“I take this to Mommy.”
A little boy in the woods
The other day while cutting firewood I had occasion to reflect on one of the great wonders of the world: the human boy-child. My two and a half year old grandson is, how else to say this?, one hundred percent boy. Boyness manifests in young males with amazing variety and striking consistency.
Dealing with boys is at times terrifying, often frustrating, occasionally pushing-you-over-the-edge, always demanding, and sometimes deeply gratifying if not inspiring. Just ask the parents of boys.
In boys in a particular way, the great human drama is played out. What is the point of power? Or perhaps better said: what is true power?
Consider the typical ‘strong’ boy—usually the boy that the other boys want to be. Since boys struggle to distinguish different senses of strength or power, they often reach for what is obvious: physical prowess in competitive feats and perhaps most starkly in physically overpowering others—usually other boys.
Some strong boys incline toward being a bully. We can say they are on a path to becoming like a wolf, taking ‘wolf’ as an archetype even if this is not completely fair to the real species. A wolf uses its strength to get what it wants, often taking from or injuring others in the process. It moves through the world with a ravenous appetite, an appetite fulfilled regardless of the needs of others.
Boys can go in a different direction. They can be like a sheep dog. Strikingly similar in form and prowess to a wolf, these canines will not be mistaken for the other. Moved not by an appetite to dominate and consume, they seem to have a sense for a life that transcends the exercise of power, that transcends, well, dog eat dog. They seem to deem their own strength as at the service of others.
Comparison of humans to canines is of limited usefulness, but I think it captures something significant, pointing us toward something profound.
All power ‘over’ people—and this necessarily and fittingly is a part of human life and can be a great gift to those ‘over’ and ‘under’—is for the sake of protecting and cultivating a deeper power within people. This is a power to enact a life of integrity, character, and wisdom. This power is always the fruit of an intentional and concerted effort, both by others—various overseers and guides—and by those in whom it comes to be. This power is the fulfillment of human nature itself. Other more obvious, outward powers pale in comparison.
There is a reason the Latin word for virtue is the word for power.
Human life is a great drama, the essential lines of which are the same for all. The propensities and even vagaries of little boys point to that drama. Yet they also point to a man’s specific place in it, or we might say his mode of enacting it.
The seemingly boundless energy, the impulse to push and test, the constant rough and tumble, the affinity for the dirty and the earthy. These do not come out of nowhere. And indeed, they are certainly pointing somewhere. They are signs of something that needs cultivation through refining, moderating, and directing.
Boys need parents and other adults to see in them who they are and can be. They need parents and other adults to guide them and fashion them, without repressing and discouraging them. Boys cannot see for themselves; they must be shown as they are honed. Near irreplaceable will be the strong, loving presence of a man: one who to some real extent already is what this little one can be.
What a calling, what an art, what a gift! What a balance of directing and correcting, while encouraging and affirming. And lo, in one of the most astounding features of human life, a man can discover what real power is, in his selfless looking to another. In his being a father; to one who must learn to be a father, or a mother.
A sheep dog is a beautiful yet deeply inadequate image for a man. A boy needs to discover that he has a special power to exercise in the external forum, engaging all his gifts of mind and body; sometimes a power ‘over’ others, but always a power for the sake of those others. And further, always for the sake of a deeper inner power: the power to live the astounding reality of truly good human life.
One little boy standing in the woods feels something well up inside him. He knows not from where, but he feels something deeply. He picks up a small piece of wood and announces to the world, “I take this to Mommy.” And so he does. A small but clear echo of something his to discover, to be shown, and to become.
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