We shouldn’t flatter ourselves with the notion that life is lived on our terms. It is not. We’re each influenced by someone or something outside ourselves. If you have children, you know what I mean. My ten-year-old son is now refusing to cut his hair. Why? He wants it long enough so it will, to use his words, be poofy each morning. He won’t let on where this new look is coming from or its appeal. That string is being pulled from somewhere behind the curtain.
This can keep parents up at night, especially as children grow and our influence ebbs. We fear they could ‘get in with a bad crowd’. Find their way into the wrong groups that take them in dangerous directions. Because we all know, troubled kids are never lone wolves. They don’t get into drugs, alcohol, or porn by themselves, there’s always an influence just behind the curtain. Somebody or something tapping them on the shoulder, whispering in their ear, screaming through the microphone into their life.
A third cousin had hold of that mic in my life. He was two years older, exceedingly better looking, and had mastered the art of getting girls. Every female who met him instantly fell in love. If one girl asked, ‘your cousin is so cute, is he single?’ a million did. I lived in jealous admiration. He possessed a characteristic unique only to the Vanleer branch of the Street family; icy blue eyes that took your breath away. He also had a personality that was generally indifferent but just enthusiastic enough it gave you hope and made you work to be his friend. This is perhaps why he drove so many girls mad with frustration and confusion.
I wanted to hang around him, and be just like him. I copied everything he did, the way he dressed, how he talked, even that weird sound he made repeatedly with his throat, as if trying to dislodge a popcorn husk. I spent an entire afternoon once practicing to get the sound just right thinking that might be his secret ingredient. It wasn’t.
His influence over my life was massive. When I think on it now I was very fortunate. He was a good kid raised by a good family. The most questionable things he taught were to wait two days before calling a girl after getting her number, why White Snake was an infinitely better band than Run DMC, and the proper form and use of what he called ‘the wave’. An innocent ‘f&%k you’ hand gesture that simultaneously meant hello and goodbye to anyone he wasn’t in the mood for. He lived off the main road leading into town, ten minutes from my gravel driveway to his front door. A quarter century later, I still slow down when I pass his old house.
Today I’ll have breakfast with eleven teenage boys. These aren’t just any teens; they are boys dangling near the end of their ropes. All are struggling with addiction; several are in trouble with the law, most have deep family pain, and a handful have all that and worse.
They’re part of a twelve month recovery program that takes them out of their problem environments and places them in what seems, at first, to be a fraternity house. Except in this house, or ‘the farm’ as its called, they eat, sleep, learn, clean, work, heal, and search for their true, sober, God given identities. My purpose in going is to share some of my story. Speak into their lives for 90 minutes and perhaps leave them with something new to consider. To try and pour into them when so many others have failed or refused to do so.
What worries me most is connecting in a way that doesn’t scream, ‘Look at me! I’ve figured everything out’. I wonder what I should tell them that won’t make me come across as a holier-than-thou savoir who’s never stumbled since he always had the best answer? I don’t want to be the guy who says, ‘if you just listen to me everything will be fine’.
One of my deepest and most heartfelt desires is for my son to have wise, honest, and trustworthy men speaking into his life who will help guide and mold him. Men who want him to live at his best. Men he can depend on to be there, to listen, and most importantly to will tell him what he needs to hear instead of what he wants to hear. This is important because there will come a day when being ‘dad’ will not be enough. I’ll be seen as something to avoid, ignore, or shy away from and I want men he can call from the bullpen when I’m finally benched.
But for this to happen, I must begin instilling in my son that he cannot live this life on his own terms by calling his own shots. If he ever hopes to make it through life in one piece he can’t go at it alone. I want him to understand that while he might be able to diagnose the problems and prescribe the remedies for his friends’ moral and emotional ailments, it’s nearly impossible to do the same for himself. Because he’ll invariably miss the plank in his own eye inspecting the dust in theirs. I want him to fully grasp how blind he truly is, as we all are, at interpreting his problems, and only through broader and different perspectives from other men will he ever hope to find and stay on the straight path.
I want for him to be comfortable discussing deep, serious, and often weird things with other men and come with the mindset that transparency should be as natural as breathing. I hope to build up in him the wisdom to identify, the confidence to pursue, and the humility to nurture those relationships that will serve him throughout life by giving permission for them to use that microphone and speak directly into his life. To understand that if he isn’t careful it can and will fall into the hands of fools who will do their best to lead him to dead ends, because he should appreciate, as should the eleven boys I’m going to see today, that whoever has the microphone has influence over the present and the future.