What Is Story?
Our story tells us where we have been, what we are up against, and where we are headed. Becoming aware of our past allows us to see how we are still unconsciously living it. This gives us the power of choice in asking: “Who do I want to be?”
I am continually doing my own work (Deeper Value: #2 Do Your Own Work) in my own story. When I invite others to do a Story Day I am inviting them into a journey I am on as well. I continue to be curious about my story. I continue to tell my story, in part or in whole. I continue to allow trusted others to push in an ask tough questions. I continue to heal and grow in my story. I am grateful for my story.
I was born into a good family in South Carolina in 1984. After I was born, we quickly moved to Central New York, near Syracuse and lived there for the first eight years of my life. When Dad got a job with Young Life youth ministry we moved to Rhode Island and lived there for two years and then to Richmond, VA and lived there for another two years. It was in the small town of Dexter, MI (near Ann Arbor) that we finally found a home and a place to put down roots.
I was one of two siblings. For most of my childhood, my dad was a ministry leader and my mom was a stay-at-home mom. Dad was an outgoing, exuberant extrovert, while mom was a quiet, hidden introvert. I am grateful to say that I knew I was loved and cared for. In many ways I was fortunate and enjoyed a safe place to grow up.
I grew up going to church and Sunday school and even enjoyed it most of the time. Religion was a big part of my childhood and was what formed my earliest values and identity. I learned that there is a God who loves me and guides my life. If I spend time studying Him and give my life to Him He will be pleased and bless my paths. I also learned that I had better do the right thing or this same God will punish me and be mad at me. A mixed bag for sure!
As for most, there were hidden wounds and pain in my parents’ stories that would surface and impact me as I grew up. My dad was an angry man, not to the outside world, but behind closed doors. My mom, sister and I were all the recipients of his own self-hatred aimed outwards. This was compounded for me by an insecure mother who grew up in an intensely legalistic and judgmental Christian ministry home where she could never do enough or be enough to please. I learned early on to read mom and dad: What mood is Dad in? How will Mom respond to this behavior? I learned to strategically and fearfully avoid emotional pain.
My main armor as a little boy against this wild west of emotion was to perfect rule following. If I could figure out the “right way” to do something and then go do it, I would get validation and avoid getting in trouble. I would get a gold star, an “I’m proud of you”, a good grade, etc. More importantly I would avoid the shameful looks and words and spankings if I didn’t. And this worked well through elementary school, middle school, high school and into college. It worked because this strategy allowed me to avoid the pain of conflict, but the flip side is that it stunted much of my growth into adulthood.
The Stumbling Stone:
It wasn’t until nearing the end of college that this way of living was challenged. Through a series of events it was brought to my attention that I was a prideful person. I was judgmental and legalistic and had to have all the answers and the last word. I started seeing friends fall away and hurt by my brashness and found myself often feeling anxious and frustrated. As I dug deeper, I found a painful reality… when you live your life trying to be perfect and “right” you develop a desperation for control driven by the whip of fear.
These revelations came at a crucial time: I was about to graduate college, get married and move to a far-away place. If you have ever done any of these things, you know that there are no rules; no “right way” to do them… and certainly not a lot of control. It was too much for me to handle and I could not keep all the plates spinning anymore. They came crashing to the floor in one weekend in which I had two anxiety attacks in the span of 48 hours. I had never experienced anything like this. I remember the terror of feeling so out of control. This began a period of many years in which I was lost in the fog of a continual, low level of anxiety that would flair up easily. It was as if the false crust of certainty crumbled and my own fragility was revealed.
I graduated, got married, but did not move so far away. My wife, Shari, is the most incredible woman I have ever met. She stuck with me in my darkest days and I will forever love her for that. It was not easy in our early years of marriage. We graduated in 2007 with Psychology degrees into the economic climate of the recession. We had many days laying on a blow-up mattress watching episodes of the Office, living off of the little money we had saved. The fear of financial distress was never far away.
One morning in the first year of our marriage I remember pacing back and forth in front of our tiny Ann Arbor apartment crying out to God. I was angry and confused, yelling at Him, “I have done everything I am supposed to do! I read spiritual books, spend time studying and serving You, go to church, pray, and have other people pray for me and nothing is working! Nothing is getting rid of my anxiety. Nothing is healing me!”
It was quickly and kindly that God responded to my diatribe saying, “Oh, Matthew, those things can’t heal you, only I can heal you.” It was in that moment and the months and years to come that I began to realize that I did not have a relationship with God or even a healthy relationship with myself, I had a relationship with religion. I had a relationship with the rules. I had signed the proverbial contract that stated that if I do the right thing, then everything will work out for me… and I had held up my end of the bargain but wasn’t being repaid in kind.
This facilitated the beginning of starting over. I was going through what Richard Rhor would call the stumbling stone; coming up against something that is bigger than my ego could handle; nothing I did could move or change it. Instead, the stumbling stone changed me. I had to learn how to have a real relationship with God, not one facilitated by mom and dad, rules or anything else. I need to experience Him, not just learn about Him. And I needed to start over with myself too.
Healing and Training:
I was in this space of a long climb out of darkness for about ten years. I learned hard work through many jobs in construction and maintenance. There were jobs that I did not like but they taught me a lot. It was in this time that my dad started a men’s ministry called True Pursuit and I became heavily involved in that as well. It was a time of waiting and learning; certainly, in the training circle for so many things that I had missed in childhood.
There were a lot of tears for the first few years. Like many, I had been taught to stuff or “dam up” my emotions. Without any place for them to go they stay stuck and like a stagnant pool begin to stink and grow diseased muck instead of flowing and bringing life. One by one stones started to be pulled out of the dam that held my emotions in check. I felt fear, anger, sadness and even joy like I never had before. This was uncomfortable (the reason I had hid them in the first place) but also freeing in a new way.
The little boy inside of me, the one that holds all the pain, was awkward, confused, vulnerable, silly and certainly didn’t know the “right” answers. I had shoved him behind the curtains of my life because he was unacceptable. As I started allowing emotion again the little boy began resurfacing. Instead of being ashamed of him, I began embracing and loving him. I remember being in the car with Shari around the time these things unfolded and as we pulled up to our little apartment, she looked at me and said, “Your eyes are softer than they used to be.” Something was changing and she could see it.
I remember attending a men’s retreat in which God gave me the name Fearless. I could hardly believe it. What an ironic name for someone who still struggles with the thick, heavy blanket of anxiety almost daily. It didn’t seem very true to me. When I pushed further God revealed to me that a name like this is pointing to something core to who I am in my True Self. How I behave does not dictate who God created me to be. In fact, I can even learn how to change my thoughts, feelings and behaviors to align with my truest self through the hard work of healing and growth. I can still feel the stunned confusion and beautiful tears at the thought that I didn’t have to stay stuck.
I remember sitting with the group of men who lead True Pursuit and had also been my community and through tears telling them that I felt like I had a seat at their table. I had been a part of the group since I was in college and had kindly been invited onto the board and the team mostly because of my dad. That cold night we sat outside puffing on chilly cigars I was able to feel and speak of how I had grown from a boy into a man in their midst.
I remember times of being on a mower at the golf course I worked maintenance at for eight hours a day. I would put my headphones in and listen to worship in the early morning and listen to books and teachings on spirituality, philosophy, counseling, relational and emotional health in the later morning and afternoon. I did this at many of those types of jobs.
I remember being called into an apartment, in the complex I worked maintenance at, after hours. The furnace had gone out in the middle of winter. I was not versed in furnace troubleshooting and my supervisor was not helpful. I remember struggling to get a simple nut off of the furnace and failing over and over. My supervisor refused to come and help. I was in tears. In this hurting vulnerable place, I asked God, what is this? I am a grown man crying because I can’t get the nut off the thread. He used this moment to remind me that I had parents that lived as victims and taught me to do the same. Wow. It was then and there that the seeds of courage were planted. I began to navigate hard things in very different ways than I had before. I stopped feeling sorry for myself and looking around for someone else to come fix my problems. I began to see my own strength in hard times and found a fierce ability to persevere that had lain dormant in years past.
I remember many people; bosses, co-workers, customers, etc., who would randomly want to tell me things about their life. They would especially share their struggles. I learned then that I had a natural ability to listen and be a safe place. I honed this skill more intentionally through True Pursuit events as men would open up and need help navigating their struggles and pain.
Through all these jobs I was discontent. I knew I wanted to work with people and help them but didn’t have a lot of clarity. I understood that God had me in a season of building my character to be able to handle the weight of my glory. He once told me, “I can’t trust you with my people unless you learn to love well.” I submitted to the training circle knowing and trusting that someday I would have permission to move into something more.
The Making of a Hero:
In 2013, my wife and I found out we were pregnant with our son Nolan. My wife, who often is the cattle prod that gets me off my ass, out of my head and into action, challenged me to get serious about my career. It was a scary move, but I decided to go to school and get my master’s in counseling. I worked two days a week in construction and took care of my infant son the other three days so my wife could continue to work. These were good and hard days. This was another training circle, learning the patience of taking care of a completely dependent child and what was for me, the challenging work of taking care of the household. I will be forever grateful for the deep connection my son and I have because of this time and the respect I have for the hard work my wife does now as a stay-at-home mom.
In grad school, most of my classes were online but I had a couple in person classes I had to attend on the campus in Wisconsin. I remember preparing for one of these 10-day, intensive classes and was not excited. If you don’t know me, I take after my mother as an introvert. Once I get to know someone, I am fine, but put me in a room full of people that I don’t know, and I am like a fish out of water. Now, I am entering into 10 days with people I don’t know and will probably never see again, not fun! I told my best friend that my plan was, “just to put my head down and get through”. How many of us have had that strategy before?! He responded by encouraging me to “maybe stay more open and see what God might have for you.” I was not excited about this advice, but it had the ring of truth, so I attempted to change the story I was writing in my head as I entered the time.
I can still feel the discomfort of first day. We were going around the room and sharing our name, where we are from and what we expect to get out of the class. When it got to me, I dipped into my courage and said, “My name is Matt, I am from Michigan and I am hoping that I will be vulnerable and open in this class. I am introvert and struggle to meet new people, so I want to be brave and not hide.” Swallowing hard at the following awkward silence, I further entrenched myself in this mindset. I endeavored then to share, respond, learn and enter into any situation I was invited. The results were incredible. For example, I found myself in a class of mostly young mothers who were hurting and yearning to be known and valued. I offered a willing ear and a kind word where I could. Halfway through the time I was on the phone, in tears, trying to describe these beautiful and hurting people to my wife. She in turn was in tears as well. You see… I had learned to love well. Not perfectly, but I was seeing the good in those that I previously would have judged and distanced myself from. I would have been much more focused on being right than loving well.
The apex of this short time was the last day of class. One of these young mothers was about to give her presentation. I was helping her connect her computer to the projector up front. I noticed angst in her expression and body language and asked, “Are you okay?” I must have been smiling because this woman looked at me for a moment and then said with a new conviction, “I am now, because I am looking at your smiling face.” I was stunned. This simple gesture of kindness was deeply impactful to her. How is it possible that I was able to give her confidence and let her know that she was okay with a simple smile? How much would I have missed if I would have just put my head down and survived!
Along the way we have had some dark days. It is painful to think of my wife’s post-partem depression after the birth of Nolan. She was hurting and sad and we had no idea what to. I remember sitting on the bed with her, tears glistening on her cheeks, and her eyes zoned out. It had been months of struggle and I finally got the courage to look her in the eye and tell her that we needed to honor the reality that the birth of Nolan was traumatic, for many reasons I won’t get into, and that her response, while painful, is not without reason. This reality must be honored, and we need help. It was just after this that she made the courageous move to go to counseling and only after a few sessions the light returned to her eyes.
It is twice now that I have held my wife in my arms as we both wept at the loss of miscarriages. Nothing can prepare you to deal with the loss of a life just beginning to glow. The conversations, dreams, delight and hopes of your unborn child are shattered into a thousand confusing and painful pieces. In these moments I am grateful for my learning in how to allow and move through pain instead of avoiding it. Shari and I both have had to learn to grieve pain in this way.
I had to learn about emotional pain a lot in these years. As Richard Rohr says, “we experience little deaths (unmet expectations) every day” and therefore we need to learn to grieve every day. The month of August in 2017 was a tough month. Our car we had just bought blew up the transmission in West Virginia on the way home from a family trip. Our one-year-old daughter had a high fever and we were strapped financially. It was a gut-wrenching moment when I put a $2600 car repair, car rental, plus the cost of a hotel stay on our credit card. A couple weeks later we found out that our beloved golden retriever dog, Toby, had cancer at six-years-old. Within a week of finding out, we had to put him down. I am grateful for this week because instead of ignoring or numbing like I would have in the past, I intentionally grieved. I laid with Toby and pet him. I invited Nolan to sit with Toby and me. Our family talked, cried and laughed about how much we loved him and all the fun, silly and sometimes stupid things he did. I remember the helpless feeling of picking up my listless dog and putting him into the back of my Jeep as my wife and son cried. At the vet, I looked in Toby’s eyes and pet him as life left him. I cried with his dead body in the floor of the vet’s office as I said goodbye.
There is a part of me that says, “Come on. Not a big deal. It was just a car, just money, just a dog.” But the other, healthier part of me says, “And it was painful to you and you needed to honor the pain and the one who carries the pain (YOU!).” For a boy who learned the strategy of avoiding pain and stuffing emotion, this is a big deal!
What Comes Next:
It was about this time that I was getting to the end of my master’s classes. An internship was needed but I was struggling to find one. I was cold calling all kinds of counseling offices and recovery centers with no luck. Around this same time, I was at a True Pursuit weekend in which I had walked with many men in their pain and healing. Those who are on the True Pursuit Team were debriefing with me on the nine-hour ride home after the weekend. They also knew that I was struggling to find an internship as my classes were winding down. One of them asked, “Matt, why don’t you just do what we saw you do the men at the weekend?” This floored me… “What do you mean?” I responded. One of the other men in the vehicle had been a personal coach and is now an executive coach so he put it in that context. “Why don’t you do what you already do so well, as a coach?”
I completed my master’s degree with a new mission, to become a coach. It took years to develop what I now do today, but again, it was a training circle of learning, personal growth, helping people and seeing it work. It is a beautiful and hard fought for thing to take many of the parts of what you love to do, put them together and have that be the work you do.
My middle daughter was born in 2016. Her name is Avalyn which means “waterfall of life”. For each child, we have asked Jesus what their names should be. We obviously don’t know them before they are born. Who will they be? What will they be like? But God knows, so we ask and sure enough Avalyn is a true “waterfall of life”. She is passionate and powerful. Whatever she does, it is with the power of a waterfall. If she is happy, you know it and if she is upset, you know it too.
I have found that my children teach me things that no one and no other experience can. When you look into their eyes and see your young self staring back, it is unsettling for sure! It is a different level of sacrifice to have a human being completely dependent upon you for every need and desire. The love that I feel towards my kids is like nothing else I have known. The yearning and connection I feel in the quiet moments I allow myself to go there is crushingly powerful. Of course, kids have also forced Shari and I to rumble with all kinds of things that had not come up yet. We are better for it and I am so grateful for my lover, my best friend and partner in it all! I am so grateful that I get to join God in fathering my children and that He is fathering me as I father my kids as well. I am not alone!
In December of 2019 my youngest daughter, Hope, was born. I do not know her very well yet, except for the long nights, cries, baby cooing noises and dirty diapers. I can’t wait to find out more! She reminds me of life and the unfolding of the story. I was once that little baby, only known by God, pure and unblemished by the brokenness of this world.
I have had ups and downs, victories and failures, debilitating wounds and love that has persevered. I am the hero of my story, not because I have done it perfectly but, because like all the stories we love, the hero has persevered, followed the Good Guide and faced their fears and are still standing. Now we wait in anticipation to see what the hero will do next.