Many of you know that I’ve belonged to a men’s group for almost 20 years. Two weekends ago, nine of us went on our annual weekend retreat at a second home in Michigan, which is owned by one of the guys.
We had a few beers, hiked in the gorgeous fall colors and ate way too much. These men are very good cooks. But the main goals of the retreat were more serious, i.e. to get in touch with how our unmet needs as children were affecting our behavior as men and how our fears about death might be doing the same. Heavy stuff, I know.
The youngest man in the group is now 50 and the oldest is 70. All of us are more than half way through our lives. At the same time, all of us probably will live many more years, so none of us are quite ready to sign up for hospice care just yet.
As we began our emotional/psychological/spiritual work on Saturday morning, we were all wondering what would happen. Would there be tears and profound insights? Would it work for some and not for others? Would anything special happen at all?
We started out by listening to a taped, guided meditation and followed that by having each man in turn sit in the middle of our circle and listen to us read affirmations for him for five minutes. The idea was to picture taking care of your infant self, perhaps in ways you didn’t experience when you were little:
I’m so glad you are here.
I like you just the way you are.
I will not leave you no matter what.
Your needs are OK with me.
God smiled when you were born.
As we took turns hearing affirmations, tears came to many eyes. One of the men wept openly. It was quite simple. We were hearing what we all longed to feel as a child and sometimes didn’t get. We heard that we are loved.
In the evening, we went to the other end of the life cycle. We watched the movie The Bucket List as a way of getting in touch with our feelings about death, not death in general but our own inevitable demise. The Bucket List is a movie about two old guys who have been diagnosed with cancer and how they live the next few months they have left.
At the end of the movie, we asked each other what we would want if we were told we had six months left on this earth, and to a man we answered, “spending time with people we loved and who loved us.”
It’s part of our group’s culture to hug each other at the close of every meeting. As we embraced before getting into our cars, we all remarked how powerful the last 48 hours had been. None of us used the word fun to describe what we had just experienced. Powerful was the right word. We had dared to face some things that had frightened us or were painful to remember, but instead of bringing us down, we felt a sense of liberation. In the company of eight other supportive men who knew us well, we had stopped running from what scared us and looked it in the eyes.
Americans will spend $4.7 billion dollars this month on Halloween costumes, candy, parties and cards. There’s nothing wrong, I suppose, with having fun and trivializing death. But I hope that everyone can face the troublesome inevitability of their own death and gain some peace, instead of trying to avoid the one experience all of us will at some point share.
Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.