Kindness is a sign of true strength. To be kind you must look beyond yourself and try to understand the needs of others. Take time to listen to people and imagine being in their place . . . Extending kindness to those around you and having compassion for all people is a powerful antidote to the poisons of hatred and violence.
~ Boy Scout Handbook, 11th Edition
He stands on the edge of the dock contemplating a second plunge into the warming afternoon waters of Pit Lake, his calf-length X-Men swim trunks cushioning the knocking of his knees. During the swimming test the previous day, in water a couple feet deeper than he was tall, he struggled to stay afloat, eventually giving in to the panic and grabbing frantically for the safety of the nearby lifeguard and his bright red floatation device. He was labeled a Learner and given a clean white buddy tag to match.
Up for grabs on this day is the Aquanaut activity badge, an optional stepping stone along the winding path toward earning the Arrow of Light, the award that marks a scout’s transition from the Cub Scout pack to the Boy Scout troop. And while there are ways of getting there without getting wet, it behooves all young scouts to gain confidence in the water. So there he stands, shoulder to lilywhite shoulder with his peers, waiting for his turn.
Only with waiting comes a mounting anxiety, the dawning of a bodily countenance that speaks volumes: the wide-eyed and nervous glancing about; the arms folded tightly over his undefined, pre-pubescent chest; the gentle rocking, back and forth, on tiny feet. That he’s definitely NOT going to do this is becoming pathetically obvious. His father chimes in, employing the familiar sing-song stylings of encouragement that in this moment ring hollow, falling on ears tuned to an interfering and more dubious frequency. A counselor pulls him aside and offers his own voice to a chorus grown deafening. The din is too much and he folds. He’s sitting on the gleaming dock, head on his knees, and trembling hands over his ears.
A kid lost in a sea of knees.
Into the fray walks my son Ethan, dripping and pumped from his own successful completion of the tasks at hand. He sits down beside his friend and places a hand upon his shoulder. Doesn’t say a word. Instead, he offers him kindness.
Were this one of those after-school specials of old, there would more than likely come a point where, with the dragons of doubt having been slain with bright and shiny words of empowerment, and the soundtrack crescendoing to tear-jerking heights, the kid would have steeled himself, gotten up and taken the plunge. Cue the credits over a freeze-frame of his smiling and cherubic face. But camp isn’t Hollywood. The kid never got in the lake again.
In the world of Scouting, where achievement and advancement are expected and lauded with a tradition of pomp and pride, there is sometimes lacking an appreciation for simple acts of kindness. Hands on shoulders, bearing neither guilt nor empty words, are rare. No doubt there are times when a gentle push is called for. We are growing men after all, and weeding out doubt and instilling confidence will in time yield many daring acts. But there is also a time for silence. A gentle touch. A fallow moment where what is there is given the space to grow.
I have no doubt that my son’s friend will one day stand on that dock and take that leap. And in that moment, I believe he’ll remember not the voices that prodded him on but the touch of a friend that allowed him the space and time to do it in his own way, on his own terms. And the crescendo will be glorious . . .