Who you are: Love, purpose, and donuts

RELATIONSHIPS | 7 mins

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This is my secret parenting weapon. This is my ace-in-the-hole, my go-to conversation tool, and the sole best way I’ve found to create space for my family to talk about meaning and value.

So no, it isn’t just a donut.

We’ll come back to the donut in a minute—let me give some context. I’ve always envied those people who had a crystal clear sense of mission and purpose. You know, the people who had a whole life plan at age seven, or who have the really pretty family mission statement plaque over their fireplace (in beautifully stained reclaimed wood, of course).

I’m not one of those people.

Everything I have ever learned about mission or purpose has always come by stumbling my way into it, halfway screwing it up, and then figuring it out much further down the line. Dating, marriage, parenting, career—it’s always been this way. I never really expected to get married—let alone have five children in seven years—so we’re definitely staggering our way through creating a family culture, many days making it up as we go.

Needless to say, the Ankenman household doesn’t have one of those fancy mission statement plaques. Most days, just loading the dishwasher and getting through bedtime without swearing is a win. Case in point—on just one of my trips across our downstairs this morning, I collected 4 different unmatched socks (dirty, of course), 2 breakfast bar wrappers (because apparently the trash can was too far), a Nerf gun with no dart, and the remains of our 2nd grader’s homework from last month. Keep in mind that I didn’t go looking for these things. I wasn’t rooting in corners or under furniture—this was stuff that I would have stepped on if I didn’t pick it up. (In the case of the Nerf gun, I did step on it, and that piece of crap hurt worse than a bag of Legos. Some toddler is gonna get Nerfed tonight.) Obviously “cleanliness” isn’t part of our family mission.

To make matters worse, I do know a thing or two about culture and purpose.

I know that so much of culture consists of repetition. Regardless of the context, whatever you repeat, reinforce, encourage, reward, and celebrate—positive or negative—these things will ultimately become the culture of that group. They will become the heartbeat, the personality, the defining characteristics of that tribe. Successful sports teams know this—they drill the same mantras, the same goals, the same slogans day after day, season after season. Successful companies know this—they distill vision down to first principles, and they make them part of the common team language. This isn’t a modern American corporate culture thing either—this is a long established human dynamic. For example, the Bible—a book of ancient stories and wisdom—describes exactly this practice:

Deuteronomy 6:6-7: And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.

Over and over, the Bible gives examples of God saying to his people, “Make a pile of rocks right here as a reminder, so that when you see it, you’ll remember to tell each other, your kids, and everyone in your household about this thing I’ve done for you.” So the principle is pretty clear—if I want something to be a part of our family, I’d better repeat it. I’d better tell the story, again and again and again. Which sounds great, right? It’s doable, it’s simple—no problem. Yet if your life is anything like mine, it’s really easy to feel like nothing is getting repeated, or if it is, nobody is listening.

And it’s at this point that it is really easy for me to feel overwhelmed.

I know that it is my job to set the direction for the family, to encourage and foster healthy identity in my kids, and to cast a vision for why we exist as a team. And all too often, I feel lost. It’s easy for me to believe that I am woefully underequipped for being a father, that I don’t have what it takes to help this family become what God wants it to be, or that I am an absolute failure as a father and a husband. If I try to take on the whole picture at once, to create some massive grand vision or plan, then I end up in this place of despair every time.

Why? Because people don’t work that way. (At least not in our house.) They work on rhythms. On steps, small actions, and tiny little incremental bits of progress. It’s inches at a time, not miles. And that is where the donut comes in. My secret family weapon didn’t even have some big epic beginning—it was just me trying to find some sort of regular connecting point with my kids that both of us would look forward to. I like donuts, they like donuts, what could go wrong? It seems simple and stupid, and there’s a thousand other everyday moments just like it, but I genuinely believe it matters.

Even the mechanism itself is simple. Every weekend, I take one kid with me out to get a donut—just me and them. We drive to Dunkin Donuts, pick out our donut, and then just sit and talk. We talk about God, their school, their friends, my work, my friends, Kerri and I’s marriage—whatever they want. It’s their chance to ask any question they want, completely uninterrupted. It’s my chance to give them unique attention, encouragement, and challenge—to celebrate milestones and set new goals. Of course, they’re all still little—we’re talking about coloring pages, playgrounds, and Ninja Turtles at this point. But I’m creating the space so that it’s already there, already familiar by the time they need to talk about career choices, relationships, or temptation.

But even more, those donuts are a consistent, repeated reminder of who they are.

It is a regular celebration of why I’m thankful for them, proud of them, and love them more than they know. It is a constant touchpoint for how God loves them even more than I do. I’m carving out time each week to tell them the story of who they are, why they matter, and what I see in them—which is worth way more to me (and I believe to them as well) than a donut. In essence, I’m making a calculated bet based on Deuteronomy 6—that if they have 15 years worth of donut dates with me by the time they leave my house, then every single time they see a donut for the rest of their lives, they will be reminded.

You are loved. Jesus died for you. You have value. You are known, wanted, and blessed. I’m proud of you. I’m glad you’re on this team. You belong, you matter, and you are never alone.

In the same way that ancient Israel made piles of rocks as a constant reminder of the goodness of God and their identity in his family, I’m making a pile of donuts. It’s a simple thing—and I might end up with diabetes at the end of it—but it’s worth it.

And actually, that’s my challenge to you. What’s your pile of rocks? What’s the thing that can be the reminder, the touchpoint, the conversational space between you and the rest of your family. Find it, celebrate it, and stick to it; which is way easier if you choose something tasty. I highly recommend donuts.

Written by Eric Ankenman on May 8, 2018