Spelunking into the Well of Feelings

We're sending our love down the well

The New Fatherhood explores the existential questions facing modern fathers, bringing together the diverse community of forward-thinking dads who are asking them. Here's a bit more information if you're new here. My aim is to make this one of the best emails that you get each week. You are one of the 1,350 dads (and curious mums) who have already signed up. If you've been forwarded this by someone else, get your own one here.

I have a confession to make. I don’t write this newsletter on my own.

It’s my name plastered all over it. But someone should be credited as co-author on these posts. My wife. She's constantly sending me a stream of stuff: videos, quotes, articles and podcasts that she thinks are interesting. And because her taste is so 🔥, I'm always inspired.

This week she sent a podcast she thought I’d like: Devendra Banhart (big tick) was talking about a book he’s found helpful during the pandemic (bigger tick) that was a modern retelling of ancient Buddhist teachings (OK, sold).

On this episode of On Being (a podcast I hadn’t come across before but am already obsessed with) Devendra and Krista Tippett shared their favourite passages from "When Things Fall Apart" a book by Pema Chödrön about finding strength during times of chaos.

My son hasn't been sleeping great lately. So I listened whilst lying down on a rollout mattress on the floor of his room, helping his separation anxiety whilst trying to wind down at the end of the crazy day. The podcast had the opposite effect: I was hooked, wired in, rewinding over and over so I didn't miss a beat.

"Awakening is frequently described as a journey to the top of a mountain. We leave our attachments and our worldliness behind and slowly make our way to the top. The only problem with this metaphor is that we leave all the others behind — our drunken brother, our schizophrenic sister, our tormented animals and friends. Their suffering continues, unrelieved by our personal escape. In the process of discovering "bodhichitta" (a noble or awakened heart), the journey goes down, not up. Instead of transcending the suffering of all creatures, we move toward the turbulence and doubt. We jump into it. We slide into it. We tiptoe into it. At our own pace, without speed or aggression, we move down and down and down. With us move millions of others, our companions in awakening from fear. At the bottom we discover water. Right down there in the thick of things, we discover the love that will not die.” 
Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart

Why are we so obsessed with individual achievement? We equate success with elevation: “climbing the ladder”, “scaling my Everest”, “being on top of the world”. Fatherhood is changing you, but if take a step back, you see it's changing all of us. Together. And what if a group of dads reading a newsletter could be helping to change each other? What if satisfaction in life could be found not by ascending heights on our own, but by heading down deeper with others?

I see a darkness

Growing up, boys are introduced to The Well of Feelings at an early age. “It’s dangerous,” they’re told. “Don’t look down there. Stop crying. Don't get emotional.”

So they learn to stay away from the well. They stick a big warning sign next to it: BEWARE. STAY OUT. They nail it closed with old wooden planks, and avoid it at all costs. They grow older. Their fear of what might be in there solidifies. Maybe they saw other boys get bullied for playing near it: playing with a baby doll, talking about feelings, crying in the playground. Teased for “being like a girl.”

And then, you find yourself with a kid. Maybe more than one. Back to the well you go. Face to face with these feelings. It’s unavoidable: these tiny humans bring you cautiously back, wondering what was down there all along, carefully prying the nails out of the old boards that kept you out—or that kept something else in. And you realise, it might not be so scary after all. In fact, it’s quite beautiful ...

"Into it disappeared plot and space, what was left was emotion, and it was stark, you were looking straight into the essence of human existence, the very nucleus of life, and thus you found yourself in a place where it no longer mattered what was actually happening." 
Karl Ove Knausgaard, A Man in Love.

We're conditioned to look at fatherhood as something that has to compete with our career and passions. Choose success in your job, or chose to be a great dad. Either/or. Because you can’t have both. If you want to climb the ladder, there will be late nights, early mornings, missed bedtimes and busy weekends. Even at a place like Google—supposedly one of the most forward-thinking companies for working parents—I was pulled aside by a manager and chastised for “leaving early too often" to be home for bathtime. We’re force fed the success stories childless men who get up at 5am and do an hour of emails, 45 minutes of Wim Hof breathwork and then 90 minutes on the Peloton. And if you’ve got kids, forget about it. Therefore forget about success. It’s over.

So fatherhood begins to look like a weakness. A loss of your killer edge. Something that brings you further from “the top” (again with the elevation!) But the Well of Feelings changes all of that. Because when you head down there, it doesn't take away. It's additive. As you go deeper down that well, You learn what's down there. You conquer the fear you had, and free the hold it had over you. You learn more about yourself than you've ever known, When you finally get down there, it's a real Bruce Wayne moment. Because it's not a well. Down below there’s a Batcave, a subterranean HQ filled with very cool shit that can bring a new perspective to every aspect of your life. Empathy. Tenderness. Emotion. So much power that you can put back into your career and passions: how you create, how you communicate, how you understand. Your ability to connect with others can becomes your superpower.

Listening to the podcast (which, if it isn't blazingly obvious by now, I highly recommend), it wasn't lost on me that Bodhi, my son's name, is the key part of the awakened heart. I can see a direct line that runs from my experience learning to love him to me sitting writing this today. For me, having a son brought me back to the well in a way that having a daughter never did. It made me realise the work I needed to do to make sure he wasn’t afraid of what lies beneath, and the power I could take from what I found down there.

Devendra isn't a father. But in choosing this passage, he shows an innate understanding of how fatherhood leads to an outpouring of empathy:

“The father of a two-year-old talks about turning on the television and unexpectedly seeing the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. He watched as the firemen carried the limp and bloody bodies of toddlers from the ruins of the day-care center on the building’s first floor. He says that in the past he was able to distance himself from other people’s suffering. But since he’s become a father, things have changed. He feels as if each of those children were his child. He feels the grief of all the parents as his own grief. This kinship with the suffering of others, this inability to continue to regard it from afar, is the discovery of our soft spot, the discovery of bodhichitta."
Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart

As we move toward the discovery of our soft spot, together, we must remember: it won’t always be easy. But there will be no journey more rewarding.

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3 things to read this week

  • "Who We Are Now" from the New York Times explored life after the pandemic, and all the ways that we've changed: "Who am I? Who are we? Who are we becoming? How have we been transformed? For many, the suffering of this past year has birthed an awakening. The questions of how we have changed will be with us in the months, and years, ahead. The process of reflection is just beginning. Where it takes us remains to be seen." It stopped me in my tracks. This line particularly resonated, but I could have shared another dozen: "I don’t want to give 2020 credit, but I feel it put me on a conveyor belt to transformation that I wouldn’t have had without it.”

  • A slightly lighter "how lockdown changed me" from The Guardian, "How lockdown made me lose my willpower""There’s a combination of feeling like you don’t have any control over the world and just a bit ‘fuck it’ really. You’ve been ground down so much by the past year that it’s hard to care about stuff."

  • Go look at this gorgeous photography series from Sophie Harris Taylor, inspired by watching her partner adjust to fatherhood and struggle to find a connection with other dads. Send him our way Sophie, we’re a nice bunch here! (Thanks @Rewild)

Good Dadvice

Ouch. That last one hurt.

One thing to watch with the kids this week

Thanks to Blake who shared this in the comments last week (quick aside: I love old friends and colleagues popping up across the site.) He said this really resonated because he "tries to control the often uncontrollable which just leads to frustration and isolation." It's a heartbreaking short from a Pixar employee with has an autistic son, and powerfully communicates how it feels to raise a neurodiverse child.

Previously on The New Fatherhood

Last weekend we had a wonderful discussion around how we are dealing with stress. I got a lot out of this one. Hope you did too.

  • "This is just beautiful... dads... guys... essentially discussing selfcare. Enjoyed reading all the different ways we take care of ourselves fellas, especially when the pressure builds up. Learning how to care for myself, much less another human, has personally been a journey. I've tried it all, and have held onto what has worked, integrating them into some kind of daily practice/habit. I found that the simple things turn out to be the most effective when done consistently over time. In the end, I just try to do things that support my mental and physical health daily, and when I have a particularly tough day, I just turn up the dial on those things." Kervs

  • "I always thought "meditation and yoga" was just something "those type of people" would say worked, but I've made an effort to focus more on a daily meditation (focusing on gratitude) practice and I've since become one of those types of people! It makes a big difference. If anything, you're reminded to be grateful even when times are tough." Dan

  • "I very much tried to control the uncontrollable and found that was an impossible task. This led to more frustration, losing my temper at tiny things, just generally being unpleasant to be around. It took me some time (my little girl is 16 months now) to realise that sometimes I just need to take a step back and breathe. I learnt some breathing techniques through an online yoga course my employer provides and that was so, so useful. Take a breath. Think about the situation, the outcomes and do the best you can. I still get stressed, but I try spot the triggers, be it that rising feeling in my stomach or rush of blood to the head, and go straight into my breathing...it makes such a difference." Chris

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Branding by Selman Design. Illustrations by Tony Johnson. Did you open this email just because you thought it said “spunking”? Wash your mind out. Will be interesting to see if this is an all-time high open rate though … Thanks to Jan, Jeff, Nick and Ward who shared the newsletter with other dads last week, and thank you to everyone else who shared it too. Also thanks to The Flaming Lips for liking my tweet about how great they were on Yo Gabba Gabba. I'm gonna assume that was Wayne Coyne himself. Don't ruin this for me, OK? Now is as good a time as ever to say I would like this played at my funeral:

"You realize the sun doesn't go down: It's just an illusion caused by the world spinning round."