My men’s group went on our annual retreat last fall in Galena, which meant our wives and SOs (significant others) were left behind, so they themselves decided to get together on one of the days for coffee and conversation.
“What do they talk about for the better part of three days?” said one of the women to the others. It was more of a statement than a question. You know, there was an assumption that when guys get together, they talk about sports or politics. At least they assumed we didn’t engage in what one well-known person referred to as “locker room banter.”
One of my group’s core values is confidentiality, so it’s understandable these women didn’t know what really goes on.
I told the six men in my group that I was again writing a column about “male intimacy,” if you will, and asked them what I should say. Immediately one of them replied, “Feelings. We talk about feelings.” Our mission statement includes language like “We strive to create an atmosphere where one’s feelings and emotions are respected and heard without judgment or shame and in which we accept and own our fears, triggers, personal failings, struggles, and conflicts without blaming others.”
Another group member emphasized the importance of trust and respect, meaning “trust in the genuine caring of members when disclosing our feelings and fears without judgment and respect for our differences, i.e. cultures, backgrounds, and experiences, that define our individuality and the willingness to listen and learn about how those differences shape our world and community viewpoints.”
Lest readers get the impression from the above that we are just a “feel-good support group,” another sentence in the mission statement reads, “We strive to create an atmosphere where confrontation is not considered as a personal attack and where a member’s comments can be challenged or probed for clarification. …”
That’s the hard part. It’s one thing to have friends who listen to how we feel. It’s another thing to have friends who won’t let us get away with blaming others for how we feel. Indeed, former members have left the group because other group members triggered emotions inside them that were too hot for them to handle.
Their leaving saddens me because the intense emotional pain they were feeling meant — at least to my understanding — that they were not only right on the cusp of getting in touch with demons that were making their lives less than “satisfying and effective” (per the mission statement) but were also passing up a golden opportunity to wrestle with those demons in a group where we were growing stronger, paradoxically, by being willing to be vulnerable and weak with each other.
One group member said another key reason the group “works” is that we are committed to being together every Thursday evening. Indeed, two of us have been meeting in this same group every week for 25 years. This man’s point was that the process of moving toward a more satisfying and effective life is not so much a matter of learning an insight once and then having it, as it is talking about some of the same issues regularly, repeatedly and without blaming, in the faith that by doing so, progress will happen incrementally.
An AA devotion book talks about repetition and regularly addressing issues this way: “A meaningful friendship is a long-term dialogue. … Our dialogue continues over time, and time — along with many amends — builds the bond. With it develops a deepening sense of reliability and trusting one another.”
Eldridge Cleaver — yes, Eldridge Cleaver! — wrote, “A relationship takes time and deeds, and this involves trust; it involves making ourselves naked, to become sitting ducks for each other.”
Thrity Umrigar wrote a novel titled, The Space Between Us, which contains a scene where a group of women are talking about their men. All they do when they are together, says one of them to the others, is have a competition regarding whose “ding-dong” is bigger. You can define “ding-dong” any way you want, but we can see this competitive striving for self-worth that Umrigar’s character describes playing out regularly on bar stools and family gatherings and at professional sports events — and right now in Washington D.C. and Springfield.
In my men’s group, “size” doesn’t matter. Neither do awards or titles or achievements. What we’re seeking is not exactly a psycho-therapy session or a healing support group. Neither is it a religious experience. What we’re about is more like what Abraham Heschel wrote: “Being human is difficult. Becoming human is a lifelong process. To be truly human is a gift.”
I go to church on Sunday to get closer to God. I have met many hours with counselors to try to get my id, ego and superego working together as a team. A support group helped me get through the aftermath of a divorce.
My men’s group, in Heschel’s words, is more about becoming a human being. I pray that you can find relationships in which, and by which, you can become strong by becoming weak.