I once dreamt I was a bullet proof man. It was the most bizarre dream. Bullet after bullet struck my chest but nothing happened. There was no grotesque spilling of blood. There were no exit wounds. A slow trickle of blood did not flow from the corner of my mouth nor did I experience tunnel vision. Rather, the bullets struck my flesh and stopped. No pain. No feeling. Nothing.
My name is Michael and I was born with a cleft palate. A congenital condition I had no control over. I was born with a lip that resembles the lips of hares that roam pastures outside my hometown of Amarillo, Texas. The solution to my abnormality is surgery. Most of the time the surgery goes well and by the age of 8 the scar is virtually invisible and noticeable only by those who know to look or the keen observer. However, my speech shows my true face and reveals me to have had “complications” at birth. My words mark me. They set me apart. My words, in ways I’m didn’t realize at first, mark me for pain. As the old parental adage goes, it’s not what I say; it’s how I say it.
Speech is a powerful idea. Words, as history has shown, are often the most dangerous of all weapons; they fly through the air, piercing ears and hearts, fanning into flame hatred, or squelching hope in others. With tongues like guns, leaders, peasants, important men and insignificant men have altered the outcome of scenarios and schemes big and small. Imagine jumping into battle with a rifle that doesn’t fire just right. Or, it doesn’t fire every time you pull the trigger. Or, better yet, the bullets often fly in a direction you never meant for them to go, often spraying your own countrymen. I have that kind of gun.
I discovered the depravity of man in the second grade. One of my classmates, Josh, told me I must have been adopted. His older sister was friends with my older sister, Mary Katherine. Mary Kate, as we called her, was perfect. She was beautiful. She had long, wavy brown hair and stunning, green eyes. She was winsome and vivacious. However, unlike many with her personality, no one ever accused her of being fake. She was the rare mix of beauty and sincerity. Mary Kate was a real girl. Thus, no one ever shot at her.
I love my sister. I really do. I just wish she had assured everyone that we really were related. The fact that I was me and she was her didn’t exclude the possibility that we were actually related. Now that I think about it, I find it very hard to swallow that children are so incredibly cannibalistic. It goes beyond being mean, or hateful, or spiteful. On the playground, children pick one of their own and absolutely consume this chosen one with hateful words and harsh attitudes.
It only got worse in middle school. Rather than children shouting poorly crafted insults on the playground, the comments took on a sexual tone.“Yea, I’d do your sister. She’d like it too. Bet you wish you could have her? Too bad you’ll never get any,” one boy would say in the locker room. The football locker room was the place I was reminded that my sister and I were different leagues. More than that, I was reminded that just as I was not worthy to be related to a girl like her, no girl like her, who wasn’t related to me, would ever give me a chance. Despite my mark, I was a talented receiver and played football through the 7th grade. I quit, not because I didn’t love the game, but because my teammates refused to recognize me as such, a member of the team. It did not matter that I made good grades, was a great ball player or tried my best to be a good brother and friend. All people see when they look my direction, is a speech challenged retard.
I watched an old movie once about a classic jailbreak. The guy who escaped got shot right as he reached the edge of the woods which stood about 1,000 yards from the outermost fence of the prison. After watching it, I imagined the most impossible scenario. What if the man had escaped on accident? What if we really wanted to be back inside the prison? The guards never gave him the chance to explain how everything had transpired. Thus, they shot him.
When people shoot, they assume I chose to be different. They act like I, somewhere in the womb, consciously chose to not develop like everyone else. I feel like the guy who accidentally escaped, the one getting shot at by guards who won’t listen to me for even a second. I never wanted to stir up trouble. I just wanted to be a part of the team.
I won’t kill myself nor can I become an atheist. Giving up hope or believing there’s nothing to hope in doesn’t change the fact that I am a genuinely hopeful person. Despite being the epitome of the broken reality of this place, I can’t not believe that at some point things are going to be better than they are now. My mom knew this about me. She asked me once, “Son, how is it you’re so strong when everyone seems so hell bent on tearing you down?” At first, I didn’t know how to respond to it. Initially, I was quite thrilled that my mask of fake fortitude had fooled even my mother. However, there was more to the question. “I don’t know,” I told my mom.
The more I think about it, the more I realize why it is that I’m able to be what some perceive to be strong. I’m able to be “strong” because I know that being a bulletproof man is only a dream. In fact, it’s because I know that it’s impossible to be bulletproof and be a man at the same time. The two ideas don’t go together. To be a man is to realize that people shoot. To be a man is to realize that suicide and atheism aren’t an option. Men don’t ignore hope.
With every shot, every hateful comment, every cannibalistic attitude, and every snide, “I’m sorry I didn’t understand you,” I began to realize that being bullet proof doesn’t require hope. Thus, it’s in the same category as suicide. A bulletproof man isn’t strong and neither is superman. After all, Superman royally pisses people off because he’s so oblivious to the people around him. He’s an outsider. Even if I were bullet proof, I’d still feel like I was on the outside. More than that, how brave is it for Superman to step in front of a train? He can’t die.
No, being a man means something entirely different. Being a man requires you to grapple with mortality and weakness. Being a man is knowing that inevitably there will be a grotesque splattering of blood. Being a man is knowing that violence is unavoidable. Being a man is stepping in front of the bullet knowing it’ll hurt like hell and believing it’s better that way.