One of the Most Powerful Things You Can Do

Words are powerful, but this has even more power: Listening.

When you take the time to turn your ear, pay attention, and ask good questions to others, you build bridges, change history, and move mountains. You are connecting.

That will reverberate across time and space. You are making others feel loved by your act of quietude, which harmonizes with the chorus of the universe.

To listen to someone seems passive, but it’s one of the most active things you can do.

You’re catching that person’s mind, heart, and soul, like a seashell catches the ocean’s sound. And that act will echo throughout eternity with the sweet sounds of serenity and roaring adoration.

Compassion is eternal.

Listening to others creates the music of life, where relationships dance, marriages harmonize, and the arias of forgiveness bring tears to our eyes; children will find it easier to laugh and play, communities band together, and the melody of goodness rings in the air.

If you listen, you will have understanding, healthy connections, and wisdom.

But more importantly, life will swell into an overpowering crescendo that sings forth love.

This Is What Love Looks Like

I have an uncle that I admire. His name is Rick.

You probably don’t know him. But, if you did, you would sense that he’s different.

He’s one of the most loving guys I know. And we can all learn from him.

When he wants to talk to my wife or me, he will call and call until he gets a hold of us. If he can’t reach me, he’ll call my wife. If she doesn’t pick up, he will call me, then her, then me, then her again. And if he still can’t reach us, he will wait a few hours then call us again, even if we don’t call back.

When he finally reaches us, he will ask to see us. There’s no shame or guilt in his tone; he’s not upset that we didn’t pick up or call him back. He seems genuinely happy to talk to us. And while my wife and I are deliberating on when to see him, I will look at my wife and she will look at me, while Uncle Rick is still on the phone–waiting. He’s not pestering us. He’s not shrinking or embarrassed that we are taking our time. He quietly waits.

And then when we eventually say, “Yes, it would be great to see you!” he’s delighted. Even though he had to wait minutes for us to figure out the timing, he didn’t interpret it as us not wanting to see him. He gives us the benefit of the doubt.

When he shows up, he blesses us. He loves on us with his words, big smiles, and kind gestures. He brings gifts for our kids; he wishes us well.

And that whole series of events from calling to showing up hasn’t just happened once, it’s happened multiple times, in one form or another, since my wife and I married.

See, Rick’s a pitbull of love. He doesn’t take no for an answer. He’s not deterred by our indecision, upset by our uncertainty, troubled when we don’t call back. He just keeps coming.

He doesn’t think, “Oh, these people have disrespected me by not calling me back or not picking up or making me wait.” No. He just keeps on loving.

And I love him for it. I can’t help but respect him for it. I admire him and try to imitate him. He inspires me. I’m far from being like him, but I’m trying.

I hope he inspires you, too.

In a world that is broken relationally, we need that type of behavior. We need people who fight for each other, take the initiative, reach out, and give generously. We need more generosity. We need more Uncle Ricks.

What would this world look like if people were more resolute, resilient, resolved, tenacious, unwavering for others? What would we as a people be like if we loved each other through the awkwardness, the pauses, the silence? 

We should all be more like Uncle Rick.

Let’s try today.


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You Have Great Power

You are not powerless; you have a choice.

You can choose to avoid the news, build a routine, exercise, connect with a friend, read a great book—hope.

It’s not easy in this time, I get it.

Shifting your mind from focusing on the negative to healthier activities is your decision.

Decide to feed your mind stories that lift the spirit, move your body even if it’s just for a few minutes, take a walk outside, meditate, pray, get to sleep at a better hour, call someone and ask them how they’re doing, and turn off your notifications for the news.

Whatever you do, make decisions to further your health and, where you can, the health of others.

You have far more power than you may realize.

You are powerful enough to change the way you think and feel.

Lots of love,

John


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This Is How I See You

You are glorious.

You are lovely; you are loved. You are a child, a daughter, a son, family, a friend.

You are valuable regardless of your story, your brokenness, your failures.

You are beautiful. You are radiant. I see it in you; you can too.

Love yourself. See yourself.

Look into your face. Don’t note the “flaws.”

Instead gaze through my eyes as I turn to you and behold the face of God.

Lots of love,

John


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When You Savor Life, You Are Rich

An urgency to live well grows in us when we see our parents growing old.

Or at least that’s what happened to me yesterday. 

“It felt like a few days ago when we took these pictures,” my mom said to my son as she showed him an album of Polaroid pictures of me when I was a one year old. Disbelief marked his eyes as she flipped through the images of me with chubby cheeks captured on instant film framed on the iconic white borders over four decades ago. 

Disbelief struck me too. It’s cliche to say that time moves so quickly. But when you are standing with your child socially distanced from your seventy-something year old mother looking at baby pictures of you learning to walk, with her saying it felt like a few days ago, it’s not cliche at all. It’s real

It’s a reality that slaps you in your face and kicks in the heart, urging you to live. You feel rushed to cram as much as you can in the years, months, days, because you sense the ticking of time somewhere out there, somewhere in you, flitting away. 

But, for me, making the most of life isn’t so much about doing more or going to exotic destinations or achieving incredible milestones, as much as I do appreciate travel and creating big experiences.

It’s more about savoring the little moments. The bite-sized love packets of the seemingly ordinary, like I was having with my son and mom looking at pictures of me drooling on myself, or having a nice meal at home laughing with my wife and kids, or sharing ideas and stories with friends.

When you can drink those in, that’s when you can really start living. Those are the times of connection that flow with fresh meaning. And by drinking them in, you’ll taste the goodness of life anew, like tasting fine wine for the first time as the flavors dance on your palate like little fairies having a party.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget those “smaller” events when we’re trying to check off our bucket-list. But when we are, let’s not forget the “normal” instances that truly make up the stuff of life. It’s less about the thrill and more about feeling intimacy, closeness in those meaningful everyday interactions that hold monumental significance.

In life, less is often so much more.

Savoring the daily joys fills the cups of our hearts to the brim and makes them overflow. 

It’s an abundance and flourishing that anyone can have. 

It’s here. Take it—every day. Enjoy.

You’ll be rich.


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A Way Towards Prosperity and Peace

Worrying is such a waste of time.

Your mind is consumed with all of the things you can’t control: the future, the pandemic, your kids.

You’re not doing anything productive, moving the needle in any positive way. You’re just wallowing in the unknown.

Instead focus your thoughts on the present, what you can do right now. Do the things that matter, that can make a difference.

Do your work the best you can. Learn something to better yourself a little bit everyday. Stay vigilant and care for your health. Teach your children, love them.

For example, if you blog and want to become a successful blogger, stop worrying about how you’re going to get there. Start writing a post that will change someone’s perspective, improve their day, make them laugh.

Focus on today, the things you can control. If you pray, pray. And let the future sort itself out.

And you’ll likely be surprised by what the tomorrow will bring. You might even become rich.

If anything, you’ll have more peace.


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These Are the Rules You Should Break

Some rules are stupid.

For example, some people think you shouldn’t ask your boss for a raise because that would upset them. Or you shouldn’t pursue your dream because it’s too risky. Or you shouldn’t invest in the market because you could lose money. Or you shouldn’t get married because happy marriages rarely happen.

But don’t listen to that garbage. There’s always a rule for staying safe.

Those rules, though often well-intentioned, only hold you down. They keep you in fear. They keep you alive but don’t let you live.

Yes, you may crash when you break those rules. And certain people will look at you, click their tongue and say, “See, I told you so…” But don’t mind them.

Some things are scarier than failing.

There’s lying on your deathbed, wondering why you never lived.

Instead live well. Live free.

Live now.


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The Best Way You Can See Your Mistakes

The mistakes you’ve made are never just a mistake. They’re gifts.

You see, the worst things in life can become the best.

I got fired in my twenties from the only career path I was qualified for. It was what I got my master’s degree in for goodness sake.

Sure, I thought my future was crushed before it even started and that I had, not only a worthless master’s degree, but became a new master of failure. But that wasn’t the case.

Even though I didn’t know it at the time, that event sent me on the trajectory that helped me find what I actually loved doing.

My firing let me start my business and become an entrepreneur. It indirectly caused me to move back to my hometown, meet my wife, have my kids.

Bad became good.

I believe it was Divine grace.

But whatever you believe, the worst mistake you can make is reliving your mistakes, punishing yourself over and over, and never letting yourself free from them.

When you do that, you rob yourself from becoming something new, better. You don’t grow; you only wallow.

But when you accept your mistakes and learn from them, you’ll transform.

You will feel rich.


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Transform Your Life With Better Expectations

To avoid disappointment don’t lower your expectations; lengthen them.

No one wants to be disappointed. And to prevent it some of us think it’s better to lower our expectations or, worse, kill them completely.

But, that doesn’t work.

Lowering your expectations is like giving up and it’s almost practically impossible to do. If you expect less, you may accomplish less. Also, we always expect others, ourselves, the world to be a certain way.

The problem isn’t that we have expectation but how we have them.

Our expectations aren’t too high.

They’re too short.

If you would have known me in my twenties I was a hot mess. I had higher expectations for myself, but failed to meet them, often. But in my forties I’m still a mess but far less messed up. But it took decades to grow and meet more of my expectations.

It takes years to get better, reach our goals, improve.

See, when you lengthen your expectations, spread them out, it changes everything.

Doing that will save you from disappointment and give you the perspective to reach higher than you ever thought you could.

It will help you live richly.

You might even exceed your expectations.


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The Best Thing About Our Baby Having a Cleft Lip and Palate

Our son was born with a birth defect called a cleft lip and palate.

This happens when the lip and roof of a baby’s mouth doesn’t fully close up in the womb creating a gap, thus the “cleft.”

During almost all of the pregnancy, we went about our lives completely unaware of it.

Finding About the Cleft

We were so excited to have another child, and with each passing day, the excitement grew. And around 36 weeks, we were ready to pop emotionally and physically. But something strange started to happen.

My wife experienced mild contractions, but not enough for labor. We were surprised but not scared, at first. Then the contractions went on for days.

Alarmed, our midwives thought it could be the placenta blocking the birth canal, which was scary. So they rushed to get us an appointment for a full anatomy scan of the baby to see if that was the case. It wasn’t.

But the doctor found something else.

In the tiny examining room (in New York City most rooms are tighter than you think they should be), my wife could sense that the doctor was uncomfortable. Eventually she found the words to say, “Your baby has a cleft lip and palate.”

Cleft Conversation

I couldn’t be at the appointment but met my wife at the clinic so that we could walk home together. When I saw her there, she melted into tears. So I wrapped my arms around her and tried to provide some comfort.

Her reaction frightened me, and I asked her if the baby was ok. She said yes. But there was clearly more. Then she told me why she was so distraught.

And, after a moment, I said, “So, he’ll be like Joaquin Phoenix.”

She looked at me with a look that said: “What the #%*# are you talking about?” So to clarify, I said, “You know, the actor with the cleft lip; he’s famous,” and rattled off a couple of his better movies.

She ignored me. “I guess she wasn’t looking for clarity,” I thought.

Eventually, we walked out of the sterile clinic, hand in hand, bracing ourselves for the unknown as we plunged into the outer world.

Once we hit the streets, we prayed. It helped both of us.

Then we did the thing that she was dying to do—plan. Planning is my wife’s love language. So we talked through the scenarios and what we needed to do to find the best care we could and how we would go about it. I was already googling up physicians in NYC who specialized in this as we walked through Brooklyn on a chilly but sunny day. A course of action started or form as we made our way to the subway platform.

Everything started to feel ok again, when she said, “So. Joaquin Pheonix,” and smirked at me. “Yeah,” I said, as I googled him up and showed her a picture of him, “He’s a good looking dude, right?” She seemed to give an approving look. I said, “See. Our baby will be fine,” reassuring her.

Cleft Birth, at Home

A couple of days later, she went into labor. We weren’t sure if the baby was coming or not. But then something switched on, and it got real.

And all the while my wife was laboring, I held a hope that our baby didn’t have a cleft thinking there was a chance the doctor was wrong. But she wasn’t.

Twenty minutes later, our son was born, and it happened so fast that the midwives didn’t have time to arrive to make the birth. So my wife and I were alone (as we were for the first one).

He was healthy, but he had a full unilateral cleft lip and palate, which means his cleft was on one side and extended to the back of his mouth and up to his nostril.

I just wanted our son to be ok, healthy, “normal.” He was beautiful. But he was also different. He had a gap in his face.

Cleft Surgeon

Surgeries were also in his near future.

We had already researched all kinds of doctors, knowing who was the best and where they worked and reviewed their resumes and read all of the reviews and what so and so said about them in 2013. We talked to other parents of cleft babies and asked about their surgeons. We dug deep.

Then it was time to do interviews, which sounded like speed dating with surgeons. We set up meetings with our top three.

But after interviewing the first one, something clicked. He was confident, as all surgeons are. But more than that, he had a determination to provide the best outcome for his patients. And the postoperative pictures were amazing. Also, he specialized in cleft operations. It’s all he did. And somehow, there was even a twinge of humility in him. We liked him; and more importantly, we trusted him. So we canceled the other interviews because we didn’t need to look further. He was our guy.

Cleft NAM

The weeks that ensued were much harder than we thought they would be. It probably had to do with the fact that we were essentially shaping our baby’s face with a piece of acrylic, called a NAM.

Our baby basically needed a “retainer” for the gums, called a nasoalveolar molding (or NAM). It’s like that plastic contraption people wear on their teeth that an orthodontist will give them after they get out of braces. But our baby had that for his gums on his upper jaw (since newborns don’t have teeth).

He had to wear the NAM all day every day for the most part. And my wife and I (but mostly she) would fasten it to his face with surgical tape and rubber bands, the same ridiculously tiny ones used for braces. Every week my wife would go in to see the dentist so that he could adjust the NAM.

Our baby screamed a lot during that time because shaping a face with a big piece of acrylic in your mouth probably hurt him, or at least it was super annoying. So, like a banshee, he would rail at the top of his lungs. And for such a small human, he had a huge voice. And he would employ it for hours, sending us curling into a fetal position, feeling like we needed to vomit. It was hell.

There was also some screaming between my wife and me. I mean, having a newborn is hard enough with the lack of sleep and diapers and blowouts and making sure they’re gaining weight. Fights are bound to happen. But add the fact that your trying to pull one side of your son’s upper jaw to the other side to close a wide gap in his face is something else entirely. Babies cause stress. With the cleft, that was taken to another level. Sometimes we went nuclear.

But regardless of who was screaming and no matter how loud it was, we were grateful for the results. We knew that doing the NAM well would make a huge difference for the outcome of our child, so we wanted to overachieve here. And, Thank God, it worked.

After three months, the cleft shrank to a sliver.

Cleft Surgeries

But, nothing prepares you for letting your three month old baby go under the knife. The surgeries were planned. And the first one was scheduled. But we were terrified.

The lip and nose came first. Waiting for him to get out of the operation was terrible, but the transformation was astounding. After the swelling from the surgery went down and he started looking like our baby again instead of a boxer after fighting ten rounds, it almost looked like he never had a cleft. (These days, you can’t even see the scar.) It was amazing.

Then seven months later, right as the coronavirus started to ramp up in NYC, we had the palate surgery. To this day, I have no idea how the surgeon closed up the cleft on the roof of his mouth. One moment our baby had a gap on the top of his mouth. Then, later that same day, it was gone.

There was only one problem. It was agonizing for our baby. With stitching everywhere and raw flesh, it looked like the roof of his mouth was Frankenstein-ed together. It essentially was. And that meant pain. He was desperate for pain-killers, which we gave him. We agonized with him.

Cleft-less Future

But all of that is past us now.

And these days, what happened almost feels like a dream, a distant memory of some event that probably occurred. It could have been someone else. And the truth is, it is.

There are thousands of other families who go through a similar experience, and many aren’t able to get the kind of care we received.

So, I’m grateful. It makes us—my family and me—more compassionate. We can empathize with and have compassion for those who also have difficulties or circumstances that are worse than ours. All of this has softened our hearts and made us more aware how hard parenting can really be. Having a baby is a dangerous business. It can crush your heart. But it’s worth the risk.

Best of all, we are grateful that God gave us this baby. He’s special. He’s undergone a lifetime of pain before he’s even tasted his first birthday cake. Some of the experiences were awful, but they gave us perspective. And we are richer because of him and all of the moments we’ve had, good—and bad.

Before the birth of our baby, if you had told me that a birth defect could be a gift, I would have thought the idea ridiculous. But now, I know it’s not.

We are blessed: We have a son who looks like Joaquin Phoenix. 😉

This is Cleft Awareness Week. And this is our story of having a cleft baby.

Love to you all.


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