Time to fly

Last Wednesday, I bid farewell to a job I loved. It was my dream job, the job that combined my passion for words with my deepest held beliefs, a job that rattled and refined that faith, a job where I encountered the Divine in the voices of others. It was more than a job, it was a call.

This call sent me to Budapest, Boston, Johannesburg, Houston. I met Lutheran parishioners, pastors and neighbors on the margins — some who fled their homes to find haven in the U.S., some still searching for a home in this country. I heard hymns of praise and songs of lament. I witnessed ministries that fed bellies and souls. With my trusty laptop and reporter’s notebook, I captured it all, being careful to record the truth, no matter how inconvenient. When I sat down to craft a story, each line felt like a prayer. The work tethered me to hope.

Most days, I worked from the office. Pre-pandemic, I had a cube with a view of the courtyard, my space nestled next to five of my favorite coworkers. I met dear friends here — kind, talented people who laughed and cried and did excellent work alongside me.

This is also the place I worked when I became a mother.

All in all, I spent nine years stewarding sacred stories for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — years of listening and telling, growing and becoming.

There are occasions in life when you look around and realize that the tidy nest you built no longer fits, and you’ll need to leave in order to fly. After much prayer and discernment, I resigned to pursue my vocations as a mother and a writer.

There will be time to reflect more, to announce what’s coming next.

For now, I’ll close with this: It was an honor and a privilege to play a role in making known the immeasurable love of God.

Holiday permission slips

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You have permission. . .

To feast on the beauty of December. To sing carols, to deck the halls, to manifest magic. God knows we need it.

To opt out of obligations that don’t nourish you or your household. To lighten up about cards, gifts and assorted traditions. To choose presence over perfection.

To eat the whole snowflake sugar cookie without guilt. (I’m so exhausted by the idea that we need to “earn” food; let’s retire it!)

To take a nap when you’re tired.

To ghost social media for vacation or mental health or just because. (Seriously! We’ll be here when you get back.)

To embrace the mystery and gift of waiting.

To ask your loved ones and elected officials for what you *really* want this season. To be your own Santa when needed!

To feel blue about the holidays — this is a lonely, hard month for many. Accept your feelings, difficult as they are. Find peace in a quiet sanctuary and the company of those who truly listen.

To find hope in the holidays. To relish each merry moment you can muster — the sacredness of lit candles, the comfort of reunions with friends and relatives, the bliss of giving and receiving.

To expect Love in a world hungry for goodness. (To do all you can to embody it.)

Banana bread, gun violence and facing the daylight

He just wanted banana bread. Eager to please and to get us out of the house, I obliged. 

We sat side by side in a bustling Starbucks, stealing a moment together before work and school. My son slurped apple juice and nibbled at his bread. I sipped my coffee, barely tasting it. Eyes glued to my phone, I scrolled and scrolled for answers I knew I wouldn’t find. 

Irritated, I looked up. That’s when I noticed my son staring down every visitor walking in the door. Morning sunlight framed his sweet face and curious blue-green eyes.

Before I could smile, the door swung closed and I took a breath. What was I thinking bringing him here? It’s not safe here. It’s not safe anywhere anymore. 

Last Saturday somebody strode through the doors of a Walmart, gun loaded with hate. A Mommy and Daddy died shielding their baby from his bullets. 

A day later, news broke of a second shooting closer to home, then word of more violence in our city. Blood-soaked, lifeless bodies on linoleum tiles and hot pavement. Lives cut short. Hundreds of families shattered forever. With trembling hands, I balled up our trash and swiftly rose.

“Jack, we’re leaving now,” I announced.

“Uppy, uppy!” he pleaded. And even though he’s perfectly old enough to walk himself to the car, I didn’t hesitate. I hoisted him in my arms, busting outside.

I punched the start button on the car. Elmo’s upbeat alphabet rap blared through the car stereo, but I couldn’t stop thinking of Brian Bilston’s poem “America is a Gun”:

England is a cup of tea. 

France, a wheel of ripened brie.

Greece, a short, squat olive tree.

America is a gun.

I gripped the wheel hard. I don’t know how to tell him why we rushed out or why, a week later I won’t bat an eyelash when I bring him with me to get groceries. 

America is a gun. The sentence tumbled around my head as I turned into the Montessori parking lot. The need to offer my son an explanation pressed on me and I took my time unloading him from the car.

More than anything, I want us to live in a place that reflects the values he’s learning in school and at home: That there is more than enough for us all, if we share. That everyone deserves to be treated with love and kindness. That we all have a right to live — without fear. How can I tell my son those ideals have been compromised by our nation’s leaders? And fellow citizens? 

I don’t want to shield him from the violence of the world, but the need to shield him from crippling worry feels more right. 

After lacing up his shoes, this is what I did: I bent over and kissed my son’s cheek, twice. Then I repeated our weekday morning benediction, “I love you buddy! Have a good day!” before he entered his classroom. And, with a prayer for peace pounding in my tender heart, I opened the door and stepped out into the daylight.

This year, I want to be brave

“Are you sure you’re ready for this?” he asked, looking at me in the mirror.

From height of my salon chair, I studied myself. Some iteration of long hair has been my look the majority of my adult life. My senior year of college I received a poorly executed shorter cut that left me emotionally scarred. It was almost as embarrassing as four-year-old me’s infamous bowl cut. I’d vowed to never go short again.

For months my stylist urged me to try a “lob”—I resisted. Now it was the middle of December, my birthday and Christmas looming. Yet I found myself longing to speed up the clock and turn the calendar to a fresh year. I needed to put the last year behind me. I craved change the way a desert wanderer craves water. I was thirsty for it.

“Oh yes. Let’s chop it.” I answered confidently. “This year, I want to be brave.”

I love the energy of a new year. There’s something about switching out my calendars and starting fresh that inspires hope and optimism in me. I love seeing others set new challenges and attainable goals for themselves. I even love the idea of resolutions, though personally, I don’t set them. I haven’t for years.

Instead each December my practice is to select an intention—a word or phrase on which to focus in the coming year. A new year’s intention is both a catalyst for change and slow burning theme that seeps into your dreams, eventually spilling over into real life and disrupting old patterns of being.

Last year my intention was “create and connect.” I hoped to build relationships with my network by continuing this blog. Though I work full-time at a faith-based magazine, I dreamed of expanding my horizons—exploring other topics and reaching new readers—via freelance writing. Most of all, I wanted to publish more stories and connect with others.

In early 2018 especially I wrestled with self-doubt and rejection. Rejection is common in publishing, but when you’re just starting out it can feel deflating. Amid a sea of unreturned pitch emails, I held tightly to the wisdom of established authors who’ve repeated this seemingly simple advice: if you want to be a writer, write. Easier said than done.

For me, writing is both a passion and an act of courage. When I write, I have to tune out my inner mean girl who claims my story isn’t interesting or helpful or original—and listen to my sure, strong voice. Anchored by my 2018 intention, I pushed past fear and pecked away on my laptop anyway. While I did, a funny thing happened: The more I wrote, the less I heard my inner critic. Because of this, I spent the last year immersed in creativity and connection. A few highlights:

I attended the 2018 Festival of Faith and Writing with my colleague and left SO invigorated. I went to Austin with my college girlfriends. I met some amazing youth at the ELCA Youth Gathering and penned a story on it. I blogged. I networked. I traveled to Boston and Florida to help produce four video stories. I clinked champagne at the weddings of life-long friends. I published a Coffee + Crumbs essay on working motherhood. I went to Disney with my sweet husband, son and college pals. I had heart-to-hearts with my old pastor and my father. After weaning my son, I finally developed a morning writing routine. I shared my son’s birth story with readers of The Everymom. I returned to my yoga mat and church sanctuary again and again for stability and inspiration. (Missing from this list are myriad milestones from Jack’s second year; more to come in a future post marking his birthday!)

What I didn’t know last winter was how much I’d need my craft and community when we faced a family crisis last summer. Our circle of family and friends stepped up to the plate to help carry the heartache of my husband’s illness. Our parents especially went above and beyond to lighten the burden and for that, I am deeply grateful. God accompanied us in the pain, even though I couldn’t always see it. Writing through it—journaling for myself, reflecting here—helped me find hope when it felt like I was drowning. Yet I wrestled to put down big feelings on paper and with how much to share about that tender time in our lives. I still do.

My intention/word for 2019 is “brave.”

I want to be brave—take more chances, open my heart, speak my mind, live my faith because I’ve noticed the pay-off when I do. I come closer to living out my vocation when I am brave enough to reject the noise around and inside of me telling me I’m not worthy.

When I think of bravery, I think of my father. He survived four years at West Point. He flew Blackhawk helicopters in Desert Storm. He soldiered on through disempowering unemployment then reinvented himself. He’s not afraid to speak his mind, even if it upsets others. He taught me to always do my best, even if it’s not perfect. He leads with his heart.

In 2018, I was brave. I shared more than I ever have on this blog and social media. I shouldered the bulk of parenting duties while my husband received treatment this summer. I aimed to be openhearted in my relationships.

Still there were plenty of moments during which I despaired and cowered, paralyzed by fear. Hearing on the radio the cries of children separated from their families at the border, I drove to work, sobbing. Nights after one of many mass shootings, I laid in bed, riddled with anxiety, endlessly scrolling through my phone as if it were the Bible. Other times, I sat in my privilege indifferent to current events and the man asking for money at the Addison exit. I failed to speak out or act or donate or show up or say, “I’m sorry.” And while I don’t expect myself to get it right all the time and certainly don’t feel called to comment on every major news or life event, I do think all areas of my life could use a healthy dose of courage in 2019.

There’s a best practice in creative nonfiction writing described as “facing the dragon,” which means exploring points of tension in your story rather than avoiding them. This is key to honest, authentic writing. I also think it’s the key to living a more authentic life.

Before I saw a therapist, I struggled with acknowledging difficult emotions. In the beginning, when my therapist asked me how I was feeling, I usually answered, “Stressed.” I had a limited vocabulary for talking about pain.

One Saturday I arrived at her office and she handed me a stack of papers.

“Here, I want you to have this,” she said. “It’s a catalogue of emotions.”

“Oh this is great,” I exclaimed, flipping through it. There were dozens of words to describe the range of human emotions—angry, jealous, anxious, elated, scared, frustrated, depressed. Armed with my new knowledge, I began to slay the dragon in conversations with her and, eventually, others.

I want to slay the dragon in my writing, too. I want to lean into discomfort; to go out on a limb; to acknowledge my short-comings; to be a voice for the voiceless; to speak the truth in love.

This is why I write anyway, to inspire and encourage others. Not because I know what I’m doing, but the contrary. I want to pull up the veil in this image-obsessed world and show you about hardship—and joy—because we all need someone in our corner cheering us on, encouraging us to face the day, to remind us we’re not alone. Because, sometimes, the bravest thing we can do is just show up IRL.

This year I want to show up for my community;

For my spouse;

For my son;

For myself.

I want to have the hard conversation;

To donate time and energy;

To honor my limits;

To step back and just be still;

To give thanks;

To know nothing I say or do in 2019 and beyond makes me more or less worthy of the life-giving, centering love of Jesus. That’s the story I’m called to tell again and again and again as I share my life in word and image.

In 2019, I’ll be turning to the wisdom of author Cheryl Strayed, which makes me feel a little braver: “You don’t need anyone’s permission to be the author of your life. It’s yours. Write it.”

This year, I want to be brave.

Do you have any goals, resolutions or intentions for the new year? Anything you’re looking forward to in 2019? I’d love to hear from you! Message me or tell me in the comments.

Gets better with age

In my early twenties, I worked for a large, progressive Presbyterian church on Chicago’s Gold Coast. I’d graduated in 2008 with dreams of working for a magazine or newspaper, but this was the year of the financial crisis and although unpaid internships beckoned, I could not afford to take them. I needed a paying job. That’s how I ended up at the church.

Unsurprisingly, working for the Lord wasn’t lucrative (still isn’t) but what my church communications job lacked in $$$ it made up for in other benefits—a chic location, colleagues and congregants with plenty of character and a relaxed workplace in which I could cut my teeth. Somewhere around my third week on the job, I stared out the antique window of the old parsonage-turned-office, at the bustling city street below and wondered: Is this it? Is this my life now?

I was privileged to have a secure, stable job but I couldn’t shake the feeling as though I’d abandoned a dream. Should I have moved to New York and maxed out my credit card on a fancy, insanely expensive publishing boot camp for recent grads? Should I have gone after that unpaid cub reporter internship in Louisiana? Or that unpaid magazine internship in Indianapolis?

Instead I was in a church, copyediting bulletins. And while I was grateful for the work, honestly, the thought of it didn’t exhilarate me. On the other hand, I had a two-bedroom apartment with my college girlfriend, health insurance and funds in my bank account. I was lucky. Though I pined for the freedom and flexibility of college life, I slowly assimilated to my 9 to 5 — meeting deadlines, taking lunch breaks to explore the city or chat with new friends, and navigating workplace politics and conflicts.

My first real job out of college exposed my inner demons, in particular, my penchant for perfectionism and people-pleasing. I struggled with confidence in my body, my work, my voice. I struggled with contentment in my relationship (long distance with no end in sight, everyone else seemed to be engaged) and my career path (describing my job often resulted in the response: So, you’re a church secretary?). In a way, I lived small. I read others’ blogs with delight and envy. I didn’t think I had the talent to write my own. I half-heartedly applied to grad school because it seemed like a good idea at the time (???). (It was not a good idea; I am grateful I did not get in.)

For five years I worked for this church, watching colleagues and friends come and go on to more exciting adventures. I replaced my old dream with a new one—advancing my career. I took on new projects, eventually landing a promotion. With new responsibilities and pressure, I agonized over my work, sometimes overextending myself. I secretly agonized over my slowing metabolism and weight gain, overanalyzing everything I ate and feeling irrationally guilty when I missed workouts. My third boss there, an amazing mentor and wise sage, once told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to see a therapist. (She was right.) She also gave me some advice about aging I’ll never forget.

“Your twenties are hard,” she told me. “But your thirties? That’s when it starts getting better. You’ll feel so much more confident in your own skin. And wait until you get to your forties–you’ll love yourself in your forties.”

Today I turn 33.

So much has changed for me since I was naive, young lass in the city. I’m married to my college sweetheart, we have a car, a dog, a mortgage and toddler (#adulting). I managed to land a job at a magazine I love and still pinch myself everyday because jobs like this are rare. And while I’m proud of my beautiful family and the trajectory of my career, what brings me the most happiness can’t be layered in a resume or posted on Instagram.

Here it is: I’m much more comfortable in my own skin now than I was at 23.

Aging well isn’t about looks–it’s about what’s on going on inside us. The inner work I finally did with a therapist acquainted me with my flaws, bad habits, negative self-talk and uncomfortable emotions. Because of her, I’ve recovered from crippling perfectionism and people-pleasing. I make mistakes all the time. I disappoint people regularly. I still feel bad about both. But it doesn’t derail me the way it once did.

After leaving my first job, I discovered yoga. Nearly two years ago, after my son was born, I ditched dieting for good and began practicing yoga regularly, which transformed my mind and body.

Today I’m so much more self-aware, confident, wise, grateful and compassionate because I’m older. I’m living bigger than before. When I get it wrong, I’m grounded by grace.

My boss was right. Like a fine wine, we get better with age.

Spring cleaning

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Know what I realized lately? So much of the creative process (and life) is about getting out of your head and following your heart.

Noticing your inner critic—who says you can’t make anything original/you’re not talented/you don’t have a story to tell/you can’t finish that project/etc.—and flipping her script. Talking back, then moving ahead.

Wanna try it?

Repeat after me: I am original, creative and talented. I have a story to tell. I have something to say.

Be your own cheerleader. It’s that simple.

It’s time for some spring cleaning: Let go of the clutter and negative noise crowding up your head space. Replace it with something powerful and beautiful instead.

The world has enough angry voices shouting for our attention. How can you give yourself a little more love today?

Speaking out for women’s rights

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credit: Ted Eytan

I wasn’t going to blog this week. What I wrote was more personal, more political than I intend for this space. When I woke up this morning, nine days out from baby’s due date and on day five of fighting a never-ending cough, my first thought was of my dear friends, fellow church members, coworkers and women/men/others participating in the Women’s March on Washington, in my city, across the U.S. and around the world. I was with them, in spirit.

At home, I scrolled through my smartphone and listened intently as Gloria Steinem, America Ferrera, Bob Bland and others spoke in the capital via Facebook live; saw pictures of marchers flood my social feeds; and followed news coverage of this historic day. The outpouring of support for women’s–human–rights brought tears to my eyes.

To everyone marching, thank you. Thank you for standing up, speaking up and exercising your constitutional right to peaceful protest. Thank you for your courage, for your civic engagement, for fighting for what you believe in. This country–our world–is stronger when we recognize the rights of women, of everyone.

There’s been a lot of criticism and confusion about what this march means and what will come after it. There were initial concerns about the organizers, which I’m glad were addressed. Others have criticized marchers as sore losers, but I don’t see it that way. In this time of change and uncertainty, I see citizens banding together to voice their concerns about and to their newly elected representatives. This is about raising strong women, fighting against hateful rhetoric and fighting for reproductive rights, civil rights, immigration and so much more. Others aren’t marching today because they disagree with platforms in this march, particularly abortion. I respect that. Everyone has a different story, a different reason to march (or not), to speak out (or not).

This is mine.

The first time I thought about my body was in second grade on the school bus, sitting next to my friend Emily. Our thighs stuck to the hot plastic seats as we rode to school and I noticed my thighs were bigger than hers. They seemed “too big.” I began to worry.

Growing up I kept a journal. Once I was home and stumbled across an old one from middle school. I remember reading something like this: I am fat. My body is so disgusting. I need to do something about this. I need to start running every morning. I need to eat less. I cannot be fat.

At the time I wrote that, I was the skinniest I’d ever been. I tossed that journal out.

In high school my best friend and I read women’s magazines, Cosmo and Glamour.  I noticed most of the articles were about fashion and beauty and relationships and sex. We poured over these magazines, laughing at the outlandish outfits and sex advice. I always felt a little worse about myself after reading them.

The first and only time I was sexually assaulted was in my late twenties. It was early morning, and I was on my way to the gym.

Recently, I read an article in the New York Times that highlighted the results of a nonpartisan post-election survey of ~1,300 individuals. Of those surveyed, more than half of the Republican men said it was a better time to be a woman than a man; the survey also found that all men, regardless of political affiliation, underestimated the amount of sexism women faced. “It’s easier being a woman today than it is a man. … Everybody else is above the white man,” said one man to the article’s author. I know the feelings and stories of these men should not be dismissed or ignored, but these findings, this idea, that it’s better to be a woman than a man today filled me with rage. 

Sexual assault is a wide-ranging issue that disproportionately affects women. According to RAINN, 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.

What happened to me that Tuesday morning shook me to my core. I was lucky my screams had startled my attacker, lucky that he ran. In the minutes, hours, days, months, years that followed this incident I felt guilty. Dirty. Scared. Angry. Ashamed.

This happened to me because I’m a woman, because a strange man thought my body was his to touch. Because I’m a woman, I grew up receiving messages that my body mattered more than my mind. Because I’m a woman, I’m still afraid this could happen again. So, no, I do not think it is an easier time to be a woman than a man.

To be a woman, even in the U.S., is to live in fear that your body is under scrutiny, is not fully your own. The idea that the government should dictate a woman’s reproductive rights angers me. That a man who bragged about sexual assault is now president angers me. That those words were dismissed by some as “locker room talk” angers me.

For women to achieve true equality, let alone a better quality of life than men, women must grow up learning that we aren’t judged by our bodies, but by our character, and that our bodies belong to us, no one else. We must earn the same amount as men, be represented at all levels equally in the government, military and the board room, we must not walk the streets in fear.

It took me a long time to feel comfortable in my neighborhood, in my body again. It took me a long time to heal. 

I know that I’ve been fortunate. I know there are thousands upon thousands of stories of injustices far worse that women and others have suffered because of their gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, level of ability and more. We have to do better. We must not stay silent about what matters. Especially now.

This is why today, since I can’t march, I write.

To the thousands of sisters, brothers and neighbors that marched today, thank you for showing up. Women’s rights–human rights–matter. And equality IS worth fighting for. And I hope that’s something we can all agree on.

Update: I’m following this action plan from the national march organizers. Join me?

What I hope to teach my son

In my third trimester of pregnancy, I’ve struggled to sleep through the night. I know this is par for the course, but the experience has been absolutely maddening and exhausting. The silver lining in all of this? 3 a.m. is a really great time to write and tackle random projects and catch up on reading. Still, third trimester insomnia is just the WORST. Interestingly enough, this past Tuesday night was the deepest I’d slept since the night of Nov. 8, when the results of the presidential election became clear. And ever since Nov. 8, I’ve been feeling a deep, gut-wrenching sense of despair about our country’s future, especially as an expectant parent.

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credit: Will Nunnally

Maybe you’ve felt it too, or maybe you reacted in the opposite way. Maybe for the first time in a long time, you finally felt hopeful for the U.S. You are ready to chart a new course with a new president at the helm. Regardless of where we all fall on the political spectrum I’d like to think that what unites us, as our outgoing president put it, is our shared sense of decency.

I’d forgotten about this, too distracted by sharp political divides, distrust of the media and bizarre tweets from the president-elect (can we all agree that this is not good?). I’d lost sight of the audacious idea that makes our democracy work: that “for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together, that we rise or fall as one.” We may not agree on policy or process, but perhaps we can agree on shared values, like education, healthcare, family and work? My heart longs for this to be true.

Tuesday night came and President Barack Obama’s remarks inspired me and restored my belief that ordinary U.S. citizens like you and me can be a force for good in this country, in this world, after weeks of feeling otherwise. He convinced me of that, and for the first time in a long time, my anxious, pregnant mind–and body–felt release. So I slept.

For a while I’ve been asking myself: How can I be a force for good, when on the precipice of this new, all-consuming stage of life?

Then the (obvious?) answer then came to me. I can be a parent. Parenting is a political act. What my husband and I teach our son will matter.

We’d discussed this over Thai food last weekend, compiling a list of values we hoped we’d teach him. As the conversation progressed, our list grew to a size that was daunting, much like the responsibility of raising a child.

“Had we forgotten anything? Were we up to the challenge? Would these ideas even stick?” I worried. Surely there would always be something more to add or amend, but this conversation was a good starting point for us. What follows are a couple highlights from our talk.

When I think about the future, what I hope to teach my son is this: that now, more than ever, truth-telling matters. Honesty is the first value my husband mentioned during our dinnertime discussion, and it’s an important one to focus on as we navigate an era when the truth seems illusive, reason and science are questioned and politicians deny the unflattering things we’ve seen them say and do in order to save face.

Telling the truth isn’t always easy; often it requires great courage. But lying doesn’t just wrong others, it also eats away at our souls. Embracing honesty sets us free from the invisible walls we build up around ourselves and allows us to authentically connect with others. 

Another value we spoke about was equality. It’s a value outlined in the constitution and the creation story, something that seems so simple in theory yet in practice is radical and countercultural. It is the thrust behind feminism, #blacklivesmatter, LGBTQ rights–human rights–and so on.

I hope to teach my son that every person deserves to be treated equally and with dignity, no matter her/his skin color, religion, gender, class, physical or mental abilities, sexual orientation or any other category s/he might fall into. 

In his farewell speech, Obama spoke pointedly and poignantly about race, and all the other differences that divide us. He quoted Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch, saying, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

I know my son will be born with certain privileges, and I will work fiercely to teach him to empathize with others different than he and to be concerned with human rights.

There’s so much more I want to teach my son. I hope to teach him the value of listening, sharing, hard work and play.

I’ll teach him that this world is full of wonder, beauty, hope and joy–also sadness, ugliness, corruption and hate.

I hope to instill in my son a zest for curiosity and creativity and movement and stillness.

I hope to teach him the importance of relationships and friendships and family and community. 

I hope to teach him how to identify his emotions–happiness, sadness, envy, anger–and feel them without judgment.

I hope to teach him about kindness and selflessness and unconditional love, the breathtaking, powerful kind of love we don’t earn or deserve, we just receive.

I hope to teach him about my deep faith, the cornerstone of my values. 

And more.

When I started writing this post, I was feeling hopeful. And as the week progressed, I felt sad again, and then all the emotions: afraid/nervous/excited/unhinged. I am, once again, restless with anticipation for the birth of my son.

I’m currently praying hard to tap back into that hope I felt Tuesday night. If I can teach my future son a fraction of all I desire to share with him, perhaps I–he–we can be a force for good in this world.