Three fourth-grade boys surround me underneath a huge oak tree. We’re in Southern Indiana, at a Benedictine monastery. Thirty fourth-graders and a handful of chaperones gather in small groups around the serene campus to pray on this day: The National Day of Prayer. One of the parents has created prayer slips for each group. The boys in my group read these prayers for families and national leaders and their school. Then one of them says, “God, please help Billy* stop being mean to people.”
I chime in. I pray for each of us to forgive Billy like Jesus forgave us. Before prayer time, Billy pushed Johnny* and now Johnny’s wrist is aching. This is not the first time Billy has played too rough. He’s a great kid, but takes some situations a little too far. Inevitably someone gets hurt.
When we finish praying I tell them they can choose to stay angry and sulk all day, or they can forgive Billy, and most likely their day will be more pleasant. Johnny looks into the distance and says, “Oh great, my brick is breaking.” I look up the hill where he is staring. I expect to see someone breaking a brick Johnny has claimed as his own.
“What? Who?” I ask, obviously confused.
“My brick,” says Johnny, in the sort of tone that really says, “My brick, you idiot.” I still don’t get it.
He notes the confusion. “The brick around my heart. It’s breaking.”
“That’s a good thing, right?” I ask.
“Nooooo,” he stresses, “because if it breaks, then it won’t hold my emotions inside. And I only let one emotion come out.”
“Which emotion is that?”
“The only one that should come out: anger,” he says using the you-idiot-tone again.
I’m astounded by his depth, even if I find out later that he learned this concept from George Lopez. Johnny tells me that his other emotions are starting to leak out and I detect tears welling up in his eyes. Even if George Lopez started this thought, Johnny has internalized it and now claims it as his own.
“If you have bricks around your heart, you are walling your heart off to God and to everyone. God wants you to have a soft heart. You know, you can have a soft heart and be a strong man.” Now the other two boys look at me like I’m crazy. But I continue. “I’ve learned something about anger. It’s a secondary emotion, meaning it’s usually an emotion covering another emotion, most likely sadness or fear.”
Then something happens on the faces of the three boys sitting around me. They appear engaged and open. I tread lightly with the lecture but I want to to take advantage of this amazing opportunity to be a part of their spiritual formation.
“Maybe when you get angry, you’re really scared or sad about something.” They nod in agreement. Not one of them looks anxious to end the conversation. They ask questions and then one of the other boys says, “My heart is flabby.”
I laugh. “Now that’s something God can work with,” I say.
Somewhere along the road, Johnny bought into the notion that to be a strong man he must only show anger. All other emotions are signs of weakness. Later I tell Johnny’s teacher about our conversation. When we are all together again, she asks him about his brick breaking. She further affirms that anger is not a sign of strength. While it is appropriate in certain situations, anger is not the end all, be all emotion. In fact, she encourages Johnny to ask one of the dads on the trip if they think anger is a sign of strength. Without any prodding or coaching, the dad plays the cards perfectly.
I feel so privileged to be a part of this conversation, this spiritual moment in the lives of these boys. My hope is that they will remember these concepts long after the exact words fade away. I want them to remember that showing the full range of emotions is not a sign of weakness.
During our dialogue under the tree, I mention David, the small boy who killed the giant named Goliath. He had a soft heart. And he became a king. Their eyes lit up when I mentioned this great king. Because of their openness, I am certain these boys can become strong men who lead with integrity. It gives me hope for the future of my city and my country. With boys who are willing to learn and maybe, just maybe soften their hearts, I see them leading other young men in truth and peace.
May their bricks keep breaking.
*Billy and Johnny are not their real names.