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Starting Point

Our wounds, visible and invisible


When we were kids we lived on a dead-end street that was ideal for playing cowboys and Indians, army games, Viking conquerors, all sorts of games that had winners and losers, the heroes and the slain. Without being consciously aware of it, we were acting out the underside of the rise and fall of history.

I particularly remember Stuart and his glorious deaths. He must have died 43,000 times during his youth on that street.

Whether pierced by an arrow, felled by a bullet or blasted to smithereens by a ray gun, Stuart ran and turned, twisted and ran again, groaned and shrieked, and when he finally had everyone’s attention he crashed to the ground and played dead. As he lay there, a few minutes would pass and one eye would open and furtively look around: a performance check.

Hills were the best places for him to die, for then he could reel at the top and look heavenward and with a roll of his eyes keel over and begin his agonized descent downwards. At the bottom he curled into a ball and lay there, letting the tragedy seep into his dying pores.

He always wanted to be the first one killed and would scream when hit, loud enough for the next town to hear. He liked to be slain in the dust, or, as the case was, on the green sod of a suburban lawn. He was the James Dean of that dead-end street.

He had a fierce temper and would get into one fight after another. I can still see his little arms punching away. Even then I had a sense that he was striking out at something larger and far more elusive than the kid who was absorbing his blows.

Stuart had what was or still is called a clubfoot. Is this what caused him to daily invoke the trauma of death and to wrap sorrow around him like a favorite blanket?

Stuart’s wound was visible. His clubfoot slowed him down and forced him to favor that foot with a slight but noticeable drag. He did run fast, but he could not run from the strangely shaped foot that was a part of him.

There were a lot of kids on that street. Each of us was born with wounds, some visible like Stuart’s, and some not visible at all. But we all shared the wound of being human, of needing love and affirmation, of needing to know that the world was a good place and a safe one. The high dramas of victory and defeat that we enacted so many times were ways of our “playing out” the enormous mystery into which we were born and through which we ran -- or limped.

But we could not speak of such things. The very passions that drove us running and fighting, cheering and wailing were very real to us, but we of course had no idea as to their enormity. We were only playing.

Above us fighter jets often roared overhead as they approached or departed from Mitchell Field, an Air Force base only minutes away. There was a war going on. We had no idea of the bigger and more intimate connections that involved us all, even though harbingers of such things screamed as they passed above us.

No one of us is left on that street now. We all moved away over the years, to other streets, beneath other skies. And when we moved we brought with us our weaknesses: our limps, our rages, our blindness, our fears. We also brought to as many places as we moved our need for love.

What is most beautiful about humanity can only be explained by the presence of love. What is most horrific about us is best understood as a result of its absence.

Years later I would discover my own cry for help that was born from my weaknesses. I, too, would have my own versions of rolling down and playing dead, hoping for a rescue or a dose of sympathy, only to get up again for another version of the adult game of cowboys and Indians.

I wonder how Stuart is these days. Maybe the street where he lives is another dead-end street on which kids play. I like to picture him in my mind’s eye taking a walk this late summer evening, a walk with someone he loves whose arm entwines with his. Love can share the discomfort of a slow gait.

Should they pass two kids fighting, Stuart might remember that youthful passions can get out of hand and wisely know that such can indeed drag us to hell on earth unless we learn to love from them. And so he gently breaks them apart. He tells them to shake hands and make up.

A jet roars overhead. Stuart looks up. He would be in his early 50s now. He takes the arm of the one he loves, and they walk, slowly, peacefully, quietly toward home.

Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga. His latest book is Grace is Everywhere: Reflections of an Aspiring Monk (ACTA, 1998).

National Catholic Reporter, December 3, 1999