Gentle men

This is Part I in a series on my memories of manhood. Here is the Introduction.

When I think about the qualities of a man, and of manhood, I think about Clark Shutt.

Shutt was the director of the Christian Science summer camp I went to for seven years starting when I was ten. The story my mom tells is that she sent me to Camp Leelanau, on the tip of the thumb of the glove that is the state of Michigan, because it was the Christian Science camp furthest from both her and my dad. I was growing up with my mom in New York at the time and visiting my dad in New Mexico during Summers and school breaks. Northern Michigan was about as far as I could get from either of them.

My childhood had no shortage of strong-willed, independent, intelligent and creative women to look up to. My mom and my grandmother and my sister were ever-present, and each embodied a kind of feminism that I am still learning from today. But as much as I feel like the examples of the women in my family helped prepare me to love, admire, and be interested in women, ultimately there was only so much they could do when it came to preparing me for manhood.

I knew of course that I was not to hit girls, even if they hit me first. My little sister provided many opportunities to show that I understood and had absorbed that lesson early. But what else? My memory is exceedingly thin on instructions passed down to me from women about how to act as a man, to say nothing of actual examples.

For that I needed something else. And though my mom originally sent me to Camp Leelanau as a way to get me away from feuding divorced parents, the impact of her decision would ultimately be much larger.

Christian Science: A brief primer on love

I’ve written a little before about my upbringing in Christian Science (see Convergence: What Mary Baker Eddy, Viktor Frankl, Sam Harris, Marcus Aurelius, and Hamlet have in common). Not to be confused with the cult of Scientology, adherents of Christian Science believe they have discovered the method used by Jesus to heal spiritually, and thus most of them rely on this method rather than make use of modern medicine (to be fair, when Christian Science was “discovered,” in 1879, modern medicine was about as likely to lead to positive outcomes as was a coin flip).

But it’s not spiritual healing that I want to talk about here. It’s love.

In Christian Science, every Sunday school student is taught that there are seven synonyms for God: life, truth, love, soul, mind, spirit, and principle. God is, in a literal sense, those seven things, and true to the best aspects of Christianity as a whole, the focus in Christian Science is often on love.

There are no crosses or statues of Jesus in Christian Science churches, and no idols or representations of saints. But there are, written in bold lettering on the wall of nearly every Christian Science church in the world, the words from John in the New Testament: God is Love.

In College I decided to leave Christian Science - the religion got more things wrong than right, I had decided. Nevertheless, a religion that puts love at the center of its communications is on to something. Christianity as a whole is always at its best when it is focused on love and charity, and Christian Science is an offshoot that at least got that much right.

Clark Shutt

Which brings me back to Clark, as we all knew and referred to him. Clark was like a force of nature those Summers. As I’ve kept in touch with some of my old camp friends, we continue to talk about him as if he were a legend.

In the mornings on the shores of Lake Michigan they woke us up by firing a sawed off cannon, sometimes underneath one of our cabins. The first task of us groggy young boys and men was to trudge our way down the long path to Lake Michigan to dip, come rain or shine, and if one morning it seemed the entire camp was walking down especially slowly, it was Clark who would appear from behind, as if like a dervish, yelling down the hillside in a deep baritone that we needed to get running, and that he better not beat any of us down. When we heard his voice behind us, we ran. I can still hear it, its exact pitch and growl, yelling that us “lollygaggers” better get moving.

It wasn’t that we were ever afraid of Clark. It was that we didn’t want to let him down. Clark was too full of that one, most important quality for us ever to be scared of him: love.

Clark talked about love constantly. He talked about it at the weekly Sunday night campfires. He talked about it at award ceremonies. He talked about it to the Counselors in Training when he was explaining to them the example he expected them to set for the rest of camp.

Clark always pushed us to try harder. He expected us to be tough, to try to beat him at races (it was hard), to be diligent, to be kind to each other. But no matter how high a bar he set, no matter the expectations, it was always love that I remember most of all. He radiated it.

In fact, I googled Clark as I started writing this, just to see where he was and to make sure I spelled his last name correctly. He’s left camp after 30 years as its director and is now Dean of Boys at the Christian Science boarding school in St. Louis. Here’s what I found in his bio:

When asked to describe how he works with young men, his response was simple: ‘Well, it’s not rocket science. It’s love.’

It really was that simple with Clark, and it worked.

“Be Gentle Men”

Clark always talked about love, but it was actually another moment from camp that I have stuck in my mind. We were sitting around a campfire late one night. Clark was giving one of his usual speeches. He often talked about the week behind and somehow spun it into a parable for action.

That night, for some reason he was talking about the word “Gentlemen,” a word which perhaps had already been cheapened to the point of meaninglessness. It was a word that none of us had any clear definition for, and perhaps still don’t. Clark talked about love as always, and he talked about being kind to each other, but then he said something I’ve never forgotten: Be gentle men.

I remember he let that hang in the silence and the crackle of the campfire, and the call of the night crickets, and then he said it again, with the emphasis on the world gentle. It was a simple commandment to be sure, but it also provided us a guide for action. We may play tackle capture the flag in the Michigan woods or we may play pirates during sailing class, jumping from ship to ship to capsize each other before making our escape through the wind and waves, or we may compete on the soccer field, compete to build the highest campfire, compete over the cleanest cabin, compete on everything - but through all of that, Clark was telling us: Be. Gentle. Men.

Sometimes when I’m wrestling with my son, I remember Clark’s voice, and I know that the process of learning to be both fierce and gentle, or strong and gentle, or competitive and gentle, is also the process of growing from a boy into a man. My son is learning. He knows that he can try his hardest, be fierce and be strong, and yet still look out for me, the person he’s wrestling against: still make sure they don’t hit their head on something sharp.

I’m not sure what the word masculinity should signify today. I’ve written before that there are too few examples out there in the ether. “I feel like there’s a void,” I wrote:

It is the gender studies void of the bookstore, where I can find hundreds of books about what it is to be a woman, but virtually nothing about what it is to be a man. And I don’t mean “be a man” in the cultural indoctrination sense, but simply in the sense of being male. If I wanted, I could put on my historian hat and tell you what it used to mean to be a man at various points in history. I could talk about duty or chivalry or courage, or any number of other things that were historically associated with maleness.

Now, I’m not so sure what manhood is or should be, and that’s a shame. It’s a shame because, to be honest, I am really interested in exploring what it means to be a man. I am interested for myself, and also as a father to a son. I am interested in what I should teach him, what I want to teach him, about what it’s like to be him in society. 

Next to Clark’s bio, there’s a picture of him, looking exactly as I remember from my youth twenty years ago:

You can look at the photo if you’d like and put a face to the person I’ve describing. But all you really need to remember is this: he told us young men to love each other, and to be gentle men.