Tom Holmes is travelling in Asia. We’re re-running a favorite column from 2009.
When the going gets tough, it is said, the tough get going.
I rarely hear women say this to each other. It’s usually guys, like me, who have played contact sports like football. “Suck it up,” you’d hear guys say when a teammate got hurt. “He plays with pain. He’s a warrior,” was the highest compliment you could give an athlete.
That attitude, I confess, has been a big help to me during the 15 years since I was diagnosed with a neurological disorder. Because of my bad balance and muscle stiffness, I trip and fall maybe twice a month. Most of the falls hurt my pride more than my body, but some have been serious enough that I have had to go to the doctor. I fell once while hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park and had to have my forehead sewn up, and when I was traveling in Ireland I fell outside a pub – no, I was not drunk on Guinness – and had a mild brain concussion. I spent that night in an Irish hospital instead of a B&B.
Neither of those falls ruined my vacation. I got the care I needed and proceeded to enjoy the rest of the trip. I was able to do that, I think, because of my earlier experiences playing football. Pain and sore muscles go with the game, just like mosquitoes and camping. If you love playing football, you just adapt to the pain. If your idea of a great time is paddling and portaging in a Canadian wilderness, you just work around the mosquitoes.
Lately, the going has gotten tough for many if not most of us. So, how should we respond, especially if we are men? The default setting in our society for males seems to be to suck it up.
That attitude, I confess, has also been a hindrance to me as my disorder has progressed and I have gone on disability. A progressive disorder like mine has a way of sucking the toughness right out of you, sapping your power, and making you a lot more vulnerable. And that makes this warrior mentality pretty tough to live out in convincing fashion.
Many miracles have happened in my life. One of the best was the invitation 20 years ago to join a men’s group. The group has met almost every Thursday evening since. We don’t talk about sports or tools. What we talk about are relationships, feelings, successes, failures, fears, roles, dreams, disappointments, caring for and saying goodbye to our parents, death, health and dying. We’ve cried together during times of loss and rejoiced together during times of blessing.
The seven of us who are now in the group, to a man, would say that when the going gets tough, we lean on the men in our group. We talk about our fears and defeats. As we let go of macho expectations, time and time again we discover that real men not only wear pink, they also cry. That mutual vulnerability made possible by the trust that has been built up over the years, becomes the source of an emotional – and I would add spiritual – toughness that has gotten each one of us through some pretty rough patches.
We also lean on spouses, family, God, therapists and financial advisors, but there is something about men being with other men. Call it synergy, or transcendence, or the whole being greater than the parts, or even the Holy Spirit. What we have experienced is an empathy and support that only men can give to other men. The wives of the guys in our group support their husband’s participation. They see the difference it has made in the men they love.
When the going gets tough, the tough get going. I’m grateful for learning how to do that during my football playing days. These are tough times that will reveal what a man is made of.
When the going gets tough, I turn to other men who are not afraid to be vulnerable, who have discovered that strength of soul comes, in part, from being with other men who are not embarrassed to say they love each other.