I was ten years old when I went back to Chile to visit my Chilean family, a lot of them first blood uncles, aunts and cousins who I now barely remember. Sitting in my grandmother’s house, I was feeling a little lost and disconnected when my uncle Miger (“mee-air”) asked me if I wanted to join him to get some bread and pop for the family dinner. Together we took a walk to the corner store bakery where he bought a huge bag of Chilean buns and some bottles of Coke.
As we were leaving, he ripped in half a fresh bun from the bag, put one half in his mouth and gave me the other. From his smile and wink, I got the hint that this was to eat between ourselves.
“Don’t tell your mom.”
I ate my half and walked back, happy as can be. During our walk, he asked me about school, about how I was feeling being back in Chile, and about Canada. We even continued the conversation in the kitchen while he opened a bottle of pop and gave me a glass. To me, this was special.
My uncle was a shy, clumsy man. He had this nervous way of being, lots of shaky energy. He dropped stuff constantly, especially when he cooked. He laughed in this low rumble, almost a cough. All of our conversations were kind of awkward.
My uncle also is from my mother’s (highly religious) side of the family, who show affection in relation to their affection for God. Their form of connecting was for the most part through the church. But this trip to the bakery was different, there was no pretense here, just empathy. There was care, comfort. It was sharing the things that we loved outside of my family and the church. It was just me and him.
This, to me, was my uncle showing that he cared for me and what I was going through. It was a show of love.
I see pictures of my uncle Miger on Facebook every now and then and they bring back a lot of memories. Him saying I looked like Pete Sampras, him dropping toast on the floor and me wondering if my clumsiness came from him, him challenging my other uncles in tennis. I also remember how we, as a family, mourned the loss of his wife, my aunt Regina. I went to her commemoration in Canada, and throughout my mourning, my thoughts also centred on how my uncle Miger was coping. I knew he loved my aunt more than anything.
I’ve noticed, from the work I do in schools and outside of it, guiding young men through this world, that the way adults model interactions with other adults directly shapes how kids navigate different relationships. This is especially true with gendered models. Boys will try to model adult male relationships the same way girls will try to model adult female relationships.
I wish that we didn’t always have to take a gendered view of things and that we could all look at each other as human individuals. But we’re not there as a society, so for now, ignoring the positive role that gendered role models can play seems to me like a wasted opportunity.
There is a lot of text concerning how we can raise boys to be models of empathy, resilience and compassion. And for the most part they concentrate on how boys behave around teenage girls. Those texts might call on parents to show boys what strong women look like and stress the importance of gender equity. These are all important, relevant points that will shape the way boys behave.
The topic that gets left out, which I believe is of equal importance, is the model of healthy compassionate male behaviour—the adult male role model. How do we, as men, show love to younger men?
I wanted to write about my uncle Miger because I learned a lot from him through the years, and this interaction, the bread and pop, remains burned in my mind. It’s an encapsulation of what a male role model can do to help a young man. Through this interaction, Miger taught me to be aware of a child who is lonely and feeling disconnected, that one-on-one conversations don’t always have to be heavy to be meaningful, and that a little shared mischief can be healthy.
I think this is all part of the story I have of my uncle, because the way I think of Miger is not how I think of my father. I love my father dearly, but Miger showed me how a man can be described in different ways. He wasn’t the most confident person, nor the most elegant, and there have been times when I’ve worried about him. But that day was a lesson in its own right. A lesson in how to show love to a younger man.
I learned about empathy, too. He didn’t have to do anything that day in Chile, but he took time out of his life to take care of me. An adult changed my feelings from lonely to connected. And I didn’t have to do a whole lot, Miger carried us. He recognised, and he acted, for both of us. I revisit this lesson daily. It might be hard, it takes a lot of strength sometimes to think outside of your own world, but man is it worth it.
Because Miger showed empathy for me and my feelings, I returned it back, although it was much later in life. When my aunt died I was heartbroken, but not just for the loss of my aunt, also for my uncle. I saw how great Miger’s love for my aunt was; hence, not only did I grieve for my aunt Regina, but I grieved for Miger as well.
Of course, I didn’t learn everything from him. I benefited from continuous empathy and love from male role models, as all men should. My Grade 6 teacher, for example, told my class he learned more from us than we did from him. I cried when I left his class. My Grade 9 teacher who showed me care by relating to what I liked (hockey, at that time), but also challenged me to be the best, showed me that I could grow, that I was more than the sum of my parts. And of course I have my father, who still teaches me more about love than all other men combined.
For our young men to be empathetic, we men need to show them what that looks like. To have them love not just their romantic partner, but the men and women around them. Each man embodies masculinity differently, and therefore will show their feelings in different ways. The question for me is always, how can I show this young man that I care for him? What do I know about him? How can I help him realise what care and empathy looks like? If you try and it doesn’t work, you can keep trying. But actually try. A child is raised by the community, and a boy learns to be a man from the men around him. All it might take is some bread and pop.