“Pride”; “I bleed [insert mascot and color]”; “I am [insert school or adjective]”; “I will”–and the list of t-shirt slogans we see around campus goes on. Of course, there’s nothing intrinsically evil about these slogans, but we should think on them. The not-so-subliminal messages are an important element of a multibillion-dollar clothing and marketing industry that is working, deliberately and with great sophistication, to shape (some might say, claim) your son’s self-identity. UA, Nike, and the rest of them want your son to identify primarily as… drum roll, please: “ATHLETE.” For, if he is an ATHLETE, not just an athlete, he will buy more stuff. Maybe this sounds more ominous than it actually is. But maybe not. Again, we should, at the very least, think about it.
All of this raises the issue of identity: who does your son think that he is? If he is proud, what is the source of his pride? If he wills, what is it that he wants? If he has the love of something coursing through his capacious adolescent veins, what’s its object?
Identity is a buzzword. We’re told to find it, to develop it, to be fiercely rebellious in living it. “Be yourself”; “follow your star”; “to thine own self be true.” Ironically, there are no shortage of movements and industries fighting with each other to capture your sons’ attention and then tell them who they are. On one hand, a boy is told, “be yourself.” On the other, “be yourself by doing, saying, wearing or thinking x, y or z.”
Who is winning the battle for your son’s identity? Who does he say that he is? More fundamentally, who is he actually?
Tough question, but fortunately your faculty thinks about this a lot–and we talk to your boys about it too. Your boys are sons of God. Our hope is that all of them–the academes, the athletes, the drama guys, the musicians… all of them–see this divine sonship and divine filiation as their primary identity. We don’t have a multibillion-dollar budget to get the point across, but we do have our friendship with your boys and a few thousand years of tradition on our side.
This is one of the reasons I love Heights athletics. We are fiercely competitive; we play incredible teams and we send graduates on to the next level of competition. But we are about more than just the game–it is, after all, just a game. The beautiful thing about games is that they teach perseverance, fortitude, toughness. Camaraderie through competition forms friendships that can be a conduit for great good–in my own life I think of rosaries on the bus after a soccer game with Kyle Maginnis, of Gatorade and conversation after practice with Coach de Vicente. For better or for worse, your sons’ teammates and coaches will be among the most power influences in their lives. That’s a good thing here.
Questions for us: Right now, who do our sons say that they are? Do we live in a way that encourages them to identify as sons of God? Or do our sons think of themselves primarily as [pick your pastime], that sometimes gets to Sunday Mass so long as the club team schedule allows? Do we acknowledge the forces working to claim our boys’ attention and self-identity? If we don’t raise our children, someone else will; have we given those someones 24/7 access to our boys’ through their phones? The adolescent mind abhors a vacuum–what is filling your son’s mind when you are not?
Confidence is a byproduct of knowing one’s identity and purpose. When we know it and live it, we are more confident than we would be otherwise. As Pope Benedict wrote in The Spirit of the Liturgy, “[L]ife only becomes real life when it receives its form from looking toward God.” Further, “Man becomes glory for God, puts God, so to speak, into the light, . . . when he lives by looking toward God.” When our boys become men who are secure in their identity as sons of God and they live accordingly, they will be “Men Fully Alive.”
Should we gather and confiscate these shirts? Nope, but please don’t fault us if we use a little Coach Lively-style humoristic sarcasm on your sons to temper their profession of athletic greatness. It will be good for them in the long run, and they (along with their friends… think, “oh snap!”) always smile when we point these things out. An admission of truth, perhaps? Likely.