As a child, I was surrounded by men that felt violence was an integral part of life. They were rather expert in its application. Where they may have been lacking they were subsequently expert at convincing the surrounding world that they were not.
Raised during the Depression in rural S.C. my Dad was one of these men. The simple truth was that you did not mess with Dad. He might hurt you if he got upset. He might be sorry later but that wasn’t much of a salve.
There were times here and there when I tested him in tentative ways as sons will do but he was not one to playfully tumble. They say young boys learn boundaries by wrestling and such with their fathers. I built “walls” instead.
That brings us to the story at hand. Recently one of my sons announced that he was fond of a young girl and would like to invite her over. She was a charming and lovely “child”. They are passed the age of puberty so hormones are obviously at play. They were joined at the hip for most of the afternoon to a physical degree that made even this reformed old rounder a little uncomfortable though it was all innocent enough.
I made a couple of cracks about it but tried to give them some space. There were certainly no closed doors involved and a lot of checking in. I worked out on the heavy bag and did an exercise video, then joined them for the Super Bowl in the den.
My son and I began to discuss one-handed push-ups from the video and both got down on the thick carpet to exhibit our minimal abilities in this area. I was fatigued and the point I was trying to make was that I could barely do one of the push-ups in a partial way when reasonably fresh.
The next thing I know my 14-year-old soccer-playing athlete that is built out of something like wire cord is on my back attempting to subdue me by choking from behind. My first reaction at this assault was to rise up, turn and plant this rabid 140 plus pound monkey onto his back but midair I realized that we were dangerously close to the glass and slate of the fireplace. I shortened the maneuver just in time so that we fell alarmingly close to disaster.
Well he not only did not release his hold but dug in with all his might until his skinny forearm restricted my air passage. I attempted to grasp one of his fingers and peel his hand away but he quickly jerked it back from my sweaty grasp and resumed his choking.
Suddenly my animal instinct rose up like a flame exploding in a back draft and I reached back to grasp a handful of his thick brown hair. In the moment I began to snatch and rotate out of his grasp, something happened. It would probably be more accurate to say that something did not happen. I froze.
In my mind’s eye I could see the young woman-child watching from the couch. I could tell that he was choking with every ounce of strength that he had. It was evident that he was willing to do whatever it took to win this “contest”. I sensed that he needed this with every fiber of his being.
The problem was that I needed it too. I needed to prove my masculinity and strength. I needed to show my now deceased father that I was a man and could be as violent and powerful as anyone who walks the face of the earth but I did not.
I let go of his hair, reached down for his forearm, shrugged my shoulders a little in order to find some breathing room and I laid there tense for a pregnant ticking of seconds. He squeezed even harder until I heard him say, “Ok, ok … I heard something pop. I’m gonna let go … don’t get mad. I was just horsing around.”
We stood in unison as I managed to humorously mumble, “Nothing like a surprise attack to get the blood going.”
We all laughed it off and spent the remainder of a pleasant evening watching the Super Bowl until we took the young lady home.
Later as we readied for bed I told my son that I did not appreciate the surprise attack from behind. (He has always had a propensity for such) I suggested that if it happened again, regardless of whom was present, that he might find the result to be somewhat different.
The next day the whole thing lingered. I shared it with my brother to get his reaction. He too had spent a childhood ruled by fear and has many of the same defense mechanisms that I carry … namely a quick temper and an inability to take any degree of what we perceive to be “crap” from anyone.
He was nothing short of astounded at how I had reacted and much to my surprise was rather complementary of my control.
I told him that all I could make of it was that when I felt my temper flare the night before a better part of me had somehow miraculously taken over. My desire not to harm my son in any way had won out over a lifetime of conditioning.
In the moment there had been no clear conscious thought. I had simply “let go” rather than fight back.
Years ago during a spiritual retreat I had heard a grizzled, large and obviously powerful man share that his alcoholic father had physically abused him all of his childhood. He said that as a man he had learned that his father and his father before him had also been abused in the same way.
He told the group that he had a son now and that he felt God had left him alive on this earth through all of his sins and escapades so that he could break the cycle of violence between father and son.
I knew in the moment that as I sat and listened to this scarred yet humble bear of a man that in many ways the same was true of me. I chose to stop any corporal punishment of my children, mild as it was, shortly after.
I did not know then how deeply God had embedded the pain and hope of that man’s sharing until I felt my son choking me from behind with all his might.
I suspect that on some level what he heard “pop” might have been the chain of violence that had festered deep within since the beginning of my consciousness.
So here in the dim light of a restful Sunday morning I feel deep and abiding gratitude. All I can think is,
“ Thank you, Son for the gift of who you are. Thank you, Father … for every breath I take.”