Letter #1 – Life outside the cage
From: Brett Trapp – Nov 18, 2011
To: Brett Trapp – Nov 18, 2001
Well, I guess it’s here. Happy birthday. I hope your 20s are your greatest decade yet (but not the greatest ever…haha).
These letters have been fun. It was a great way for me to distill everything I’ve learned in my 20s and pass them along to you. I hope you’ve enjoyed them.
Have thought a lot about this last letter. These will be my final words to you as you embark on this new decade and I embark on mine.
You had a favorite Bible verse in high school, Brett. You quietly made it your personal manifesto for your high school years:
“Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe.” – Prov 29:25
I’m glad you latched on to that verse, especially during those years when others’ opinions are everything. It reminds us of the danger there. Fearing people–their thoughts, opinions, and notions of us– is a snare, a trap. Imagine a rabbit in a small wire cage–that’s what we do to ourselves when we live in fear of man. As fragile, insecure, broken creatures, we’re prone to caring way too much for the approval of those around us. It’s an addiction, and the more approval we get, the more we need.
And this is problematic…
Because if you drive an SUV, they’ll think you don’t care about the environment. And if you have a southern accent, they’ll think you’re an Alabama redneck. And if you haven’t read all the classics, they’ll think you’re uneducated. And if you talk too spiritual, the pagans will think you’re a fundamentalist. But if you don’t talk spiritual enough, the fundamentalists will think you’re a pagan. If you use use the word “sovereign” and quote John Piper a lot, you’ll make the Calvinists happy. But don’t talk like that too much, lest the v-necked church planters and charismatics label you a geeky presbyter. Oh, and make sure you speak out against abortion, democrats, and homosexuality to keep the entire evangelical world happy as well. But don’t do that too much or the secularists will tag you as a bigot and hatemonger. And if you dress too nice, some will say you’re materialistic or that you have bad taste. If you don’t dress nice enough, you can’t be a part of their club. If you put gel in your hair and wear Converses, your Alabama friends will think you’re an Atlanta sellout. If you wear polos and Sperrys, your Atlanta friends will think you’re an Alabama bumpkin. Don’t even get me started on what they’ll think when they find out you were in a fraternity.
Feel that cage? See the wires?
There’s a way out: Stop caring.
Let it all go. Be free. Declare approval bankruptcy. Then begin living life.
I’m not fully there yet, Brett, but I’m getting closer. I can feel the freedom of care-less-ness a little more with each passing day. And rarely–very rarely–I’ll bump into someone who is living in this freedom. They’re like aliens. It’s so rare and refreshing, it’s like they’re not from this planet.
I think these people get that, on that day, we’ll all stand before our Maker…alone.
“They” won’t be there. Just you and God. Think about that…it changes everything.
Love others hard. Do great work. Live in community. Humble yourself daily. Seek feedback and accountability, but only fear One.
Then forget everything else.
That’s life outside the cage, Brett.
P.S. Enjoy that 32 waist, bucko!
Brett, live your life for others, requiring only the approval of One.
Letter #2 – The ignorance list
From: Brett Trapp – Nov 17, 2011
To: Brett Trapp – Nov 17, 2001
Well, this is it. Your last day in your teens, my last day in my 20s. Hopefully you’re seeing that life only sprints. It doesn’t know how to crawl.
In your late 20s you’ll start becoming a lot more aware of life and how you fit in the world. Part of this dawning self-awareness is discovering what you don’t know, what you weren’t taught. Yes, you grew up with great parents, went to great schools, and have even gotten to travel some. But still, there are things you weren’t taught. Here’s a starter list…
- Good music
- Church history
- Good theology
- Personal finance
- How to shoot a gun
- How to play a musical instrument
- How to speak a foreign language
- How to tie a tie (Youtube doesn’t count)
- How to change a tire
- How to build/fix things
- How to handle conflict
- How to express your emotions properly
- How to be a brother
- How to bowl
- How to play golf (dad tried…this one’s on you, Brett)
- How to drive in a big city
- How to play poker
- How a suit should fit
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Why do I need to know that stuff? Well, maybe you don’t.
But maybe you do.
What a shame that we go through life not knowing what we don’t know! There is a gloriousness in ignorance–specific, catalogued, documented ignorance. It frees your spirit to be curious, to not have to fake it so people think you’re well-cultured, well-heeled, well-versed. It frees you from the burden of having to know all the answers, or at least in making people think you do.
You’ll notice that a lot of this is fathering stuff as well–either things that dad couldn’t teach you or didn’t teach you because he died last year. You never stop needing to be fathered, Brett–no matter how old you get. Own up to your ignorance. Embrace your fatherlessness. Once you do, you’ll find a lot of freedom, and you’ll awaken to the truth that God has put people around you to educate, mentor, and father. Ignorance is great, but we’re not designed to stay there.
The list above is just a start and I’m excited about the next decade of discovering more things I don’t know. Everyone has an ignorance list, Brett. They all look different, but everyone has one. Now you know yours.
We’ll wake up in a new decade of life tomorrow. Sweet dreams.
P.S. Not all your presidents will be white.
Letter #3 – The self in righteousness
From: Brett Trapp – Nov 16, 2011
To: Brett Trapp – Nov 16, 2001
I wrote you yesterday about this issue of reliance vs. self-reliance. I need to address one more hyphenated “self” issue with you today. This one’s going to sting a bit so brace yourself.
You became a Christian when you were 14. Everything changed after that. You got really involved with your youth group. Your youth pastor discipled you. You grew so much spiritually during your high school years.
But there’s a problem with rapid spiritual growth: self-righteousness.
Brett, self-righteousness is simply looking to yourself for the answers to all of life’s questions and dilemmas. It can be spiritual or secular in nature.
Spiritually self-righteous people focus on DOING. Youth group Christianity–what you’ve known for the last five years–is very DO and DO NOT based.
DO read your Bible.
DO go to church.
DO NOT drink alcohol.
DO NOT have sex.
DO NOT listen to bad music.
These are all moral instructions either directly or indirectly rooted in Scripture. But Brett, this is NOT Christianity. At its core, Christianity is much more of a being religion than a doing religion. Of course we are called to do–obey, give, serve, etc–but we have to begin and remain in the be. To be is to accept what someone else has done for you. To do is to try to do that for yourself.
Self-righteousness looks different for different people, but I know how it looks for you, Brett:
Looking down on people.
Viewing anyone who drinks alcohol as evil.
Viewing anyone who smokes as evil.
Being convinced that your theology is 100% right.
Being confident (or arrogant) in areas where you should be extending grace.
Expecting grace from all, extending grace to few.
Priding yourself on being “a good Christian guy” and using that reputation as a weapon of influence.
There is also a secular self-righteousness you practice:
Villifying anyone that appears “liberal.”
Looking down on other nationalities, viewing them as inferior.
Looking down on people of lesser socio-economic status, viewing them as inferior.
Defending political ideologies out of kneejerk reaction instead of objectively evaluating them for their merit.
Grace is a funny thing, Brett. It’s the antidote to self-righteousness. You’re going to discover more grace in the coming years. But beyond that, you’re going to need more of it in the coming years. A lot more.
Remember this, Brett.
P.S. Baseball & steroids: A soon-to-be match made in heaven.
Letter #4 – Reliance
From: Brett Trapp – Nov 15, 2011
To: Brett Trapp – Nov 15, 2001
I’m up in the mountains right now, about an hour north of Atlanta. I’m staying in a one bedroom cabin with faded pictures of bears and floors made of compressed wood. There’s a fog hovering over the mountains in the distance. It’s raining.
I’m here to clear my head, recalibrate life, and ponder my last few days in my 20s.
Did I just write that? “my last few days in my 20s.” It’s surreal.
An extroverted friend said this week, “Are you crazy? Three days in the mountains by yourself? I’d be miserable!”
Lots of people would be miserable. Not us. We love it.
Brett, the Myers-Briggs tests you’ve taken are right. You’re an introvert. Being an introvert simply means that you “recharge” from being by yourself. 95% of the people you know wouldn’t believe that. The other 5%–the ones who really know you–would agree wholeheartedly. Yes, you’re socially adroit and have lots of friends, but you enjoy the creativity and deep thinking that solitude brings to your soul. Being an introvert doesn’t mean you dislike people or always want to be alone. In fact, you go crazy when you’re by yourself too much! But aloneness, in moderation, is something you need. With grease gun and drill in hand, God geared you this way.
But Brett, as with all matters of internal gearing, this comes with a warning. Your introverted bent is going to be fueled in the coming years by a society obsessed with independence. Everything has already begun to change and will change even more in the next ten years. Amazing advances in technology are going to make us all the gods of our own domains. Where we had to rely on educators and bosses and preachers in the past, we’re now able to find all that for ourselves. All those old barriers that separated us commonfolk from information are going to burn in a massive fire sparked by American innovation. We’ll have free and open access to anything we want to know. With a computer, anyone will be able to do anything, be anyone, create what they want to create. Average Joe’s will lead movements from their cellphones. Every pinch of inconvenience will be eliminated from our American lives thanks to all these advances. I’m not kidding here, Brett. Nor am I exaggerating.
Now let me interject, much of this is great! There are lots of magical things happening that make life better. But in this new age where we all get to be our own spelunkers of truth, we’re losing something as well–
Reliance on mentors for wisdom. Reliance on friends for comfort. Reliance on family for support. Humans aren’t designed to be one-man power plants, generating everything we need for life independently. We need others in a bad way. We need God in a bad way.
Remember when Jesus said it’s easier for a rich man to go through the eye of a needle than it is for him to get to heaven? You know why Jesus said that? Because he knew that when humans get rich they get unreliant. Instead, they become self-reliant. Well today, though some are rich financially, everyone‘s rich on information and opportunity. And I fear the glut of those two resources are making us less God-reliant, less people-reliant, and more self-reliant. What we’re witnessing today, Brett, is a revolution of self-reliance. And it’s fundamentally changing the way we do life.
Brett, I’m not sure if this is a problem for extroverts. But I know that in the next ten years, it will be a problem for you. Brett, need others. Lean on others. Rely on others. You can’t be that for yourself. You can’t find that on a glowing screen.
I hope this letter isn’t a copy and paste when I’m turning 40.
Remember this, Brett.
P.S. Most jaw-dropping, unbelievable, fact about your future self? You’ll like country music.
Letter #5 – The truth about hard work
From: Brett Trapp – Nov 14, 2011
To: Brett Trapp – Nov 14, 2001
Well, you turn 20 in four days and I turn 30 in four days. Crazy, huh?
Last thought on work as we come down the home stretch with these letters:
You need to work really hard in your 20s.
Really hard. Exhausted-every-day hard. Collapse-on-your-bed hard. Feeling-like-you-have-no-life hard. Cross-eyed-tired hard. Think about this: If you work twice as hard in your 20s, you’ll enter your 30s with the experience of a 40 year old.
The notion of “hard work” is quite the cliché in our society. Everyone likes it as an idea but not so much in practice. Hard work can be exhausting, annoying, and stressful–a three headed beast that most kids in our generation would rather not tangle with. It also requires sacrifice, making us pass on things we really want to do. Did you get that, Brett? You won’t get to do everything you want to do. You’ll have to keep working long after everyone else stops.
I don’t mean to make it sound all bad. It certainly isn’t! If you love what you do, then hard work, though exhausting, is deeply fulfilling. One of the greatest joys of life is flexing your God-breathed gifts at work. No job is always fun–it’s still work–but work ought to fill the well of your soul, not deplete it.
Of course, as with most things, if not kept in check, working hard can quietly morph into a toxic workaholism. Big difference. There has to be balance, but I believe that if you live a little imbalanced in your 20s, you can live a lot more balanced in your 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond.
Now go get to work.
Remember, this Brett.
P.S. Hate to break it to ya but for your first job out of college, you’ll be earning $10/hour while making coffee and copies for your co-workers. They’ll laughingly call you the “mecretary.” Smile!
Letter #6 – Fear, growth, confidence, success
From: Brett Trapp – Nov 13, 2011
To: Brett Trapp – Nov 13, 2001
Here’s a wild idea for personal growth. I want you to practice it a lot over the next ten years because I fear know you won’t do it enough. Ready?
Attempt things that you are not equipped to do.
Start a business.
Launch a project for a good cause.
Give a presentation to people a lot smarter than you.
Move to a city where you’re a nobody.
Try something crazy at work.
You’ll never grow if you only do things you’re trained or schooled in. We’re confident in those things. But we don’t grow when we’re confident. We grown when we’re scared.
Scared of what others will think.
Scared of not having what it takes.
Scared of failing.
Fear is the driving force of our species. It paralyzes people and prevents them from doing amazing things. They ride around life in the back of a cop car with their hands pinned behind their back, gazing out on a world full of motion and life. After a while, they get comfortable in that seat, and days turn into weeks. Weeks turn into years. Years turn into a life. And they eventually fall asleep back there and never wake up. Life has passed them by.
But when we respond to fear rightly, it becomes this explosive force for growth. Human nature is to flee scary things. But we should be running towards some scary things. Especially when those things pertain to our hopes, dreams, and goals. Save the fleeing for bears and sharks.
Brett, in your 20s, attempt some things that you are not equipped to do.
But let me issue a reminder: Read the first sentence of this letter again.
[seriously….do it now]
Notice that I didn’t say this was a wild idea for success. I said it was a wild idea for personal growth. You may very well attempt something new and fail miserably. But in failing, you’ll grow and learn. And that’s where the beauty is. You do this enough, and you’ll become wiser. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll be able to cobble together enough wisdom to find some success. And with each success, your confidence will grow a little more.
Life is a dance with both confidence and fear. If you only dance with confidence–doing things you’re well-equipped for–you become satisfied, stagnant, stuck. If you only dance with fear–always running from things you’re not equipped for–you become timid, skittish, paralyzed. When you dance with both, you find this really lovely place where our fear fuels growth, growth fuels confidence, and confidence fuels success.
Remember this, Brett.
P.S. You can become a billionaire by making the internet more social: Think faces. Think books.
Letter #7 – Palms up
From: Brett Trapp – Nov 12, 2011
To: Brett Trapp – Nov 12, 2001
Ok, I’m back. Sorry for the left-overs yesterday.
In letter #9 I gave you a long list of your weaknesses. I forgot one, and it’s one of your biggest.
You’re easily offended.
When someone challenges you, you snap at them. When someone disagrees with you publicly, you quietly despise them. When someone slams you with words, you sledgehammer back. Or worse yet, you withdraw and retreat into your shell, scorned. You get defensive if someone calls out your integrity because you want to protect your image as a “good Christian guy” (I’ll talk more about that in a few days). And when these things happen, you hang on to them like a bottle of Jack in an alcoholics’ ward. You just can’t set it down, sipping on it days, even weeks, later. Simmering, stewing. As a sophomore in college, you’re aware of this. But you think it’s normal, and that it will just always be this way.
It won’t. It shouldn’t. It can’t.
There is a guy working at Thomas Nelson up in Nashville. His name is Michael Hyatt, and he’ll be a big deal in a couple of years. You’re going to hear him speak at a conference where he’ll talk about overlooking offenses. You’re going to learn that being offended is a choice–a conscious choice. And the good thing about choices is that you control them like a remote controlled car.
Sounds very kindergarten, doesn’t it? But this is going to change your life, Brett. It won’t eliminate the sensation of being offended, but it’s going to help you relabel and reframe what’s happening.
So now, when someone offends me, I pray and then coach myself through it. When the incident happens, I immediately shut my mouth. I don’t let myself lash out. I talk myself off the ledge of offense. Am I perfect at it? Of course not. I’m still human. But I’m getting better every day.
There’s real freedom here, Brett. Freedom to not have to be right. Freedom to relax and breathe the air of forgiveness. Freedom to lay down the bazooka of self-protection. Freedom to unclench those fists and go palms up.
That’s a fun way to live, Brett.
P.S. You’re paying about $1.80/gallon for gas right now. Enjoy that. [laughs]
Letter #8 – Vampires and surgeons
From: Brett Trapp – Nov 11, 2011
To: Brett Trapp – Nov 11, 2001
Hey buddy. Happy Veterans Day.
Can I be honest? It’s Friday afternoon, I’m tired, and I don’t feel like writing. But you’re not getting off that easy. A while back, I had this crazy idea about haters and mentors. So I came up with this metaphor called “Vampires and Surgeons.” My friend Jeff was nice enough to let me post it on his website. I think there’s something you can learn here. Read…
Our life is a story of growth. From diapers to school naps to multiplication tables and so on. Under the cupped hands of school and family, we bloom. We grow. We grow up.
But along the way, we bump up against vampires.
Vampires—negative people intent on draining us of life, hope and optimism. Haters. They’re the bully in the gym, the gossip in the girls’ bathroom, the soured-on-life co-worker. Vampires come and they go, but they never really go away. They move with us, lurking from lifestage to lifestage. Sometimes disguised as friends and even family, they stand in the shadows of our greatest moments—arms crossed, jealous toe tapping. And when our shining moment fades and the lights dim, they track us down in the parking lot, only to remind us of our pimples, hiccups, and scars.
And these vampires do real damage. Their words stick, clinging to our souls and thrashing around in our minds months and years and decades later.
And then one day we meet a cheerleader. Ahh…the anti-vampire. Her face is warm. She’s cute and has a pony-tail. Her words soothe, encourage, affirm. She’s our 5th grade teacher, or a smiling face from church, or college buddy who loves life. The cheerleaders of life tell us everything we want to believe about ourselves. That we’re good-looking and funny and that we smell good. Not only are they present during our shining moments, they’re actually the ones helping create them, toe-touching and fist-pumping us the whole time.
But there’s a third player—the surgeon.
And he’s the difference-maker.
The surgeon is one part vampire, cutting and hacking and slinging blood. And he’s one part cheerleader, nourishing pallid souls back to health. He recognizes the ills of life and offers to help. He seats us on the hospital table with the crinkly paper, finds the hidden tumors, and goes to work. He doesn’t just dice and slice—for this would make him only a butcher. He also administers blood during the procedure. He identifies and fixes what we don’t need, and gives us more of what we do need.
And, like vampires, surgeons are scary. Dark eyes peering over a surgical mask, scalpel in hand. Oh, that scalpel–his instrument of pain! But the surgeon, in all of his blood-soaked horror, has a noble calling. Like a vampire, he wounds. But he wounds to heal. He cuts to fix. He injures to revive. While the vampire is our enemy, the surgeon is our friend…
“Wounds from a friend can be trusted.” – Proverbs 27:6
Most of us spend a lifetime running from vampires and running towards cheerleaders—avoiding pain and chasing after people who make us feel good. We resist the call of the surgeon, the call of the mentor. Because in the wounding there is pain (and we are biologically programmed to resist pain). But the wounding is the hallmark of a good mentor. A good mentor is not merely a cheerleader. He’s more than the rah-rah. Like a surgeon, a good mentor identifies the tumors in our lives. She sees the things that we cannot see or refuse to see—character defects, blind spots, and glaring inconsistencies in the way we live. Mentors step into our personal space and ask us the tough questions. They challenge our presuppositions on living. They aren’t afraid to get bloody. The ancients understood this; apprenticeships were a way of life. Professional athletes understand this now; personal trainers and coaches are a foregone conclusion. Yet in our personal lives, we’re content to march along alone, sovereign rulers in the Kingdom of Me. And it’s in this secret kingdom where the tumors of hubris, infidelity, and scandal take root.
Better to swing open the gates and invite a surgeon in. Surgery may be needed. And you don’t have a day to waste.
Letter #9 – Weakness plan
From: Brett Trapp – Nov 10, 2011
To: Brett Trapp – Nov 10, 2001
How did that make you feel yesterday? Talking about weaknesses and all.
You don’t want to hear this. You don’t. But it’s true: You have weaknesses. Quite a few of them. You’re going to learn all about them in your 20s but let me expedite things:
- Insecurity around people who intimidate you
- Average relational capacity
- Easily distracted
- Propensity for procrastination
- Only moderate athletic ability
- Propensity for belly fat
- Propensity for double chin fat
- Horrible with tools
- Failure to finish projects
- Valuing things over people
- Valuing your work over people
- Communicating terribly with your friends/family
- Emotionally withdrawn from people you don’t know
- Classic workaholism
(This is just a starter list.)
In the next few years you will read some business books that will tell you to gather up all your weaknesses, lock them in the attic, and ignore them. Instead, they will suggest, focus only on your strengths, celebrate your strengths, live in your strengths. This, they will say, is the secret to success.
They’re partially right.
Yes, you need to identify your strengths and feed them, water them, grow them. But Brett, you can’t ignore that list up there. You can’t ignore the bumps in the attic. Some weaknesses you must fight. With violence. You need to declare war on them. Some will require a supporting infrastructure built around them. Some will require both help from Above and accountability from friends. But none will be dealt a death blow until death blows on you.
Brett, the quicker you can accept those weaknesses, the better off you’ll be.
Notice that I didn’t say embrace your weaknesses. I said accept them. And there is a difference. Weaknesses aren’t to be hugged. To embrace a weakness is to agree with it and admit defeat. To accept a weakness, on the other hand, is to recognize that it does, in fact, exist. When you make this admission, then you’re able to make a weakness plan.
Build infrastructure around it?
But my gosh, don’t think you’re weakness-free. That’s a blindfold sewn by arrogance, a noose tied by pride.
Know the list. Then get to work.
P.S. Sorry. Wasn’t kidding about the belly fat part.
Letter #10 – Enduring friends
From: Brett Trapp – Nov 9, 2011
To: Brett Trapp – Nov 9, 2001
I told you yesterday about the value in traveling with friends. Let’s talk about friends for a minute.
At the age of 29 (only ten days til 30), I’ve been able to see a bit farther here. And what I see is that lots of high school and college friends fall away–life happens and paths diverge. But that’s not so bad. It’s impossible to be close friends with everyone, so we have acquaintances as well. But it’s overly simplistic to classify people as either acquaintances or close friends.
There’s a middle category. I call them enduring friends.
These are the friends who you were close with during a previous season of life but not so much now due to busyness or geography. These are friends who bring out the old stories in you and make you smile. These are the friends that don’t get mad that you don’t call all the time. These are friends that make you say, “We pick right up where we left off.” Despite distance, these friendships endure.
Why am I telling you all this? Brett, I think I’ve figured out the way to create enduring friendships. Real conversations and vulnerability. So many college friendships are built on shallow things–fraternity, parties, girls, sports, fun. All great things, but friendships can’t take root in that soil alone. That’s shallow soil. They need the richness of real conversations about things that matter–God, family, beliefs, life at 60. And they need talk of the hidden things–insecurities, pain, weaknesses, fears. We’ve been taught brainwashed by a culture obsessed with strength. But there is beauty in weakness. There is relief in weakness. It gets exhausting to always be strong, and it becomes a race of one-up-manship. My friend Traylor talks a lot about how people should “connect at weakness.” This week, I heard another guy say, “We’re all clay pots. And our cracks are our beauty.” They’re right.
Speak of the things that the fear-digger inside of you wants to bury. There is healing there, and it pours the foundation for friendships that endure. When that foundation sets, it’s there for good.
P.S. – Coffee, onions, and NPR: Believe it or not, you’ll like all these one day.