Change We Can (Almost) Believe In

On the eve of a famous guru's manslaughter trial, one flawed man explores the self-help spectrum for the secret to personal growth

  • Photograph by Juliana Sohn for TIME

    Yoga teacher and Sanskrit scholar John Campbell taught the author a style that promises to "boil the blood"

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    What difference was I looking to make for myself exactly? I quit my staff job at this magazine in early 2009, in part because I felt I was missing the lives of my children, two marvelous little creatures under the age of 5 whose childhoods wouldn't wait for me to figure out how to make it home in time for dinner or push work aside on weekends. I still wanted to work, but I also wanted to be the one to take them to the doctor, to drop them off unhurriedly at school in the morning, to travel with them. It was a serious enough project that one of the first things I did after leaving TIME was start a parenting blog with a few other journalists as a forum for examining our lives as fathers.

    I fell short, however, of my goal of becoming one of those insouciant new involved dads, those creative types in skinny jeans who were continually doing awesome craft projects with their kids. There was lots of joy, yes, but surprising amounts of exhaustion and frustration that came from being a constant caretaker. I blogged about this enough, apparently, that when Calgary Herald columnist Jeremy Klaszus, a man I've never met, wrote a column about the anger of fathers, he used me as his prime example. Though he lauded me for being honest, it seemed my parenting could use some workshopping.

    When I stepped to the mike at Landmark, I thought I could start by offering a mild testimonial. Something true but not as intimate or confusing as confessing to losing my temper with a doe-eyed 2-year-old. So I said, blandly, that even as a freelancer, I still felt unable to make enough time for my kids. Smith immediately gutted even that disclosure. There's no such thing as being torn between work and family, he said. Either someone is with one's family or not. All I was really doing was using the pretext of immovable scheduling conflicts to gloss over the fact that I, of my free will, was not keeping promises I had made to my children.

    Smith is not a trained therapist — Landmark has been criticized for delving into the traumas of largely unscreened participants without having mental-health professionals on hand — but I found him to be remarkably insightful. He saw through my timid testimony and got right to a truth: if I can't handle being a full-time parent, it's probably because I don't want to. I couldn't argue with him, not because he had a clever script but because he was right.

    Stillness and Silence
    I didn't continue with Landmark after that seminar. By the end of the course, almost all of us felt giddy with exhaustion and catharsis, but there was a fair amount of pressure to sign up for additional instruction. If we were serious about our transformation, we were told, we would enlist friends and family and even co-workers to take the $495 Forum themselves. It had just enough of a Ponzi taste that I stepped firmly and finally back outside the Landmark circle. (A Landmark executive later told me the company is "committed" to toning down the hard sell.)

    But I benefited tremendously from the uncomfortable mirror the course had put in front of me. With Smith's mantras of personal responsibility playing on a loop in my mind, I started to take stock of the quality, not just the quantity, of the time I spent with my family. And I saw something in myself that plagued a lot of the other new fathers I'd met from around the country through my blog: we are powerfully distracted. We may change more diapers and pack more lunches than our fathers did, but our minds are more absent than ever. Soon after I left my job, I developed a kind of information-anxiety disorder, compulsively checking and sending e-mail, reading news headlines, tinkering with my blog, even at dinner. It was becoming the same noisy mix I had hoped to leave behind when I left full-time work.

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