His name was Lee. He was a boisterous, arrogant teenage kid. He had a chip on his shoulder and a point to prove. The first day of the ten day Outward Bound outdoor program I was leading, he swaggered up to me and said, “Did you get it on with your boyfriend last night?”
I thought to myself, “You rotten little turd!” Of course I knew he was just testing boundaries. The completely inappropriate, Mrs Robinson style overture was designed to knock me off balance and get under my skin (it worked)! And I knew my job was to brush it off and not get phased by it. So it began: he tested my threshold with interruptions, wisecracks and inappropriate behaviour.
He dominated and demanded attention. He was the joker, the renegade, the rebel and all the other kids snickered in delight as they admired his bravado. He was very disruptive. A pain in the ass really! The other guys never got a chance to speak up as he would talk over them and make fun of them if they tried to express anything genuine. It was the Lee show.
One day I caught him with cigarettes and the jig was up. All of my time and energy was spent dealing with Lee, and I was over it.
On day four after the cigarette incident, I asked for him to be removed from the program. I considered there were 20 other 15-year-old boys who were there to have a life changing experience too. At this stage the only person getting any airtime was Lee. So we packed his bags and he was gone.
I found out later that all the teachers had a bet on how long he would last on the program! They fully expected him to fail. No one gave him past day 3. He made it to day 4. Lee himself was pretty upset about being sent home. His father had been called to come and collect him and he knew he was in for a dressing down. I could see he was bracing himself for yet another lecture.
I enjoyed the rest of the program with the other boys. They relaxed, they took the opportunity to share more deeply with each other and actually spoke up and had good discussions. At the end of the course, one of the boys came up and shook my hand! It was the one and only time I've had a 15 year old boy come and shake my hand to say thank you.
But the kid I think about the most 20 years on is Lee. I think about his failure to complete the program and how this was likely just another incident in a string of disappointments. He didn't have the nice comfortable home life to go home to, like the boy who shook my hand. He was from a challenged, struggling family with little support and no one backed his potential. For all intents and purposes, the world saw Lee as doomed to fail. And it looked like he was living down to expectations.
Lee would be around 35 today, if he in fact made it to adulthood. He may even be a father himself. And I wonder what kind of man he grew into.
I think about all the young men out there who, through no fault of their own, are in circumstances where they don't get a lot of attention, they don't have any strong male role models to encourage them, to act as a guide, to talk straight and give them advice on how to grow in to a man. There are more and more of these boys trying to find their way as men. And it's a difficult world! There is little guidance on what it means to be a man today. The role models are sportspeople, politicians and what we see in movies. Those messages are often confusing and conflicting. Young men need support.
Though I am not a mother myself, I have a mother’s compassion for these young men. This is what I am motivated to do. This is what gets me out of bed in the morning. The thought of being able to help another kid fills me with a bit of hope. I work with many male leaders who are defining what it means to be a fierce gentle man, many of whom are Dads, uncles, brothers. I am filled with gratitude that I am in the place I am today, a successful business person, and able to pay forward some of that success. This really lights me up!
Having a sense of purpose and a way to funnel our compassion and care for others helps lift our gaze from immediate concerns to a broader picture. There are plenty of people less fortunate than us, and when we focus our thoughts on them, and think how we might make a difference to them, it helps make the petty concerns weigh a little less heavy.
A social agenda fills your personal agenda. This is how we can elevate human consciousness: by expressing care and compassion for others.
Craft your social agenda from the things you care about the most.
For me, 20 years of wondering what happened to Lee has guided me to help organisations like Menslink and Outward Bound. Any time I get weighed down by the business of doing the business, I focus on the young blokes who would benefit from having someone care about their potential.
I can't fix things for Lee, but I can have a part in making things a little bit better for another young boy around the corner.
And that fills me with gratitude.
What inspires you? What story touches your heart strings? What calls you to be a better person by caring a little more? How do you focus that compassion in to action?