Field Notes

Mentoring Our Sons

Dec 17
Mentoring Our Sons
Posted December 17, 2019

There is a young man named Robert I have been working with for about 5 years. He is now in his late  twenties. Like many young men he comes from a broken home that left wounds in his heart. I am truly proud of him and the distance he has come and grown since we first met.

When his father left, Robert was 12 and became the man of the house responsible for doing the man’s work. As he matured into a young man in his late teens and early 20’s he stayed home living with mom and sisters, never spreading his wings, never taking a cowboy-warrior adventure. I first met him on a Wilderness Outreach weekend retreat in a state park in Pennsylvania. He was in his early twenties still living with his mom, feeling stagnant and unhappy. This was his first look at Wilderness Outreach and the manly adventure that it speaks to a man’s heart. He wanted it. He told me straight out that he would be coming on an expedition. I had my doubts.

Two years later he ended up on a rugged rock working expedition in the High Sierras. Looking over the tools he immediately coveted a large rock bar, sensing that it was the most manly tool in the cache. Unbeknownst to everyone, the night before work commenced, he hid one of the rock bars near his tent so that no one else could get it. The work location was 2 miles away and 1,000’ in elevation above our 9,000 foot basecamp, so when he also grabbed a pick mattock in the other hand, one of the men accused him of being prideful. Pound for pound and rock for rock no one outworked him that week. During that time Robert looked for counsel from several men. Each one suggesting that it was time to strike out on his own, get on with his life, and move out of his mother’s house.  A year later, to the surprise of everyone, Robert went to Poland for World Youth Day.

The next year he attended an expedition in Wyoming, where we cleared 300 trees from 6 miles of trail with cross cut saws. When he returned home he purchased a vintage 48” crosscut saw and wanted me to teach him how to sharpen it. He came and stayed for the weekend. He has great mechanical skills and natural know how. I knew he would have little problem mastering the techniques of sharpening the 100+ year old saw. The real work we did that weekend was cleaning out the debris from the wounds of his heart so they could heal and he could move on. All told it took a good 8 hours to sharpen the saw. During that time Robert kept turning the conversation inward toward the unhappiness of his life; of failed relationships with a girlfriend, his mother, and sisters. He got locked into a do loop in his brain and emotions that kept spinning around as he returned again and again to those themes. And, each time he talked about those miseries, he stopped sharpening the saw.

At first I gently nudged him away from his thoughts. “Ok” I said, “you need to concentrate on your work. Sharpen this tooth and pray the Our Father and keep praying it until that tooth is done.” And so it went; tooth after tooth with the inevitable return to talking about the miseries of his life. A couple of hours in, when he was starting to talk once more about his problems, I sensed that I had to increase the pressure. I stopped him and said “Robert! Look at me! Stop it! You need to stop talking about the misery in your life.” “I can’t help it. I just keep thinking about it.” He said. “Well,” I replied “you need to start thinking about what you are thinking about, and choose to think about good things, affirming things.” “Well, how in the heck do you do that?!” he retorted almost shouting at me. He had a wild look in his eyes like I was about to shove him off of a 1000’ cliff. The idea of thinking about what you are thinking about, and controlling it, was not only a foreign concept to Robert, but is in my estimation, a discipline that 80% or more of the human race does not understand or practice. It is a challenge of greater or lesser degree that we all face. “Start with prayer. Ask God the Father to give you the ability to see the thoughts that are coming into your mind, along with the ability to not only choose the thoughts, but create the thoughts that affirm you as one of His beloved sons and a follower of Jesus Christ. Next, return to the saw. Pick two teeth and completely sharpen them while praying the Our Father. While doing this be vigilant, observing when negative thoughts start trying to weasel  their way into your consciousness. Let’s do it right now.” We prayed the prayer. He sharpened the tooth and then another. It was hard work. I could see it in the expression on his face. Occasionally he started to talk but then caught himself and returned to the work.  

By late afternoon on Saturday Robert had accomplished 90% of the sharpening. I suggested it was time to take a break. We decided to attend the Vigil Mass at a parish that is a one-way 2 mile walk. I thought it would be good to stretch our legs and get some fresh air. For the most part we walked in silence and then with about ½ mile to go Robert started talking about the girlfriend who had “dumped” him. I listened for a while and then tried to start moving the conversation away from his “problem”. I really don’t think that he could hear me, he was so focused on talking about it. I tried several times to interrupt but he kept going and was becoming more animated with his body language and inflection. Finally a hundred yards from the Church entry I turned into his path, grabbed him by the arms, looked him in the eyes and said “Robert stop it! Listen to me. You are doing it again. You’re not thinking about what you’re thinking about. You are choosing to think and concentrate on your misery. She doesn’t deserve you! Remember Eldredge’s admonition that a man should not make a woman the object of his work or adventure. A woman wants to be part of the adventure, not the object of it. You are a beloved son of the Father. You are my son. You are my brother. God the Father has a different plan for you. Choose to be a man after God’s own heart first; to be the man that God the Father made you to be. Choose to live your life, pursuing and developing your own talents and adventures. Then, if it is in God’s plan He will send to you a woman worthy of you.”

He stepped back away from me and then put his head down in silence and thought. Following Mass we headed back home and fixed some leftovers for dinner and finished the saw work. Robert remained rather quiet the rest of the evening. In the morning we made coffee and breakfast and he packed his stuff up for the drive back to Pennsylvania. Before he placed his newly sharpened saw in his truck we tried it out on a 12” hard maple log. It cut like a champ, spitting out long noodles of shavings on each stroke. As I shook Robert’s hand I said “I feel like I may have been a little hard on you this weekend. But the price for coming here is hearing the truth, hard to hear or not.” He started to smile a little bit as he looked back at me and said “It was well worth the price of admission.”  

Since that time Robert has participated in several expeditions. During the last one I informed him that I wanted to see him step up into greater roles of leadership. There was silence on the other end of the phone for some time before he replied. “What does that mean?” he finally asked. “It will require you to start taking greater responsibility for the other less experienced men; that they are safe in their work; that they are up on time in the morning and are ready for Morning Prayer; that they are ready for Mass and Evening Prayer; that they are prepared for the evening discussion; that they are assisting with camp work. You know, just about everything we do. It doesn’t mean that you have to do everything right now. You need to start thinking about helping out, looking for opportunities and filling in gaps.” More silence on the phone. “Are you still there Robert?” “Yes” he finally said. “I guess I am going to have to do it?” he stated with an air of half question and half resignation. “Yes” I said. Robert, stepped it up on that expedition. He helped coach the less experienced men in the Liturgy of the Hours and the manly art of the cross cut saw. He kept his eyes open and started to observe what the other leaders were doing. One of the younger men on the expedition was challenged physically and emotionally. Several times he assisted him on the dangerous and the turbulent creek crossings and wondered how the young man became so emotionally wounded.

And he worked on himself. Robert had never learned how to swim. In the afternoon when returning from day of hard trail work, many of the men headed down to the Shoshone River for a clean up and swim. He yearned to jump with abandon into the swiftly flowing river like the other men. He confessed his inability and fear to Raymond and Edward. Right then and there began his swimming lessons in the deep running river. Raymond and Edward traded off being the brother in the river or the one on the bank. Several times after jumping into 8’ deep fast running river, Robert came up choking, but they were always there for him. And he kept it up every day, at the end of work, jumping into the river and slowly learning how to swim and challenge his fear.

 Though it was a tough decision, Robert decided to take a job with a larger plumbing contracting firm. To his credit, he was concerned about leaving the small mom and pop plumbing company where he had worked since he began his apprenticeship. At the new company he would make more money, learn new skills, and train and lead less experienced men. “Being a foreman is a lot harder than working by myself and putting pipe together.” He shared with me. “Yeah, how about that.” I said “But it’s also where you find some of the most gratifying work.”

Robert’s road hasn’t been smooth and predictable. I don’t know of too many men of character where it has. There have been times of uncertainty and distance from the Lord. Recently though, there has been a new “spring in his step”; he has restarted the discipline in the Liturgy of The Hours and the daily readings of the Mass. Things are going well at his new job. He is learning new plumbing skills, helping to train younger men, and becoming a “Go to Guy.” He has an offer in for a house with a few acres in the country side, just like he has always envisioned. He has a look of confidence in his eyes, and a sound of growing maturity and wisdom in his voice. He has reached out to his father and helped him erect a 30’ x 40’ pole barn.

Like Robert, it is essential that all men are a member of a good Band of Brothers; one that encourages us forward on our journey, challenges us when we get off course, and help us get up when we fall on our lifelong struggle of formation into manhood, holiness and purity. A Band of Brothers who help us overcome our fears and dive into the river of life.