I’ve been wanting to tell you about the amazing men who took my Political Forgiveness course this summer, and what they taught me about men and boys that somehow I’d forgotten. So I’m going to do that, but let me start at a moment from earlier this summer that, for me, is where the story really begins.
Tom, my Lithuanian friend, and I are setting up the bar for another big wedding. All the servers are around, the floor manager, the events sales gal, and the food and beverage manager. I’m wiping down my station and suddenly get a whiff of something nasty. “Whoo,” I mutter, “must be something rotting under there.”
“Could be a dead mouse,” says Taylor, the Food & Bev guy (who is also my 22 year-old boss, thank you very much.) “There are a couple of traps under the bar. We’ve had issues lately.”
Needless to say, I am not up for pulling out any trap with a putrid and dead mouse in it, so even though I mooj up and happily accept the vast majority of the “guy jobs” that come with bartending, I pretty much insist that Tom take this one.
Tom gets on his knees and pulls out a metal trap, about 2x7x5 inches. I make myself busy at the other end of the bar, staying as far away as possible. So do the female servers. But the guys edge over to Tom in quiet anticipation. He opens the trap, looks in for a few seconds, then goes, “Dude, check this out: there’s one mouse, and he’s still alive. And one tail! One guy ate the other one. Cool!”
So: groans from all the women. Kate says, “Oh God, that poor mouse.” Ann goes, “I know; think of how horrible, to have to eat your friend to survive. It could have been a family member.” And so on: the women are anguished with empathy for the surviving mouse, the horror of the situation.
Meanwhile, the guys are figuring out what to do with the still (barely) living cannibal mouse, who has apparently earned their respect. They decide to let him out in the alley, given all he’s been through. (And why we all assume it’s male is another question.) But, as it turns out, in the alley the mouse doesn’t move at all, and is barely breathing. Taylor solves this brief dilemma by throwing a sandbag on him, putting him out of his misery. A misery, we might note, that Taylor effectively created in the first place. But I suppose it’s better than a mousetail martini.
Following the event, the guys roll out a bunch of stories about animals they wounded, killed, or watched perish when they were growing out. The women look at the men like they’re crazy. Kate, Ann, the other female servers remark that we can’t think of a single girl any of us knew who got a kick out of killing things. But we all knew boys who did; most of them lived in our families. How many times did I see my brother sizzling ants under a hot microscope?
A couple weeks later I have assigned the first paper for my intensive summer course, which has only four students in it and one auditor. Three of the students are guys in their early 20s. The first assignment is to write about a personal event in which forgiveness was or is a challenge, to identify obstacles to forgiveness, and to imagine what a forgiveness and/or reconciliation process might look like in that context. (They write this before they’ve had a chance to read any forgiveness models, and then they write an expanded version of it that they present at the end of class.)
Here’s what came back:
P. wrote about how on a visit to Ireland, the land of his fathers, during his semester abroad in Madrid last year, he got attacked outside a bar in a small village by two drunken locals. They pounced on him while he was just standing waiting for his friends to come out of the bar. Beat him for being American, told him to “go back to killing in Iraq.” Took out a few of his teeth, broke his nose in six places, left him a bloody mess. He had to get out of Ireland with help of the U.S. embassy in order to receive decent health care. And yet his reflections on the experience were full of empathy for these “guys from a small town who didn’t have any of the opportunities I have.”
S. is a former Air Force Academy cadet discharged when he broke his back during a training. He met the love of his life in San Diego, and after surviving some long distance, ultimately proposed. They were planning to move to Notre Dame where he’s been accepted to law school and begins next month. But only two months ago he discovered that she was cheating on him during the engagement. His heart, and his faith, were badly wounded, he wrote, and he was struggling to figure out if there was any possibility for reconciliation, which she wanted. He honestly wasn’t sure of the next step, but he did know that praying helped. “I bawled my eyes out several times while writing this,” he told me in the email that accompanied his paper. “So enjoy.”
H. is an articulate and smart young man I had in another class last year. He has a significant stutter but always musters impressive courage to speak in class. He told the story of how his stutter emerged around age 4 after his mother, struggling with mental illness, checked herself into a mental hospital for awhile, entirely upending his stable world. The scar of the experience was one thing, but her guilt about it as he grew up and the stutter persisted was worse, he told us. She nagged him about it, always trying to fix it so she wouldn’t have to be reminded–which, of course, only exacerbated. “My mom is the person I stutter around most,” he shared in his final presentation of his story and the model of reconciliation he’d come up with. “I love her, and I forgive her. She’s a great person. She did the best she could. But it would really help if she could forgive herself.”
If you saw the final presentations these guys did, you’d’ve wept, as I did. The connections they made between their personal pain, their struggles to transcend it, and the other, larger contexts they learned about, like childhood sexual abuse, Rwandan genocide, the Holocaust, the efforts to repair a wounded South Africa were incredible. And these were all “manly men,” big, straight, confident guys. Turning themselves inside out with beautiful vulnerability.
Katie and I went to watch the movie Princess Bride at Red Rocks with several thousand other dorks on a starry night. We met Jacob, the 6 year-old next to us, a spitting image of his blue-eyed dad. All through the movie when a battle began Jacob would worry: “Dad, is someone going to get hurt? Is that guy going to die? Is there going to be blood???” Jacob was not having blood, or gore, or people hurting each other, so with every scary scene (and the movie is a spoof, mind you) he’d hide his face behind his hands and quake until it was over. He wasn’t traumatized; just not up for blood. As we were packing up he bid us a cheerful adieu: “Hope to see you again sometime,” he told us.
Boys boasting about killing animals. Boys suffering with pain and abandonment. A six year-old holding his own against Hollywood gore (and his dad loving him for it). Young men expressing their hurt, their shame, their empathy. In a space that they are rarely offered in this world where men aren’t supposed to feel such things. Where men are running the wars.