By Paul Koch –
“For he to-day that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother…”
I had a t-shirt in college with that line on it. I had no idea that it was penned by Shakespeare. I didn’t know it was from the famous St Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V or that the actual battle of Agincourt in 1415 inspired the scene, but I knew, without a doubt, the truth of the words.
I wore a shirt with those words inscribed across the chest because I bought it at a rugby tournament. Now I could go on and on about the beauty and joy of the game of rugby, but the truth is, it is also a violent and brutal sport. To walk on to the pitch and line up next to those other men and engage in what was a sort of controlled warfare for sport was to find a brotherhood unlike much else outside of true war. To bleed alongside those men and to fight and scrape and lay it all on the line with men you hardly knew just a few minutes before changed things. They had your back, and you had theirs. In the midst of the blood, sweat, and dirt, you would undoubtedly find a brother.
I miss that brotherhood. I miss it with that deep pit in my stomach that is hard to articulate. It makes me long for the violence of that comradery.
I played rugby for fifteen years. I accumulated delightful scars, sang horribly offensive songs, and over and again had my masculinity checked. What you thought you were owed or believed you were worth didn’t mean shit unless you could back it up on the field. There was a clear external and objective physicality to a man’s place in things on a rugby team. And yet, as soon as the kickoff signaled the beginning of the battle, from the fiercest man to the most pathetic they became brothers willing to bleed for one another. And if you weren’t, if you backed away from the fray, you would be pushed out of the comradery with shocking speed.
Rugby was hard on the body. It was violent and jarring, yet I long for those days. I long for them like a heartbroken boy longs for his first summer love.
But why? Do I miss lacing up heavy braces on my ankles just to make it through another match? Not really. Do I miss the taste of my own blood in my mouth after taking a knee to the face in the bottom of a ruck? A little, perhaps. Do I miss that opportunity to prove myself? Sure, I think so, but I have found other ways to do that. What I really miss and truly long for are my brothers.
Rugby and the men I played the game with were a constant check against the pseudo masculinity of our current Facebook culture, in which everyone crafts their own commercials of themselves. Somehow, having brothers, those brothers that would willingly bleed alongside of you, helped me to understand my place in the world. They were the physical reminder of Tyler Durden in Fight Club saying, “You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your f@*ing khakis.” And so when I lose my brothers, I lose something of myself.
Back when Scott was working on his book Being Dad, I would often spend some time with him in a few choice dive bars in Ventura talking about life and theology and our unreasonable desire to sing Kenny Rogers when we’ve had just one drink too many. But one area of life that we would regularly talk about was masculinity, friendship, and what it took to raise a boy to become a man in our current culture. Somehow, if either expressly articulated or simply understood as an unspoken truth, was the necessity of brothers. In a world where masculinity is either shamed as the dying vestige of a misogynistic culture or mutated into a Calvin Klein underwear ad, there is no anchor for a man to be a man outside of other men. But perhaps this has always been so.
Those conversations and the success of his book inspired me to try something—something that might function as a way to help me find my brothers again. I simply invited some men to gather together to talk—to share their stories of struggle and failure and victory.
So after closing hours, once a month, a cool little camera shop in our town opens up for a gathering of men. Most of the men are fathers; some are married and some divorced, but all know that there is something missing—something they are longing to find again. We tell stories about how we’ve let down our own fathers and how we’ve made them proud. We’ve discussed what defines the essence of a man and what it is to be a protector and provider. We talk about our fears and revel in the insane confidence that our sons will rise to the occasion and succeed where we have failed. There is something so refreshing and powerful about this time together. To hear other men tell their stories is to be reminded that we are not alone.
Through it all, I am beginning to find what I feared was lost: brothers—not bound together in the blood and sweat of the rugby pitch but bound together in the flesh and blood of real life. As we share our stories, we find that nervous laughter of the commercial façade gives way to the hearty laughter of men who will stand beside you in battle. In fact, I think it is accurate to say that we’ve been in the battle all along. We just didn’t know who was standing next to us until now.
“Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” says Solomon. That sharpening may not always be pleasant. It may leave scars along the way. But deep within, it is a love that is unshakable even when victory is far from certain.
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”
(Henry V, in Act IV Scene iii)