So many fabulous men have emailed, commented…just been engaged in the whole conversation around  the Naked Face Project.  We’ve joked about what the male equivalent would be.

I am the mother to a son.  He is a musician.  He  writes frequently about protecting those who are underserved…often angrily about the disparity of this world.  I remember being his age…trying to come to grips with what felt like an unfair world…why some had it and others didn’t.

I love how he is so free with his emotions…his ability to feel so deeply allows him to also identify with others…be empathic.

This whole Naked Face exercise has me questioning many of our social and cultural constructs around gender.  I think deeply rooted in much of this conversation is something connected to vulnerability…and how often…whether we are male or female, we consider vulnerability to be a sign of weakness rather than strength.

I am reminded of Paul.

He is 39 years old. A handsome professional man, Paul drives a BMW and wears custom suits with starched crisp white button-down shirts. He is respected and reserved. Yet little known to his friends is the hell in which he has lived. You see, 8 years ago his wife, his life partner and best friend died. She died giving birth to their daughter Shelby.
Shelby’s entrance into this world wasn’t easy. For hours, over 20 innocent and vulnerable hours, Shelby and her mom worked tirelessly to take her from the warm safe waters of her mother’s womb to this world. So when Shelby was finally lifted into this world, her mother went on to the next.

Paul’s world isn’t what he had expected: the crisp starch of his collar, the million-dollar home and a daughter, who looked like every other 8-year old, but had the intellectual and conceptual understanding of a 4-year old.

His life felt like hell. It’s hard work being a single Daddy with a developmentally delayed little girl. Every morning as he would gently brush her hair, Shelby would tell him stories–stories that break a father’s heart. Stories of how she is afraid to speak sometimes, because the other students at her school make fun of her. Stories of how they call her dummy or generally disregard her as anything, but a nuisance. Paul didn’t know what else to do and so when the Girls on the Run brochure floated home in her book bag, he enrolled her. Shelby’s spirit soared at Girls on the Run. Her teammates understood her uniqueness and accepted her not in spite of it, but because of it.

Over the program-weeks, Shelby had come to trust her teammates. They weren’t like the other girls at school. They didn’t make fun of her. They wrapped their little souls around her and walked her through the Girls on the Run games and activities. The Girls on the Run girls were different. They listened to her when she had something to say and they saw the humanness of her. They valued her for who she was.

On this particular day, Shelby was running in her first Girls on the Run 5k and her father was there to see her. I stood at the finish line cheering clapping and high-fiving girls as they crossed that finish line. One hour later every girl had finished. “No wait,” the police escort informed us. There is one more little girl. And so while most folks had moved on to the after-party in the nearby park a handful of us waited.

When off in the distance I saw a little figure walking, as if on a mission. Her arms pumping beside her like pistons. Her blonde pigtails flopped on either side. Her coaches were beside her, smiling and crying. Slowly word spread that Shelby was finishing and one by one folks returned to the finish line. As Shelby made her way up that last stretch of road, hundreds of people ran to take their place roadside.

The momentum was building and then as if directed to do so I looked to my right and there dead center in the finish line stood Paul. His starched shirt, khaki pants and polished loafers. His hair was perfectly placed. Shelby’s jacket was neatly draped across his left arm.

The man was stoic, reserved, empty eyed… and alone.

And then without warning, this man, this brave, brave man dropped to his knees…Shelby’s coat falling to the asphalt below…and with wild abandon, he lifted his arms to the heavens above and wept from the depths of his soul. Tears were flowing down his cheeks to the earth below, like small blessings on the path of his daughter’s approaching feet.

I won’t ever be able to shake the image of this man as he fell to his knees, surrendering his pain, revealing his willingness to shed the external armor of a man trapped in the box of cultural success and apathy, to expose his soul, his core, his vulnerabilities. To welcome his little girl, Shelby, as she ran to him, there at the finish line. Welcome her with his arms around her small body. Welcome her to this new life, this new heaven, the one in which they could inhabit peacefully together.

I love how children so unabashedly share their fears, their strengths, their vulnerabilities fearlessly with the people around them.  I wonder if adults like Paul…heck like me…don’t have a lot we can learn from them.

What has a young person in your life taught you about being true, real, strong?