At a friend’s suggestion, I am reading a truly helpful book, To Be Told, by Dan Allender. It is quite wonderful. The book brings to mind many of the lessons I learned as a student in the doctorate of ministry program at Palmer Theological Seminary (http://www.eastern.edu/academics/programs/da-marriage-and-family/da-marriage-and-family). One of those lessons is the insistence that all people fully write, read, and live in acknowledgement of their own stories. As I read Allender and listen to the friend who recommended the book, I hear voices from the past, the voices of the husband and wife team who were my professors of human sexuality. If you are in a program studying marriage, you have to study human sexuality. The program is worthless if you do not. Reading Allender, I heard my professors voices from 10 years ago.
‘Rob, there is some pain in your past that you aren’t naming. You must name it and face it.’
I have tried. I have talked about incidents of bullying when I was in grades 4-6. I really believed you had to be a tough kid and win neighborhood fights. There were kids I could not beat and they scared me. I would take a beating and as long as I did not cry while losing the fight, I felt successful. Even if it hurt to be punched, I would not cry. I once convinced a kid who had given me a whipping to be sure and tell everyone I did not cry.
Now, looking at the words I just wrote, I can see a hurt little boy and that boy was me. An “editor,” as Allender describes someone who reads our stories, could ask probing questions and get into the “gaps” of my storytelling (p.109-115). And I indeed do find myself affected as I read what I just wrote. It’s tough. A boy was afraid to cry; afraid he would not be enough of a man if he did.
I know where that comes from. I rarely saw my dad cry. When I did, well, the moments were profound and beautiful. But at a young age, I could not translate the beauty of a real man expressing real emotion. There was always an “out-of-control” element that probably violated an unspoken, unconscious rule in our household about keeping things in check. Also, crying would not help you in the next fight. But not crying might help you avoid the next fight; bullies eventually realize they’re not getting the desired reaction and move on to a more vulnerable target.
Here is the thing: over the past 10-15 years, I have come clean on my own story. I have learned to cry again. I understand that it is ok if little boys and big boys cry. Forcing one’s self to not cry is unhealthy. I now am a pastor and I invite people in my church to express their feelings, their emotions, their heart. I have teared up while preaching. My dad and I have cried together, and not just at funerals. We have grown together in our walk with Christ. We know our manhood is defined by Christ in us.
I am aware that in the last two paragraphs it may be fair to accuse me of having slipped from telling my story to theologizing. An editor (as Allender uses the term in this context) would call me on that. I just don’t know what else to say. I will add that steeling myself to hide my tears and “toughen up,” while not very emotionally healthy did serve me in other ways. I was toughened enough to survive high school football and army basic and advanced infantry training. In those cases, not crying benefited me.
I often cite those experiences (basic training and football) as credentials on my machismo resume. That I need a machismo resume says something about battles I might still be fighting, but I sincerely believe that most of the time when I cite those experiences, it is to gain a hearing. I am past trying to be a tough guy. At 30, I realized, I don’t have to be cool. From 37-45, I have been learning (or trying to learn) I don’t have to be tough.
Here I simply cite my “tough” experiences of sports and military to show what benefit there was to the toughening I experienced growing up in Clawson, Michigan. Yes, I hated getting beat up by Gary when we were doing our paper routes. Yes, it had lasting effects on me. However, I have faced that experience and while it is a part of my story, I have moved on to other parts. I have looked back, understood how experiences have shaped me, and now I look forward.
There are experiences from which we cannot so easily “move on.” I do not callously tell victims of deep pain to “get over it.” I do not do that to people who suffer. Allender describes an experience of prolonged, ritualistic sexual harassment and abuse (p.110-112). I was repulsed reading his account. My heart ached for what he went through at the summer camp. I don’t know how you heal from that. I remember the vulnerability of being 11 and being at camp. But my experience was so incredibly different; it probably explains why it is hard for me to relate to Allender and why it is hard for me to tell of my own pain. My pain just is not even in the same realm of what others have experienced.
Like Allender, I was 11, a second year camper at the Detroit Baptist Camp (DBC). Like him, I was right smack in the period of discovering my sexuality. However, it came about differently. His sexual awareness came when a scout leader had him touch the scout leader’s erect penis. I never had an experience like that. Ever. No therapist demanding that I get in touch with my past pain will conjure up an experience like that one because I never, ever had such experiences. I am sorry it happened to Allender. I am deeply sorry. I have friends, people I deeply love, who experienced similar abuse – sexual, repeated, prolonged. I am really, really sorry and hurt that people I know and love had to endure that. I don’t know why I never went through anything like that, but I didn’t. Ever.
At DBC as an 11 year old, I swam in the lake, rode in canoes, played baseball, got candy at the camp store, and even hung out with the cool kids. And, for the first time ever, I had a crush on a girl. That’s how I entered sexual awareness and expression and awkwardness. I told the girl I liked her, probably in as awkward a way as possible.
Allender’s editor here would point out shame that I am affixing to 11-year-old me, but I assure you that this is not shame. Every 11-year-old trying to express his romantic affections is awkward. That’s just a fact. I am not ashamed of how I acted. I love 11-year-old Robby Tennant. I am proud of how he went about things, mistakes and all. I look at how he handled learning lessons, and my heart fills with love for him.
Back home in Clawson, I guarded my tears. I fought them. I controlled them. But at DBC when I told that 11-year-old girl I liked her and she gave me the awkward 11-year-old girl version of “let’s just be friends,” I ran back to my cabin and balled. I who fought so hard to control my tears rained tears. My pillow was soaked. By the way, I have no idea what I would have done if when I said to her, “I like you,” she would have responded, “I like you too.” I had not gotten past working up the courage to speak my heart. I no idea of what came after that. But it is no matter because she liked me as kids like their friends, but she didn’t like me as boys and girls like each other. It was my first rejection and I was crushed. So I cried.
Now, you have read about counselors and priests and scout leaders who sexually abuse young boys. The stories fill the news. Allender writes a moving account that I referred to above. These stories are awful, horrific, terrible and should never be minimized or swept under the rug. What I want to say is this is not true of all counselors, priests, and scout leaders. Some are loving men and women who genuinely want to give of themselves to help young people grow up healthy and strong.
Here is what the counselor did in my story. He walked into the cabin and only one kid was there – little Robby Tennant, face buried in a pillow, crying his little eyes out. It was just the boy and the counselor. He could have done anything. What he did was sit down. And he said, “It will be OK, Robby.” And he comforted me and encouraged me. I felt loved. I felt like with my pain, the safest place in the world was with this guy. This gentle man walked me through it.
And that is it. That’s the story. It is the story of a compassionate counselor guiding a confused boy into the murky waters of adolescence. Thank you God for that counselor! My life is filled with people like him. Why I am blessed like that? It is certainly not for any great thing I have done. It is a gift of God’s grace and all I can do is be grateful, and I am.
The footnote is that when the week of camp was over, it was time to go back home. An awareness was awakened deep within me. I had started down the road which meant leaving childhood behind. No one told me this. But deep inside I felt it. And it was made manifest in a very interesting way.
The next Sunday back at First Baptist Church, Royal Oak, MI, the pastor did what he did every week. After the sermon, he invited anyone who felt the Spirit to come and give their lives to Christ. I did. I went to camp, was comforted by my counselor when I was hit by new emotions, went home, and accepted Jesus and gave my life to him.
There is much more of my story to be told and I appreciate Allender’s sharing of his own story and guidance in teasing out mine. And I really am thankful for my friend D.P. for turning me onto this Allender’s writing. Even though I have not uncovered any skeletons in my closet, I am revisiting events from the past, rediscovering Little Robby Tennant. I am grateful for that. Maybe I needed to say it – to say, I love Robby Tennant. Maybe it was and continues to be really important that this 44-year-old man be faithful to that little boy. Maybe now that I am a father of my own 12-year-old who is just exploding into puberty, I need to remember what it is like.
Thanks D.P. Thanks for nudging me onto this path.
More to come.