WORD ON FIRE

Fr. Robert Barron

April 30, 2012

It is difficult indeed to watch the new documentary Bully without experiencing both an intense sadness and a feeling of helplessness. The film opens with the heartbreaking ruminations of a father whose son committed suicide after being brutally bullied by his classmates.

We hear a number of similar stories throughout the film, and we also are allowed to watch and listen as real kids are pestered, belittled, mocked and, in some cases, physically assaulted just because they are, in some sense, different.

The most memorable figure in the movie is a young man, around 12, named Alex. He seems to be a good-natured kid, happy in the embrace of his family, but because he's a bit uncoordinated, geeky and odd-looking (his brutal nickname is "fishface"), his fellow students mercilessly pick on him.

Alex's daily ride on the school bus is like something out of Dante's Inferno.

What would be funny, if it weren't so tragic, is the cluelessness of the school officials (and of adults in general) who should do something about the problem.

We get to watch the vice-principal of Alex's school as she deals with aggressive students and as she tries to mollify Alex's parents. What we hear is a pathetic mixture of bromides, self-serving remarks, boys-will-be-boys platitudes, and, worst of all, a marked tendency to blame the victim.

When the parents complain about the bus that Alex rides, the vice-principal vapidly comments, "Well, I rode that bus once, and the children were like angels." Is she really naïve enough to think that their behaviour in the presence of the vice-principal is even vaguely typical?

Alex Hopkins of Sioux City, Iowa, is seen in the documentary Bully.

CNS PHOTO | UNIVERSAL

Alex Hopkins of Sioux City, Iowa, is seen in the documentary Bully.

I admit, however, that I sympathized with her confusion when, at one point, she gazed into the camera lens and sighed, "I just don't know what to do." A lot of the adults in the documentary seemed to share that sentiment.

ONE WHO KNOWS

Well, I know someone who knows what to do. Just recently, Dr. Leonard Sax sent me a copy of his 2007 study Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men.

As the subtitle indicates, the book examines the problem of the "slacker dude," the teenager who would rather watch video games than attend class or the 20-something who would rather lounge around his parents' home than start an ambitious career. To get all of the details, please peruse Sax's informative and eminently readable book.

In one chapter of Boys Adrift, Sax bemoans the fact that our culture has largely forgotten the art of transforming boys into men.

Despite (or perhaps because of) our scientific predilection, we think this process just happens naturally. Our "primitive" ancestors knew that it did not and this is why they developed sophisticated rituals of initiation, designed to shock boys out of their natural narcissism and habits of self-protection into moral and spiritual maturity.

LEARNING VIRTUES

Whether we are talking about the Navajo, Masai warriors, or Orthodox Jews, traditional cultures understand that boys have to be brought through a period of trial - some test of skill and endurance - during which they learn the virtues of courage and self-sacrifice.

Sometimes these initiation rituals are accompanied by a kind of ceremonial scarring, for the elders want the boys to know, in their bodies, that they've been tested and permanently changed.

Sax astutely observes that many of the great American authors - Faulkner, Hemingway, Studs Terkel, James Dickey - wrote passionately and persuasively about this very topic. Great films, from The Hustler, On the Waterfront and Rebel Without a Cause to Braveheart and Gladiator, dramatically display the process by which a boy becomes a heroic man of selflessness and courage.

The principal element in the initiation process is a mature man who embodies the virtues to which the boy aspires. Men of valour, charity, ambition and grace transform boys into men of valour, charity, ambition and grace.

When this mentoring dynamic is lost, Sax argues, the result is boys adrift and young men taking their cues from Eminem, 50 Cent, Akon and the Situation.

POSITIVE ENERGY

Now you might be wondering what all this has to do with bullying. One reason why boys turn into bullies is that they have no one to turn them into men.

Boys are filled with energies meant to be channeled in a positive direction, toward protecting the innocent and building up the society. Without strong male role models and without a disciplined process of initiation into maturity, these energies remain either unfocused (as in the case of slackers) or directed toward violence and the exploitation of the weak (as in the case of bullies).

Sax says that you might not be able to turn a bully into a flower child, but with the right male mentoring, you could certainly turn him into a knight.

If a son of yours is either bullied or becoming a bully, I would strongly recommend that you read Boys Adrift and, above all, that you introduce your son to a strong, morally upright, focused and courageous male mentor - fast.

(Father Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and the Francis Cardinal George Professor of Faith and Culture at University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill. He is the creator and host of a new 10-episode documentary series called Catholicism and also hosts programs on Relevant Radio, EWTN and at www.WordOnFire.org.)