(10-minute version) living life in a tunnel

This week, I’m trying something different.

If you want the richer, 10-minute version of this post, read on.

Instead, if you prefer a short, 5-minute version of this post, click here.

Have you ever stared into the fridge, wondering why you walked into the kitchen in the first place?

I have. In fact, it’s a daily ritual for me. If I think about anything but Greek yogurt and blackberries as I walk to the fridge, all hope is lost.

My thoughts regularly consume and distract me. So much so, that much to the chagrin of my wife, Erin, I’ll stop talking and continue conversations in the quiet of my mind. It goes something like this.

Me: “Did I ever tell you about…”


Erin: “Nate, you’re doing it again. Did you tell me what?”

Me: “What?”

Erin: “You just said, ‘did you ever tell me?’ So what were you going to tell me?”

Me: “Oh. I’m not sure.”

For example, a few weeks ago, Erin and I woke up early to hike the Gore Range in the Rockies. As I drank my morning coffee, I started editing a section of my new book. After I’d become engrossed with the words on my screen, Erin asked me, “Can you make sandwiches to bring with us?”

I said, “Sure, no problem,” without actually processing what Erin requested. Fifteen minutes later, once I set my project aside, I thought about what she said.

“Packing something for our hike? Oh, sandwiches. Got it,” I mumbled to myself.

I walked over to the fridge to gather some supplies. There wasn’t a single slice of ham, turkey, or cheese to be found. “Erin!” I yelled out. “I can’t make sandwiches! We don’t have meat or cheese!”

“Are you serious?” Erin shouted from upstairs. “I laid out everything you need, including Ziploc bags, right next to you. They’re literally right in front of you.”

I turned and looked at the table, sheepishly. Sure enough, Erin had spread the necessary sandwich-making provisions around my computer. It was a serious case of myopia.

Tunnel vision like this is usually produced by me refusing to part with the things I treasure. Writing books is an easy example. Tunnel vision is the fastest route to the artistic achievement I crave, so I’m loathe to give up my time to little things along the way (like conversations and sandwiches).

Living inside a tunnel is a very bland existence, however. There’s not much to see or do in a tunnel. Typically, there’s just a lot of cement and fluorescent light.

That’s true of the Eisenhower Tunnel, too, which we drove through on our way to hike that day. The Eisenhower is the longest mountain tunnel and the highest point on the U.S. Interstate system. But even a tunnel as remarkable as the Eisenhower didn’t entail much more than looking at concrete and smelling exhaust.

We drove through the Eisenhower because it’s fast and it’s easy. We did have a choice, though. There’s an alternative route – Loveland Pass – which takes you up and over the Continental Divide.

The views from Loveland Pass are stunning. In the winter, the highway is carved into the middle of these massive ice walls so it feels like you’re cruising down Santa Claus’ extra-long driveway. If the Pass’ 11,990-foot elevation doesn’t take your breath away, the uninterrupted, sweeping views of snow-capped Rockies will.

However, to get Loveland’s iconic views, you have to first give up the tunnel’s convenience.

The same idea applied to my writing that morning. If I never give up the time I spend on my projects, to do little things for the people I love (like make them sandwiches), then my relationships will never have the rich conversations and shared experiences I like to write about.

More generally, our lives works this way. Generosity flows backward. When it comes to choices as simple as driving through a tunnel, or those as complex as marriage, we find that the more we give, the more we gain.

I’m an entrepreneur, which means my biggest projects are companies. This can make life difficult because unlike writing a book, companies don’t have finish lines. In fact, if you’re doing things right, companies just keep growing, demanding more of your time and energy.

Consequently, just as I often lose my train of thought and stop talking during conversations, it’s easy for me to grow consumed by my work. This was especially true once the company I co-founded was bought by another company, who transitioned me into a role that requires I travel a lot. Like, sixty flights a year, a lot.

When I’m on the road and away from home, it’s difficult to emerge from an episode of tunnel vision. Most people fatigue as they spend more time on a project. But me? I pick up speed. You know that law in physics, “an object in motion tends to stay in motion?” That’s me. The more I work, the more I want to work. The more I travel, the more I want to travel.

Erin calls it my “tornado mode.” Tornadoes consume everything in their path, and they can’t really be stopped until they spin themselves out of energy. If I start vacuuming, she knows it’s not long before I’m scrubbing dishes, folding clothes, and throwing out stuff she thinks we need to keep (but I think is clutter).

A project in my path becomes my sole focus. Once I start spinning, I’ll forget to eat lunch and drink water. When I’m traveling and working, I don’t think to check in with friends or family. It’s not that I don’t want to. These things just don’t cross my mind; kind of like sandwich ingredients sitting in front of me. 

Erin, meanwhile, is very good about maintaining our relationships with friends, at church, and with neighbors. We’re opposites in that way, so it’s better when we’re together.

Except, recently, those opposites collided in grand fashion as I came down from a nonstop travel bender.

From Minneapolis to Milwaukee, Seattle to San Francisco, and D.C. to Philly, I compressed a whole lot of travel into a few short weeks. I loved it, too. I was traveling as much as I was because the business was growing. It’s intoxicating to watch your hard work turn into something valuable.

As I walked through the front door of our home on this particular night, I was not only a tornado-in-motion, I was picking up steam. I didn’t realize, however, that I’d set myself on a collision-course with Erin.

Before I returned home, a few friends had asked her if we wanted to meet them at a local brewery. Naturally, I wanted to go. I was riding a high and I wanted to keep moving. Erin, on the other hand, declined for us. She said we were going to spend time together, just the two of us.

“We’ll have plenty of ‘us time’ this weekend,” I reasoned as I dropped my bags at the front door. “Tonight works for everyone’s schedule, so let’s go out.”

“Everyone’s schedule but ours,” she reminded me. “I’ve only seen you on two days in the last two weeks.”

“True, but we’ll still be together. It’s not like we’re driving separate cars to the brewery.”

“That’s not the point. I was hoping you’d want to spend time with me.”

I should have seen the caution signs at this point. Instead, I just kept driving down my own little tunnel.

“Well, yeah. I do. But this way, I’ll get to spend time with you and I’ll get to see our friends.”

I was thrilled by the efficiency of it all. I’d get everything I wanted, with none of the sacrifice. I’d had a full day of meetings on the East Coast, I’d spend time with my wife, and I’d see our friends, all in one day. What wasn’t to love?

“I don’t think you’re hearing me. I’ve been in our house, alone, for the better part of two weeks. Now, you’re here, but you don’t want to be with me. How do you think that feels?”

“I do want to be with you. And, I also want to see the friends I can’t see when I’m traveling.”

“But you’re always traveling, Nate. And you can’t expect that I’ll need the same thing as you after a long road trip. I was hoping for some time together, just the two of us. You have to make a choice at some point.”

 “This doesn’t seem fair,” I said, driving deeper into the tunnel.

“Fair? No, this isn’t about what’s fair. It’s about choosing to put someone else’s wants above your own.”

I was out of road. I’d reached the end of the tunnel. “Fine, let’s just stay home,” I yielded.

I sat down on our couch and tried to look uninterested, insinuating that the only interesting things existed inside the brewery our friends were headed to. Staying home together was now empty of my heart. I wanted to have it all – travel, my wife, my friends – and I was mad that I couldn’t.

By wanting to have it all, I wound up with nothing. Not only me, but Erin, too. My words twisted meeting our friends into either dragging Erin out, or locking me away in a cage. I created a losing scenario, regardless of the choice we made.

I never stopped to consider Erin’s perspective. She loves spending nights with friends as much as I do, but she also knows it’s good for us to reconnect after spending weeks apart. Even if it means sacrificing another opportunity, Erin knows there’s value in prioritizing our marriage.

It’s obvious, even to those who aren’t married, that healthy relationships don’t blossom when we prioritize our interests over our significant other’s. If I wanted a meaningful and thriving marriage, something had to give. In this case, I had to choose between my travel schedule, nights with friends, and quality time with my wife.

I know this deep down. Nevertheless, there are moments when it takes too long for my words to walk the path from my heart to my head. They get distracted along the way, like when I’m walking to the fridge. So what’s in front of me, and therefore front-of-mind, simply leaps out. My love for Erin doesn’t make it from my soul to my brain, so there’s a disconnect between what I believe and what I communicate.

It’s why I write her letters. My words have enough time to travel from my heart to the page.

That next afternoon, I decided to write Erin another letter. This was a different type of letter, however. It was an undated resignation letter addressed to my company. It explained that because I wanted a full life with my family more than I wanted to build a company, I was giving up a very good role in a quickly growing venture.

I didn’t mail it, though. Walking away isn’t always the answer. Sometimes, we simply throw the good things in our lives out of balance, which makes them unhealthy. I’m good at my job, and Erin wants me to succeed. So instead, I addressed the letter, stamped it, and handed it to Erin.

By giving her my resignation letter, I was communicating my choice. I was saying I was serious about putting our marriage before my goals. And do you know what happened next?

I discovered that I’d had it all, all along. When I gave Erin the ticket that would end my travel, I started to relish my work while I still had it, and I began to cherish time with her all the more.

It’s easy to miss what we have when we’re focused on getting more. I think this is the great lie of our age. We kill ourselves to make a life. We feel we’ll only truly start living after accumulating a little more. More status, more wealth, more experience. Just, more.

However, I believe the truth of life is that the more we give, the more we gain.

By giving, you build a world of friends and kindness. By taking, you fill the world with foes and contention. Think about it. Which world would you prefer to live in?

You can think about it this way, too. If it’s true that we get by giving, then conversely, in the negative sense, we lose by taking. By hanging onto our priorities, our time, our money, we miss opportunities to gain something even better. Just ask any money manager. We diminish the long-term value of whatever we hold onto. We find ourselves with quicksand eroding beneath our feet, instead of the contentment and safety we thought our selfishness would produce.

Now, consider this. What are the good and valuable things in your life? What are you thankful for? Did you gain those things by keeping and hoarding resources for yourself? Or did you give up something along the way? Consider your relationships – how did you build them?

The reality is that when we give away love and we spend ourselves for the benefit of others, we ultimately find there are more people out there who love us. It’s simple – loving people find themselves loved, and selfish people find themselves living in dull, lifeless tunnels.

It’s important to note, though, this doesn’t work if we give with a specific end in mind. The good of the other person must be our genuine and single end. Generosity can’t be counterfeited in order to gain something self-serving. If we fake it, we’ll not only be labeled as manipulating, we’ll soon decide we’re not getting what we want and we’ll give up on the whole endeavor of living generously.

Giving has to be sustained. We have to live freely always, not only when it benefits us.

Lest you begin to think these are my ideas, Jesus Christ is the original. He regularly talked about this paradox, but in a much bigger way.

He said things like, “If you cling to your life, you will lose it, and if you let your life go, you will save it,” and, “Give, and you will receive. Your gift will return to you in full —pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, running over, and poured into your lap.” (Luke 17:33, 6:38 NLT)

This is very encouraging if you think about. Jesus basically told the world, “Hey, look, the most important thing on this earth – your life – it’s actually the easiest thing to get. You just have to let it go. There’s no ten-step plan here.” (Obviously, these are my words, not his.)

Jesus didn’t only prefer our world to be one where we lay down our lives for our friends (and our enemies, actually). He lived his choice. He made the dreadful, horrible decision to give up his life on a wooden cross, thousands of years ago.

He didn’t do it because it was best for him. He did it because it was best for us.

Jesus knew we’d never live perfectly loving and generous lives – ones deserving of an eternal and rewarding life with God. So, he chose to suffer, and he gave his perfect and generous life as a sacrifice. He paid the penalty we should have paid, and in so doing, he offered us a relationship with his Father. That’s what grace is – an undeserved gift.

Even if you believe Jesus Christ was simply a moral and influential teacher from the first century, you must agree we’ve been given much through his death. After all, it’s why we call that day in history “Good Friday.” Jesus’ life and teachings spread like wildfire throughout the ancient world, giving dignity to women living in a culture of oppression, encouraging education in an illiterate society, and freeing the poor and enslaved.

(I’ll note, should you be thinking, “But what about all the negative results, like the crusades?” I would challenge you to judge Jesus not by how his message was abused, but by who he claimed to be, and how he actually lived. We don’t judge Islam by terrorists, right? No, we judge it by its historical veracity and doctrinal coherence. Likewise, we shouldn’t judge Jesus by crusaders – even modern-day political crusaders – who misuse his name for personal gain.)

I should also note that receiving Jesus’ gift of grace and living in his grace are very different things. To receive something, we have to do just that. We accept it. But to live in grace is to accept the same call to lay down our lives. We must spend ourselves for the well-being of others, showing everyone the same love that Jesus did.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said so well in his book, The Cost of Discipleship:

The cross is laid on every Christian… the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.

That doesn’t sound like an appealing invitation now does it? I mean, if I’m throwing a house party, and I want our friends to show up, I’m not going to say, “Make sure to get a good night’s sleep and come alert. You might die on your way over. It’ll be worth, though. Promise.”

I’m not sure exactly why God decided that death would be the passageway to life. It seems strange. Nevertheless, I have found that on the days I’m aware enough to sacrifice my selfish pursuits and follow his call, I find joy that far exceeds any earthly gain or achievement.

Similarly, to return to Bonhoeffer’s words once more:

“Christianity preaches the infinite worth of that which is seemingly worthless, and the infinite worthlessness of that which is seemingly so valued.”

To Bonhoeffer’s point, in the corporate world, we give people opportunities that advance their status and earnings. When it comes to the moral values we’re now discussing, like love and joy, a far more valuable reward is paid out in the spiritual realm.

We know this because if one day you decide all the wealth in the world hasn’t fulfilled you, that it’s no longer worth pursuing material success, it can’t be traded for rich relationships or deep contentment. Those things are far too valuable – all the world’s money can’t buy them.

Instead, we only get what’s truly valuable and what we truly desire – love, relationships, joy – by first giving them.

Want to read more?

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