Jake’s tears welled up in his eyes about 11:30pm last night. He was a fifteen year old boy at a camp in Pennsylvania who took me up on the offer to continue the discussion started earlier that day in a Boys To Mensch program I had run with the entire group that afternoon. Of the 31 in the original group, 19 of them voluntarily showed up at 10:30pm last night and stayed with me in conversation until almost midnight.
2/3rds of them often do show up when given the chance. My experience consistently now is that boys this age are not just hungry for this kind of discussion and interaction, they are in fact starving for it.
The intention I held for this additional discussion with them last night, emerged from something one of them had said earlier that day. It had to do with how limited we all are by the beliefs we hold that have never been critically questioned. I pointed out to them how the more emotionally charged we become about our beliefs, the more closed minded we become.
No matter what point the boys brought up, I pointed out to them alternative viewpoints that could in fact be true, and that in fact had real validity. Some of them they loved. Some of them they didn’t understand. Some of them, they hated.
Jake really took issue with a point I made about how many truly successful and accomplished people do not follow traditional paths. I used examples of how many of them, like Bill Gates, even do things that most of these guys would never do, like dropping out of school to pursue their dream.
Jake felt that many of these people got there in part due to simple luck. His primary argument was that while it wasn’t all luck that got them there, luck as a factor could not be denied.
I refuted him and offered a different consideration. I argued that these people were in the midst of the same data and evidence as everyone else. The difference for them though was what they filtered and sorted for – in Gates case opportunity that he sensed would soon boom and he could be on the cutting edge. Many thousands of young men Gates’s age saw the same news about computers that Gates did. They just read about them with a passing interest, while Gates though went after them.
Jake grew more adamant that luck counted. The more I refuted him and brought in evidence to the contrary, the more fired up he became. His primary reference was Malcolm Gladewell’s pop-culture book Outliers and his (in my opinion) endlessly oversimplified ideas.
I finally turned to him and said, “Jake you are not going to win this so give up.”
That’s when the tears welled up… “But you are being too narrow and there is nothing wrong with there also being luck…! Aren’t you just… I mean by telling me I can’t win… aren’t you just being a HYPOCRITE!”
It was almost painful for him to say it. It took balls to confront me like that…
“Jake,” I replied. “Let me tell you why you are not going to win…. Because I am not actually debating you!”
He looked shocked and puzzled.
“This whole time with you guys I have held one intention, to raise your awareness to how fundamentally closed minded you become the moment someone challenges a belief you hold personally meaningful.
Not once Jake did you even stop to consider that what I am saying could be right. All you did was listen to me and try and figure out a way to prove me wrong. How can we ever as men learn and grow if all we want to do is prove ourselves right and anyone who doesn’t see things the way we do as wrong…
Jake if you could tell me that you have in fact in the past actually considered my perspective and after consideration, you’ve come to think otherwise, then you have a strong position. Have you? (he nodded no)… “Otherwise, all you are doing is wanting to be right…. Take that to the extreme and you have the Middle East. Israelis convinced they are right, Arabs convinced they are right… all of them programmed since birth to be utterly closed minded to any consideration that they could ever be wrong…”
Jake just stared at me. From the place he was sitting and the place I was sitting and with the lights we had outdoors at night, I was probably the only one who saw the tears in his eyes.
I looked back at him for a few seconds and he just held himself there, composed, feeling something enormous inside… something I recognized and know all too well… These are the moments that present themselves as invitations to step into maturity. To be willing to let someone else be right, to allow someone older and wiser with ruthless compassion expose your blind spots, your weakness, your ignorance… and to do it publicly with his peers as witness… and he let me use his fired up response as a means of making the point to everyone… and he let me do it without needing to make it a point of being right… or getting the last word or anything to save his pride…!
I then told him, “Jake you have my respect. Any one your age who is willing not just to go toe to toe on an issue like this, but who is also willing to let me use them like this to make a point, has my respect.”
A few minutes later, we ended. As the boys were filing out, I called out to Jake and asked him to come back. When he did I shook his hand again and said, “Jake, I want to reiterate to you that you have my respect in more ways than you may realize. And I do not say that lightly.”
He replied, “This was really helpful. You are really smart. This gave me a lot to think about.”
And as he was walking away, I called out one last line, “Who knows Jake, maybe I am the one who was LUCKY to meet you…”
He smiled and walked on.
Laying in bed last night after this, thoroughly exhausted from a day of holding the space for groups of boys to experience this work, I was also profoundly excited.
I replayed the many conversations with boys like this over the past few weeks, many of them at a few select summer camps like this one who have stepped up to bring Boys To Mensch into their world. I thought about what a gift this experience is to these boys and how so many people out there just completely don’t get it.
Then, in my own honest arrogance, I thought, any camp that doesn’t bring this to their program is utterly stupid.
Of course, maybe I am wrong… but then again, maybe I’m not.