend the hearings. Today, after waiting for 4 hours for our case to be called, the court broke for lunch and had to resume in an hour. I told the child attorney, “Okay, we’ll go get lunch and come back.” That’s when she stated to us, “You don’t have to be here.” I replied to her, “This is important. We want to be present.”

There’s not much as foster parents that we can offer to the legal proceedings of our foster child. As foster parents, we are service providers in the system without rights, authority, or voice. Besides one update form we can fill out before each hearing, there are no other documentations we can submit to the court. When we enter the courtroom we’re told to sit on the backbench against the wall; we’re not even on the other side of the barrier which marks the inside area of the courtroom. We sit in the spectator section, not actually a part of the case. When we’re there, we don’t get to speak on behalf of the child. We sit quietly in the back for the duration of the hearing, which lasts anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes, and then we leave. We can spend our entire day in the waiting area for our case to be called, and sometimes, it gets called last. But we have been at every single court hearing. So why do we attend the court hearings?

Because there is something significant we can offer at every proceeding: our presence. Although we don’t have any legal standing to contribute to the hearing, any rights or authority to defend the child, or legal position to advocate for and fight on behalf of our foster child, our consistent presence is powerful. Our silent presence communicates volumes to the court that we are serious about the well-being of our foster child and we are committed to caring for him. After changing judges four times, the child’s attorney three times, and the DCFS attorney twice, we are present. Sometimes the DCFS social worker is there and sometimes the biological parent(s) is there and sometimes they’re not, but we are present. At one time it’s one courtroom. At another time it’s another. We are still present. We are the one constant in the ever-changing, twisting, and fluctuating nature of the case for our foster son.

The fourth and regular judge eventually recognized our enduring presence in the courtroom. I remember the day when she invited us to enter beyond the barrier and take a seat at the table in the inner courtroom. That physical crossing of the threshold signified to us that we had become someone significant in the eyes of the court. We still had no rights, authority, or voice in the actual case, but we were no longer on the outside looking in. Our presence was recognized. The judge has asked us if we have questions, thanked us, and, for certain matters, even apologized to us. We have no say in the case, but we sure have a presence on behalf of our foster son.

I know sometimes we face situations where we ask ourselves, “What can we do?” or “What can we say?” and the reality is that we may have very little control over the juggernaut of obstacles or trials before us. But one of the most powerful things I believe we can do is be present for the things that are important to us. Our presence has the power to convey our commitment, care, and love. It communicates that we’re involved and invested. We’re not removed, indifferent, or aloof. Others may come and go, conditions may go up and down, situations may twist and turn, and time may be drawn out to where others don’t stay, but our presence remains. Presence means in the simplest and profoundest way, I am here. And to the most fragile things in life in the most trying or complicated of times, I am here can mean the world.

Foster Dad 19: Emotional Capacity

I hadn’t written about my journey as a foster father in a while, and the thought of getting back into it after so long felt daunting. It had to do with my emotional capacity. After my first foster son reunified with his birth mother, there was more for me to process than I expected. My wife and I developed a great relationship with the birth mother. She was very thankful for what we did and encouraged us to stay in her son’s life. We visited about once per month for the first few months to encourage them, but it was harder for me than I would’ve guessed. I think I was depressed for the first couple of months after the reunification. How can you not be when you genuinely love a child as a child is supposed to be loved and then suddenly to not have him in your care? At the same time, we took in a second foster son, for those of you who remember me writing about it, and I had to shift gears to be there for this little one, whom we named Peanut because that’s what he looked like when we took him from the hospital. There was a lot going on inside of me. As I was trying to emotionally find respite and sort through all that was going on inside, I found blogging about my foster parenting to be emotionally draining. Usually writing is a good thing for me, but at the place where I was at, it took more out of me. Instead, I found other creative avenues to process, mainly through painting and writing a story (which turned into a novel and should be coming out in print soon).

What we do as foster parents, and if done right, requires a lot of giving of ourselves. I think sometimes you can be so committed to something, give all you have to it, and not realize how much you gave. The quantity and quality of what was given is not in question, because some things (like children who come into your care) deserve that kind of giving. But we’re not invincible, and we’re not limitless. We have an emotional capacity. We all have a different capacity. It’s important to be aware of when that emotional capacity is low or empty. Some of us keep doing what we’re doing while running on empty without change or recourse, and that’s dangerous, even self-destructive. We have to not only know how to recharge our emotional capacity in terms of quantity, but grow in our emotional state in terms of quality – to become more mature than where we were before. And, it’s no defeat to sometimes have to admit that some things require more emotional capacity than we actually have – perhaps pertaining to certain relationships, situations, or conditions. We’re not invincible, and we’re not limitless. But we are pretty resilient. The human spirit was designed to bear more than we sometimes expect. Wisdom is required to understand your emotional capacity and what’s needed to replenish yourself.   Replenishment means knowing what is restful for your soul. Doing nothing is not always the most restful thing for the soul. Doing what replenishes is restful. Maybe it’s reading a good book, going to an art show, enjoying a jazz band, writing a short story, or having dinner with that friend who always refuels you. Most of all, it’s prayer. Prayer is that communication with the Divine, the ultimate creative Being who not only knows the inner-workings of your soul but is masterful in forming and healing it. If you don’t know what to say, one of the most powerful opening lines in a prayer from a soul running on low is, “God, I’m tired.” If we don’t know how to replenish our emotional capacity or if we simply neglect it, we cannot go on doing the most important and necessary things we’re meant to do, like pursuing our calling, living out our vision, or loving someone who desperately needs our love.

Why a Birthday is Important

As I am in between celebratory events, between the family picnic at the LA zoo and the dinner with friends at Universal City Walk, I decided to share my thoughts about the significance of a birthday. It’s true for most of us that there comes a point when we don’t see our birthdays the same way anymore. At first they’re about parties with hats, pizza, presents, and friends coming over to play with us. Then somewhere down the line it became about aging. With each birthday, it marks us getting older – greyer, wrinklier, maybe saggier, and for many sadder. I know aging is tough because it gets us closer to our last day on earth, we don’t look the same, and parts of us start to creak.

But a birthday is celebrating the day of our birth. The day we had no choice in the matter, but was a miracle that it happened. It was the day we came into the world. The day we took our first breaths. A birthday celebrates the beginning, not the ending. It celebrates when our journeys began. Because of that day, I am here. Because Someone loved me enough to form me, I am here and I am on this journey. Our birthdays celebrate the miracle of life. When we’re young, we think we’re invincible. As we get older, the fragileness of life and, therefore, the miracle of life becomes more apparent. My birthday celebrates the 20,000 breaths I take a day and the 100,000 times my heart beats a day. I can’t even count that high without losing track, but somehow my body is capable of doing it and I’m certain it does it with God’s help. My birthday celebrates the miracle of my life. On this birthday, it means that I’m still here and my heart will beat at least one more time and I’ll take at least one more breath. I celebrate the opportunity for my soul to take in God’s goodness on this earth, and I accept the charge to enact redemption where I can in a flawed world. My birthday celebrates being able to love my wife, be a father to my foster son, and serve my God on this earth.

I didn’t always have this view. But as I approach the dawn of 40, this view has encompassed me. I approach 40 with peace and excitement, because I celebrate the faithfulness of God in carrying me these past four decades through the heartaches and heartbreaks and yet my heart still beats 100,000 times a day. I celebrate the goodness of God in being the great I AM of my life, in whom I find my source of strength and being. And because I can celebrate this day, today, I can for sure face tomorrow.

Thank you, God, for my birthday – for all our birthdays. As the apostle Paul quoted a great poet, “In Him we live and move and have our being,” so it is that we are here. (Acts 17:28)

Designed for More Than Ourselves

Yesterday, the owner (Judd) of one of my favorite comic stores, Blastoff Comics, in North Hollywood told me why he sells comics. Every month he donates a percentage of his profits to a charity that’s announced on their FB page.  We got into the importance of generosity.  I said generosity not only impacts others but is also good for our souls. He nodded his head emphatically and said, “We were designed for more than ourselves.”  When our ultimate goal is to live for ourselves, our lives are only as big as our flawed, limited beings. Our vision for our lives remains small.  When we live with others in mind, out of generosity, or for a calling that’s greater than us, then our lives extend beyond ourselves.  He and I acknowledged that there is something built in us that is meant for more than ourselves.  We were meant to think beyond ourselves, beyond what we gain or get out of life.  We were meant for higher callings.  We sense that in us, and we’re always reaching for something greater than us.  When we’re not living for more, our souls suffer.  When we settle for self-satisfaction, our bellies may be full but our souls starve.

The generosity that we give creates beauty out of brokenness within us, because we become more selfless, less self-centered, and more sacrificial.  Self-sacrifice is the stuff of heroes.  But worries, stress, and insecurities suffocate the virtue of generosity.  If you find yourself over worrying about your personal circumstances, try exercising generosity toward someone.  Giving can be a remedy for worrying.  It shifts your perspective.  Worrying eats away at your soul.  Giving feeds your soul, because we were designed for more than ourselves.

15th Anniversary Advice on Marriage

My wife and I celebrated our 15th Anniversary a few days ago with a dozen close friends. They enjoyed asking us a bunch of questions and one of them was after 15 years of marriage, what advice do we have. After thinking about it, here are my seven.

Men honor your wives. While you may be king in your home, she is also queen. She rules with you at your side. Treat her with dignity. It’s easy to put the other person down, downplay the other person’s comments or simply not pay attention. If a queen speaks, she warrants attention.

Women appreciate your husbands. We’re a lot softer than we pose ourselves to be. Inside I think we have as many insecurities as women do. Our society has just acculturated us to show them in different, hidden or more socially acceptable ways. Men’s spirits can actually be worn down easily and we need to know we’re appreciated.

Love and Respect. The two go together like columns that hold up the ends of a supporting beam. To love sacrificially means you care for the other person as you would care for yourself at the least or better than yourself at the most. Respect means treating them with dignity and honor in speech and action. It means valuing the other for who he or she is and not looking down on the other person in your eyes. It’s hard to say you love someone you don’t respect, since love demonstrates how much you value the other person and respect inherently affirms value.

Apologize readily, Forgive generously. Be ready to apologize, which requires a humble predisposition. Don’t be flippant with apologies, because they still have to mean something. But be ready to give it. Learn the true meaning of forgiveness and the virtue of giving it. The reason apologies and forgiveness are needed is neither of you are perfect.  Where apologies and forgiveness is absent, humility will be absent also. Apologies and forgiveness turn fighting into peace talks. Where apologies and forgiveness is scarce, hurt prevails and anger will soon follow.

Learn the Art of War. You’re ultimately fighting together, not with each other. She is not your enemy. He is not your enemy. Too often couples get into mindsets of needing to prove the other person wrong or at fault. Blame is the weapon of choice. We fight for who’s right, rather fighting for a healthy marriage. To fight together means you recognize the great obstacle is not the other person; it’s all the stuff that impedes on your marriage – stress, financial problems, family baggage, miscommunications… Whatever it is, you’re fighting together to overcome these things. Fight for the relationship not against the other person.

An Old Book with New Chapters. You can be familiar with your spouse like she’s a good classic book, like a story you’re basically familiar with. But he or she can also be a book in which you have not yet reached the end. Approach your spouse as someone you know the best and as someone you’re still getting to know. There’s a richness in knowing the other person well. But don’t take the other person for granted, thinking you know everything there is to know and falling into a familiarity that lacks sensitivity. My wife and I finish each others’ sentences, and we blow away those couples boardgames. But my wife and I still discover things about each other we never knew. My wife is a good, old book with new chapters to me. I know her well, but I still get excited in getting to know her.

Play Well. Marriage can turn into a job, something you work at or something that’s just sort of there. Intentionally create big occasions and small occasions for play. Have a favorite fun thing to do. Give yourselves something fun to look forward to. On those occasions, vow to not talk about finances, mortgages, in-laws, the leaky faucet, the parent-teacher conference, and household chores. Give yourselves the permission to enjoy being with one another. Create space for laughter. You’ll see that laughing together does wonders. Make play a pattern.