The world needs your heart.

Dear Liam,

Last week, I had a serendipitous meeting with an old friend from college. We both happened to be in San Antonio for work on the same day, and decided to meet up for dinner. Even though we hadn't seen each other in a few years, she didn't mess around with any small talk, instead going straight for deep, rich conversation. "What do you think is your role as a dad; what kind of impact do you want to have on your son?" The question was so real, so honest - there was no way I could hide behind platitudes in my response. I immediately remembered why I enjoyed her company so much; this is the kind of discussion that makes me come alive.

"To help him live wholeheartedly" I responded. I thought my answer was profound, but she didn't let me off the hook. "Ok, but what does 'wholehearted living' look like in reality? Wonder if his definition of wholehearted varies wildly from yours?" she implored. We sat on the patio on an unseasonably cool Texas night, enjoying the breeze as we got down to the marrow of life. We talked about how our families, paths, and friendships had shaped each of our definitions of wholehearted living, and how our views had changed since college, continuing to be hammered out on the anvil of life. Yet every time I tried to give a canned response, to regurgitate something I had read in a book somewhere, she immediately challenged it. Once she even called me out by naming the book I was trying to paraphrase! This was discourse at its finest.

The next day, I made the 4 hour drive up to Dallas, wrestling with her questions the entire way. The one I struggled with the most was: "Wonder if what Liam sees as his wholehearted life isn't what you want for him?" She gave a few examples to drive home her point, from your chosen faith being different from mine to your career not producing much income. I contended with construction, traffic, and a Texas Flood as I drove north on I-35, but none of it compared to the grappling I endured with this lingering question. I kept challenging myself to give an honest answer for what I wanted for you, what your chosen life would say about me as a father, and how I would respond if and when your choices didn't align with my ideals for you. The miles passed, the rain subsided, the traffic cleared, and I arrived in Dallas with a conclusion: what I want for you doesn't matter.

When I was in high school, I yearned to go away for college. I saw it as my path to freedom from the house of horrors in which I was raised, and I longed for the day Williamsburg, VA, would be in my rear-view mirror. I even had my future school picked out: The University of Chicago. I wanted to study economics and mathematics, and Chicago's faculty is world-renowned in those disciplines. Not only would I be studying in the halls where Milton Friedman himself once taught, I'd get to live in a big city for the first time in my life. Some days I would peruse photos of the campus on the internet, studying its architecture and imagining what it would be like to walk through its Gothic buildings. To me, it looked like a Midwestern US version of Oxford, and I was determined to make it my alma mater.

My dreams were dashed in the fall of my senior year. At the dinner table one evening, my step-dad cleared his throat, and I instinctively braced for impact. Any time his larynx made that damn noise, I knew soul-crushing words were about to come from his mouth. "Your mother and I see how you're getting excited about applying to schools out of state, so we're stopping that before you get your hopes up. You'll be going to an in-state, public college." Too late, my hopes were already higher than the Sears Tower. "What do you mean? All of the schools I'm interested in are out of state" I trembled, the tears already forming. I was no stranger to these conversations, I knew how it would end, yet I still couldn't resist sharing my heart. His response was canned: "We know what's best for you, and you're staying in-state. End of discussion." Nonetheless, I pressed in, with my teeth clenched. "Why?" I implored. "It's too expensive to go out of state." Finally having an argument I could reason with, I responded: "That's true, but there are scholarships and financial aid I could apply for. This is all premature, anyway - I haven't even gotten in yet! Why don't I just apply, and if I get in, then I can try to get scholarships. If those don't work out, so be it, but I at least need to try." At this, the angry man became incensed: "I SAID NO! HOW MANY TIMES DO I HAVE TO SAY IT? YOU'RE NOT GOING OUT OF STATE! IF YOU EVEN APPLY ANYWHERE WITHOUT MY CONSENT, I'LL MAKE SURE YOU DON'T GO TO COLLEGE AT ALL!" This had nothing to do with money, and everything to do with control. The man with the temper told me he'd take me to visit my options around the state, but of course that never happened. A few months later, I applied to one college, and one college only. The only campus on which I had ever stepped foot, the one a mere 2 miles from my parents, the one where they could maintain their reins around my neck.

The day before Thanksgiving 2002, I received the letter I dreaded: I had been accepted. My fate was sealed. I feigned excitement when I shared the news, but a part of my heart died that day. I understand getting a college education anywhere is a privilege, and the university where I ended up is an exceptional institution. Yet the pain had nothing to do with my education, and everything to do with me having some semblance of sovereignty over my own life. There's a pain much greater than failure, and it's caused by not being able to try at all. I admitted my life belonged to my parents, and I relented to what they thought was best for me. The more I succumbed to what they wanted for my life, the more the noose around my heart tightened, cutting off all supply of oxygen and blood.

Revisiting this vignette of my adolescence is what finally gave me the answer to my old college friend's question: if I want you to live wholeheartedly, I have to completely relinquish control of your life. I don't get to choose where you go to college, I don't get to have a say in your career path, I don't get to select who you marry. Rather than try to set your path for you, I just want to give you an education on what the consequences are and how to make informed decisions. So if you want to attend an expensive university, I won't push you one way or another, but rather help you understand how loans and debt work. The way I can see it, I can help you comprehend what you're getting yourself into, while still maintaining boundaries so your heart can flourish. Yet no matter how well-informed your decisions are, I know you'll still make some missteps along the way, and that's okay. I promise to greet you with grace when that happens. I may not be able (or willing) to write a check to cover all your debts, but I will be happy to eat Ramen Noodles with you when that's all you can afford. In the way some of the best and most enduring friendships of my lifetime have come from the college I was forced into (as evidenced by my serendipitous dinner in San Antonio), I've learned God has a habit of using our deepest wounds to bless us.

A few years ago, I wrote an essay in which I used the metaphor of me being a "toucan raised by lions," and the name stuck. The toucan has been my spirit animal ever since. They're weird-looking creatures, but they bring these vibrant, boisterous colors with them everywhere they go; it just fits me. No one has been a greater champion of my toucan-ness than Rachel. She even bought me cufflinks and dress socks with toucans on them so I'll be reminded of my heart when I'm in business meetings. When I do something whimsical and life-giving, she says "I love my toucan." By calling out my unique spirit and celebrating my individuality, she has slowly loosened the noose around my heart and breathed air back into it. Her love has been pivotal in my journey to wholehearted living, and I'd like to follow her example. I don't know what your spirit animal is yet, but in the meantime I will celebrate what makes you unique, comfort you when your weaknesses become apparent, tend to your wounds, and help you see your glory. Whether you end up a toucan or a tiger, I know God has created your heart to be majestic. The world needs your heart, and it will be my privilege to help you unfurl it.

I love you, God loves you, and you've got what it takes.


Having an animated conversation with me over some juice