by Adam Warburton, Pottsville NSW
We meet in the street, and shake hands, meet each other in the eye. Or maybe we meet at work. Maybe you are my brother, my best mate, my boss, or maybe a stranger. It doesn’t matter… it’s all the same. We check each other out; cordial, polite, but quietly guarded. We share a joke, and laugh, but not the uncontained joyful laughter we might share with our wife or daughter, but one that is a little more brusque, sharp, more controlled – a laughter that says, “Hey that’s funny, but you’re not getting in, buddy”. Nobody gets in. We talk about little things, big things, politics, sport: we share life experiences, but always, underneath, there is a game going on.
Can you feel it? That unspoken competition that never dies? I tell you about my latest surf trip: not to be left out, you talk about the great barrel you got the other day, maybe, just to quietly show you aren’t missing out. Oh, but maybe you don’t surf – so you change the rules of the game. You mention your kids… they are doing great, really, and your job; you just got a promotion. ‘Fantastic’, I say, and that’s it – the game is over. A draw as usual. You mention the weather. Ah, relief… now that’s something we can share without competition. The tension eases, and we drop into that comfortable conversation where the status quo is not challenged. Meanwhile we check ourselves. No harm was done: our walls are still solid.
I am a man. I am great at the big issues. Threaten me, attack those I love, and I will not hold back. But please, please, don’t ask me how I am really feeling. Don’t ask me to relate – because then I might just have to be vulnerable, I may just admit that it hurts. “But there is no war”, you say, to which I reply, “There is always the potential though, and I need to be ready, because this time – this time, I am not going to get hurt”. Throw a rock… I’ve got the gun ready. You have a grenade, that’s fine, I’ve been preparing for years, and so I bring out the rocket launcher. Or maybe I don’t wait – maybe I learnt a long time ago to preempt what is waiting for me past the front door… so every time I open it… boom!! Everything I have got… just to clear the way. Nothing personal… just got to make sure. Because, last time – come to think of it I cannot even remember last time I felt hurt. I’ve been doing it for too long – but no matter, I’ve got to stay prepared – just in case.
I close the door. All clear, I say to no-one in particular. I turn to my wife, my child, and I drop the guard: I soften, and relax, or so I think. “I love you”, I say, but it echoes inside my helmet, an empty sound if ever I heard one. “I can’t hear you”, my wife says, and my daughter, she is looking at me all kinds of strange. Oh, I realise, and I take off the helmet and the gloves; I put the sword down, and there I am, in civilian clothing again, ready to be dad, ready to be husband. But unbeknownst to me the game I started to play long ago continues, only now it is the game that is playing me. It is a game that everyone unknowingly becomes a part of, whether I want them to or not. It is a game with no beginning or end, and the most painful part about it? It is a game that never stops. So underneath, unbeknownst to them, I keep the bulletproof vest on, just to be safe – just to be sure: they can’t see it, and neither can I… I’ve been playing the game for too long. So I reach out from behind the wall, guarded, but polite. Considerate. Caring. Loving. But the question that I dare not ask myself threatens to raise its head – am I really loving, caring, the way I know I want to be, or am I just still playing the game?
Now there is one thing I know for sure: if you want to win the Tour de France, you have to train for it – you have to devote everything towards it. After a while, it shows in your body; it starts to change shape – muscles harden, the eyes narrow their focus. A hollowness appears under your cheekbones, and veins appear where once there were none as the last remnants of fat deposits disappear. The hours and years of dedicated training have made your body that way. Then someone asks you to dance – but you can’t… the hips are no longer flexible. The hamstrings don’t stretch far enough, and you find that you no longer can touch your toes – because your body has been configured for one thing only – to win the Tour de France.
What is my point, you say? Well, at 6.00am I leave for work, and I put up the shield, the armour, the tough guy face, and I hold that until I get home every day, 5 to 6 days a week. On the days off I may socialise, go for a surf, hang out with friends, and so the shield is not as intense; but on those days my body is still in training, devoting its all to being protected – to strengthening the wall. All that devotion, all that training, and then magically, I expect somehow that the body I bring home to my wife and child can suddenly change, soften, open up, be there to express the love I so desperately want to show. But the sad fact is that I cannot – at least not in full – because the armour is still there, letting nothing in, but also letting nothing out. Spend your life training for the Tour de France, and alas, when someone asks you to dance, you cannot. Sure, you can go through the motions, hold your partner, make it look like you can dance – but deep down you know that your body is being held back by that choice you made long, long ago.
So, my fellow brothers, let us make a pact. When we meet in the street, and shake hands, let us look each other in the eye, but this time let us really see. No need to hug, or be soft or pathetic. But let us again be open; let our conversation be true. Let us look at each other as we might our wife or our daughter. At first it may not be easy, but that’s fine; it may take a while, but that’s fine also. After all, training takes time. But if we are sincere, I promise you, our bodies can let go of the fight, let go of the armour, so that once again, at last, we can truly, deeply love.