At a domestic violence conference, the crowd sat engrossed in the keynote speaker’s 30 year story of abuse. Not until she lay in the hospital with practically every bone in her body broken was she finally able to leave him. As she told her story, the disgust towards her ex-husband was palpable and when she called him the ‘scum of the earth’, heads nodded.
But then she ended her talk with saying that her greatest grief was that her daughter had grown up to also be a victim of a domestic violent relationship and her son had become a perpetrator. And it flashed in my head “Is he the scum of the earth too?”
As we moved into the q & a portion, I wrestled with that thought until I stood and simply had to ask her; “You mentioned your son had become a perpetrator and as you described your ex-husband as the scum of the earth, I wonder—do you think your son is the scum of the earth too? Or was he just unlucky enough to have been raised in a family dynamic where he was taught to manage his emotions through violence?”
I knew the question would shock the audience and the silence was as palpable as their previous disgust. I said, “I have great compassion for what you experienced in life but I have great compassion for your son too. He did not ask to grow up in a culture that shows him a dysfunctional way to manage his feelings. Young boys quickly learn that sharing their fears and confusion gets them rejected and so they bottle it up until it comes pouring out of them in violence. After all those years of learning this pattern, we somehow magically expect them to turn it off—but we see it isn’t that simple. And so when the violence shows up, we shame and reject them even more instead of reaching out to show them something else. It’s a double whammy that leaves men on a perpetual demolition derby. I’m not saying men should not be accountable for their violent actions but unless we are willing to acknowledge the full dynamic of how men learn to be violent, we will not solve this problem.”
Watching the story of NFL player Ray Rice unfold, it is clear that we are once again going to shame and reject a man who has been rewarded over and over for doing what he was taught—to squash his feelings so he could perform so well. The fact that his violence on the field overflows into his personal life should not surprise us since he was not taught how to recognize his feelings and effectively share them.
I’d like to suggest that maybe this time, we could own our part in this story and instead of rejecting Ray Rice (and his wife), we instead come together to solve this national shame. We support Ray Rice and his wife; we help them talk about domestic violence but more importantly, we talk about how we raise boys in our culture and we confront the fact that we don’t help them learn this part of being a human at all.
Rejecting Ray Rice will not make this problem go away. This is a national tragedy for men and us all. It works itself out on college campuses with exploding rape charges, it works itself out in gun violence on the streets, and it works itself out in a third of all our homes where domestic violence runs rampant.
My compassion for Ray Rice stems from the reality that he is just one of millions of boys and men who are lost. I’ve been a counselor for 20 years and over and over again I hear men tell me how, as boys, they learned to ignore their feelings as a way to deal with their fears since no one was showing them a better way. That does not suddenly change simply because you turned 21 and are labeled an adult! You have to be taught this—and very few adult men know to go find help in learning this. Ray Rice clearly did not get this help.
I would like to see Ray Rice and his wife become ambassadors for change. Let’s not reject them, let’s embrace them. Let them talk about this problem, not just in the NFL but everywhere in our country that has become overwhelmed with solving problems through violence in the vacuum of teaching children/boys how to grow up and manage their feelings and how to build whole and dynamic lives. Let’s break the cycle once and for all.