Dear Fr Donagh…. One of my students gave me your website address, and I have found it very helpful - particularly your replies to people’s questions…. I’d like to hear your view on a problem we have with our son, who is 15 and rather a worry to us. He was such a gentle boy, but in the last year or so he has become sulky and aggressive. We have tried many times to talk to him, but he closes up. Our older boy is much more communicative. I know it is normal for children to go through phases, but we worry about him. I know I'm not giving you much information, but perhaps it’s not necessary. What I appreciate is the perspectives you give. Thank you for your work. Gertrude M.
Dear Gertrude, I just realised that I know scarcely any boys, but I do have distant memories of being one myself! I remember being almost fully convinced, when I was ten or twelve, that I was insane but that everybody was too nice to say so! I haven’t been visited by that memory in a long time, but it comes back vividly now. Maybe I was right! I wonder if all boys aren’t a little insane around that age….
I know that growing up is a bewildering experience, especially for boys. When a 15-year-old girl walks down the street, people see her already as an adult – a young one, of course, but an adult; only her parents still see her as a child. But when a 15-year-old boy walks down the street, he is not seen as an adult. Adulthood is not given to boys; it’s a conquest: they have to claim it and hold onto it and prove it whenever they think it’s being challenged. There are no official rites of passage into adulthood for boys, and therefore many of them make their own: by taking to drink, drugs, violence, etc. Whenever I see a group of them I see them all staking their claims.
How about this as a perspective: everything has its opposite hidden in it. Everything and everyone. A boy is a bit of a man, and a man is a bit of a boy. No one is totally gentle, no one is totally violent. No one is just good, no one is just bad. Even Jesus said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone!” I don't quite know how to interpret that, but it certainly puts the rest of us out of contention for pure goodness. Everyone is what they call in the Philippines ‘halo-halo’: mix-mix. We live now in a culture of suspicion: there are unofficial detectives everywhere, sniffing out imperfection. If journalists think they have detected a trace of the opposite in someone, they splash it all over the media – as if it were news. So-and-So Is No Saint. But we knew that already. Is it that they believe so strongly in perfection, or that they want to gloat over imperfection? The latter, more likely. But Original Sin should not be news to anyone.
I think we can apply that across the board. Everyone is in the process of growing, nobody is perfect. I'm very suspicious of pure virtue myself, when I can't see its roots. It’s like a plastic flower. Real flowers have roots. Roses grow out of horse manure. Pointing to the horse manure does not discredit the roses. On the contrary, it makes them credible. Thomas Aquinas taught that virtue grows out of instinct: it is the flowering of instinct. The virtues of hope and courage, for example, are the flowering of the aggressive instinct – ‘the irascible appetite’ as he called it.
If your son is bogged down in that area for the moment, don’t be alarmed. He’s learning, in the only way that we learn: by experience. My advice (coming out of pure ignorance, which always gives the clearest advice!) is: don’t show any surprise, don’t expect him to be like your other son in any way, show interest in him rather than in his behaviour, surround him with gentleness, surprise him occasionally with subtle signs of affection. And wait for the smell of roses!
God bless the work, Gertrude. You have the grace of motherhood and it is working in you.Donagh