Don Miller is in town. When I surrendered my life to God in September 2006 and wanted something interesting to read, some of you recommended his books. He has become one of my favorite authors of all time and has often inspired me, but the message he shared tonight affected me in ways that are indescribable. God’s timing is perfect.
You see, while it’s been one of the most rewarding years of my life, it has also been one of the most heartbreaking, culminating just recently in one of the darkest moods I’ve ever encountered. In fact, I’ve been actively seeking professional counseling to help deal with the emotional pain, heartbreak and general “funk” that has recently become my reality.
People can really suck sometimes. They are capable of taking ones words and actions and twisting them until something breaks. Humans are capable of making the very worst out of the very best of situations. Some thrive on turning one’s fight against injustice back against the fighter. I’ve discovered that it takes a stronger man than I to stand up against every attack. I’ve allowed people to rob my joy, to steal my vision, to bring intense mental anguish.
But instead of focusing on that, let me back up and tell you this…
One day out of the blue, 3 or 4 years ago now, I received a phone call from Donald Miller. To some of you that might seem pretty incredible, and today that would also seem incredible to me, but back when it happened I was right in the middle of a stretch of regular “incredible” encounters that would blow my mind today. To be honest, it almost became expected on my part. Why Don reached out to me, however, was because XXXChurch had told him my story, given him my number and let him know how much I loved his books. We’ve since exchanged emails, text messages, and a phone call here and there over the years… not exactly “close friends”, but not strangers either.
If you’re a Donald Miller fan, you’ve undoubtedly heard of the Mentoring Project, which aims to mentor 1 million fatherless boys and to therefore reduce the number of prisons in this country by 15%. This vision inspired me, but I didn’t feel as if I could work as a mentor due to my past as a pornographer. In a few text messages, I voiced this opinion to Don. His response was that I was full of crap: he didn’t feel my past would affect my ability to mentor teens, and in fact felt it had provided experiences that could be used to my advantage when dealing with people who needed someone “real” with whom to relate. With that encouragement, I set out to start a local chapter of the Mentoring Project… but life led me in a slightly different direction.
An email exchange:
Donny Pauling to Donald Miller – Wed, Sep 22, 2010 at 8:08 AM
Didn’t end up starting an official chapter here in Redding, but I’ve been mentoring a handful of kids of both sexes. It’s been amazing. And you were right: my past as a porn producer has been a non-issue to their parents. In fact, it’s pretty much been a legitimizing force making me more human and causing them to be more inclined to open up.
– Donny –
Donald Miller to Donny Pauling – Wed, Sep 22, 2010 at 11:25 AM
I LOVE this Donny. Awesome. I didn’t think it would be an issue, actually, and in terms of speaking into the reality of where we are all living, your past gives you a PhD. For sure. Great news.
That was in September, but December rolled around and painful events began changing my world. Life lost some of its color… colors that have faded even more in the months that’ve followed. Circumstances cut deeply, and I lost the desire to mentor anyone other than my two second-cousins whom I home-schooled. I’ve found myself living from a place of cynicism, and my attitude has often been horrible.
Which is why tonight was amazing.
I’d like to share with you some thoughts inspired by having been involved in the lives of these kids, short as the time may have been. In total, there were several teens of both sexes. I’m not going to use their names: any stories and/or random thoughts I am about to share could have been any one of them, so if you’ve hung around me recently please don’t try to guess who I am talking about.
Because of our sin nature, even the best of men can be pigs. Several of the girls I’ve met have been molested, often by family members who should be protecting them. One girl was raped in her sleep in the third grade, only learning it had happened when her grandmother took her to the hospital the next morning because she noticed blood – 3rd grade seemed far too young to be starting a period.
Boys are not immune to abuse, some of it incomprehensibly bad, affecting one boy on such a deep level that he thought pulling out his own teeth would be a good way to show his mother that he was angry. That same boy explained to me why he always seemed to be in trouble at school: “I want to always be the sweet guy I am around my mother, but everybody expects me to be someone else at school, so I live up to what they think I am.”
Living one’s life heavily influenced by what others think seems to be a common factor in the lives of these teens. I have a problem with that: those “others” don’t deserve their opinions to be so important!
Many stories I’ve listened to this past year were equally heartbreaking. I met every one of these kids because they were friends of my young cousins. Let’s be real: that fact scared the crap out of me. In the past I’ve heard horrible things that happen to “those kids out there”, but when I witnessed it happening to those who are so close to my family – kids in whose homes my cousins have often slept over – my heart felt terror. My gut reaction was to rescue my family, to take them as far away as possible from those who perpetrate such things. But in my quest to do so, I was sometimes labeled “controlling,” even by adults who should know better.
Here’s a secret:
I’ll gladly wear that label if I can help keep those I love from making mistakes as teenagers that will negatively affect them for life. Where some might see a “harmless” teenage decision, I see a pattern of behavior developing. Compromising one’s values on the smallest matters, when done to fit in with peers who are making mistakes, can turn into a lifestyle of compromise and “going with the flow”. If one’s lifetime goal is to live in a trailerpark surviving on government assistance, that might be okay. But I want to inspire the kids I love to aim higher than that.
Tonight, Don Miller’s message focused on things he wanted to share with women (Saturday night will be aimed at men). I sat there with a smile on my face as words escaped Don’s mouth that have also escaped my own, almost word for word, in conversations with my two young cousins and their friends.
Don spoke about a woman’s value. About the importance of protecting that value and the uniqueness of it. He spoke about not giving in to those around us… to stand out without judging others: “I respect your individuality, but I will not compromise my own values to fit in with you.” He talked about how a woman making herself too “easy to get” reduces her value in a man’s eyes, because she hasn’t fought for herself – the more something has to be fought for, the more valuable it is to the person who gets it. As an illustration, Don used a scientific study that indicates girls “hook up with” men they respect, while for guys it’s the exact opposite: they hook up with girls they don’t respect and will never marry. If it’s too easy for a man to get what he wants, he’ll just take it and then turn to someone he has to fight harder for, never respecting the person who put such a small price on her value. And a person’s value is built by her decision making and the choices she makes in all matters, not just sexually.
This past year I’ve been telling teens the way I feel about things as simple as tattoos, piercings, and “fitting in”. I’ve been emphasizing how important it is to always be fighting hard to stay pure and to remain true to what we know is right, deep inside. My opinion is that even something as simple as getting a belly button piercing, when done because “my friends have one and I want to fit in”, leads to a pattern of giving in that ends up ruining a person’s value. “It’s just a piercing” doesn’t fly with me: it’s not about the piercing, it’s about what is motivating it. And just because parents say they are “okay with it”, doesn’t mean giving up and giving in is okay. The fact that so many adults have given up on morals because they are tired of arguing with their children will not distract me from telling kids my thoughts on such things. The kids listening to my thoughts definitely don’t have to do what I say, but if I sat idly by without saying something that might prevent mistakes from being made by those I care about… well, I just wouldn’t be happy with myself.
In recent weeks I’ve been given many labels by people who seem to have given up on life outside of the small box they’ve let themselves be put into. Hearing Don repeat things I’ve told these kids, almost word for word, felt like validation. It was as if God was standing there saying, “You did the right thing, regardless of what the naysayers believe. Don’t wear the labels they apply to you.”
I needed to hear that.
To Any Parents Who Might Hold Offense Or Think I’ve Been “Controlling”:
I’m sorry you feel that way, and I apologize if that’s the way I’ve come across. I’m a human who has made many mistakes in my life, and will make many more if I’m allowed to stay on this planet for any length of time. I would like you to understand that my goal was to hold your kids to a higher standard, not to control them. I’ve made a deal with every single teen who spends any time with me: you can tell me absolutely anything without getting in trouble with me, because you get to make your own decisions. But you need to respectfully listen to my opinions on the things we talk about. Feel free to ignore what I’ve said to you, but always hear me out. That’s the deal.
If you know me or have spoken with me at any length, you know the background of my family. Many of my uncles and cousins have spent time in prison. Many of them have given up on living any sort of decent life whatsoever. The younger generations who hold so much promise usually end up falling into the same patterns and routines of the older. Please understand that as adults, if you try to be the “cool parent” in order to avoid conflict, your kids are going to follow the same road as previous generations. When I’m spending time with these bright-eyed, beautiful future adults, the thought of them ending up like most of my family… just simply disgusts me. Because it is unnecessary, and all it takes to prevent that from happening is to be strong and say “that’s not a good idea”, even if doing so causes conflict.
As Don Miller said last night, “Every good story involves a LOT of conflict. In every good movie you see, the protagonist wants something and has to overcome enormous difficulties to get it.” What I want is for your kids to live a great story, breaking the cycle that has held the previous generations of their family in captivity. Hate me for that if you must. Maybe you don’t believe it’s possible for your kids to have better, but I won’t give up that hope. I can’t. It’d be too depressing to think their future includes some deadbeat husband, fatherless children, tattoos, piercings and welfare. Puke.
I’ve made a lot of mistakes. To be honest, if it wasn’t for my dad I’d probably be some tatted-up drug addict, in and out of jail all of my life. That’s the heritage I inherited from most of the generations before me, and that’s what a lot of relatives my age have fallen into. But from an early age, my dad always told me I was the smartest person he knew. He often brought me to tears with his words: he rarely applied physical correction, but rather psychological correction. The words he used would make me ashamed of the mistakes I made. But those words were also effective: I believed I was better than my circumstances. I’ve taken the wrong path on many occasions, but my dad’s words resonate in my ears and keep my hope alive, no matter how dark the road I find myself upon.
My goal has always been to return that favor to your kids. Seriously, that’s it: I wanted them to believe they were better than their circumstances and to hold themselves to a higher standard. Without that hope, they’ll perish. In fact, that’s Biblical – right out of Proverbs 29:18 – “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
If you’ve given up on hope for an amazing life, please don’t assume your children must do so also. Please. It’s not fair to them. Please try to step back and look at their life from a bigger picture. “Harmless” things aren’t really that harmless in the long run. Giving in to fit in is never good. Please please please try to consider what is best for your kids, not what is most convenient for you. Sometimes what’s best for our children is going to be difficult. There will be conflict. But the harder we, and they, have to fight to get beyond that conflict, the more valuable will be what we get as a result.