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Voice Male - Winter 2006
Going to the Group: 10 Years Later
By Michael Burke
Not long ago, in a men's group I was facilitating a man said, with evident frustration, that he wished he could just make a concerted effort to work on himself, going to support groups and therapy for a finite period of time--say, two years--and then he'd be "done with it." Problem solved, now let's move on.
I could certainly relate to his impatience and desire for some definitive closure to his struggles, but I have to question the notion that one could make a two-year project out of personal growth, inner work, or emotional healing, and upon expiration of said time limit simply shake the dust off one's shoes and say goodbye to all that, walking off into the sunset on the Road to Wellville. We'd probably all sign on for that deal if we could, and maybe some can, but in my experience it doesn't work that way.
What I said to this man and the rest of the group that night was inadequate: I've been coming to men's groups for quite some time, have done some therapy and even trained to become a group facilitator, and still I find plenty of challenging issues to keep working on in my life.
So the bad news is, the work continues.
The good news is, the work continues.
Actually, for me it's now just over 10 years since I first set foot in a men's group at the Men's Resource Center for Change (MRC) in Amherst, Mass. I think about the men I met in those first few groups and wonder what they saw when they looked at me: a confused, scared, often depressed guy who thought his marriage was coming apart, the sky was falling, and the world as he knew it might be coming to an end.
I almost didn't get to that first group. I wanted to--I didn't really know what a men's group was, but something told me it was a door I needed to open--so when a therapist recommended the MRC groups, I made up my mind to go. I was all set to take the bus downtown one Sunday night--then at the last minute I bailed. Somehow I got up the courage to go the following week, and I was glad I did. Ten years later, I can't imagine my life without "the group."
I didn't know what was expected: Was it really OK to be honest? Really honest? Was it OK to actually be myself, in all the messiness of my confused life, my not-knowing, my pain, my shame? To my relief and amazement, it was OK--I was heard, supported, and not judged.
And so were the other men who came, some dropping in and out occasionally, some coming just once, and some, like me, showing up week after week. I was inspired by the transparent honesty, the earnest struggling of some of these men--particularly those older than I who had "been through it." Some had made lots of money, some had seen war, some had been abused as children, some were fathers, some were divorced, some had been with many women, some were gay or bisexual. In the groups I heard men of all ages taking responsibility for their mistakes, for their part in failed relationships, for absent or disconnected fathering, for lying, cheating, drinking excessively, acting abusively. I heard men owning their own feelings and actions rather than blaming others. I heard men acknowledging their vulnerability, admitting they felt scared, judged, shamed, lonely, sad, adrift, depressed.
These men's courage, their willingness to crawl painfully toward the answers or at least, as Rilke put it, to "live the questions," was a beacon for me, a torch that lit my stumbling way forward over many cold nights. Moreover, their acceptance of me and others--the gentle nods of understanding, the sharing of wisdom and hard-earned experience, the absence of blame, the occasional wry "Well, it's just another fucking growth opportunity!"--helped me to see that I was not alone, not crazy, nor any less of a man for feeling fear, inadequacy, sadness, shame. Many of these men--some of whom I still see today, some of whom moved on and whom I may never see again--truly gave me support and showed me kindness during that difficult time.
When I look back these 10 years past I see a personal journey: from floundering new participant in the groups, feeling isolated, scared, and unsure of himself, to a regular attendee who was starting to "wake up" to the realities of his life and, just as important, to feel better and make friends; from a nervous facilitator trainee to a proud new member of the facilitation team; and finally to veteran facilitator.
But this journey was far from a linear one, and remains ongoing. There have been many bumps and swerves in the road, and I'm sure there will be more. There have been times when I felt burned out even by my minimal commitment to facilitate one or two groups a month. Sometimes, driving down to facilitate a group, I would ask myself why I was still doing it; then, as often as not, something would happen: a new man would show up in obvious pain, a connection would be made, and one or more men would show they really needed for the group to be in existence that night. They needed a place to come and be with other men, in a noncompetitive, nonjudgmental setting, to share and air their feelings and to be heard, listened to, supported. I know they're grateful that the group is there for them that night, and I'm grateful too, because it reminds me what I'm doing there.
We're called facilitators because we don't "lead" or "run" the groups, we facilitate them. To me, this means allowing them to happen and unfold, not in a passive way, but by doing what is necessary--sometimes more, sometimes less--to make sure they are safe and that they flow and that every man in the group can be heard and be an equal member of the circle. It's our job to "create the space" and help maintain the atmosphere in which the group can come to life, and to make sure it's a safe container for men's feelings and that everyone's safety, confidentiality, and other boundaries are respected. We don't quite wind it up and let it go, we don't conduct it like a symphony orchestra, and we don't hold tightly to the reins as we lash the group forward into the night. It partakes a little of all of those, and it's not quite like any of them. On an average night, it's a good and beautiful thing, and gives me a warm feeling when I go home. On an exceptional night, it's magic.
But that magic comes from the combined energies and collective spirit of the group members, not primarily from us as facilitators. It's well to remember that, lest we get delusions of grandeur, even when participants sometimes seem to look up to us or think we're privy to some of "the answers" they haven't found yet.
I believe we're all on different paths, so it's not for me to tell another man how he should "fix" his own life--and anyway, in the MRC groups one of the things we practice is not giving advice: a difficult feat for men, who are typically trained to "solve problems" and "fix what's wrong." But men's various paths have similarities, and it may be that I can share my own experience, for what it's worth, and at least give that man something to ponder. When I'm facilitating, more and more the feeling I get is not "There but for the grace of God go I," but Wow, have I been there. And the past time implied in that sentence might be years ago--or just yesterday.
I think the 2- or even 10-year plan of emotional healing is probably unworkable, and I'm not necessarily any more "enlightened" than a new guy who walks into a group off the street. I do know that I'm a different person from the one who first came to a group a decade ago. I know that I've grown a lot, learned a lot, made some close friends and connections and in the process reduced my isolation and vastly expanded my support system. Overall, I'm a healthier, happier, better-adjusted guy than I was back then.
But what I wish I had told the man I mentioned at the beginning of this piece is that even with all that progress, even with 10 years of groups under my belt, I still struggle on many a day with the same old demons: depression, loneliness, pessimism, feelings of inadequacy and shame, even despair. I'm aware of these issues, most of the time, but I'm definitely still working on them, both internally and in my relationships, which aren't any easier for me than for anybody else. As a friend and fellow facilitator says, "You don't ever really slay the dragon. You just put it back in its cave for a while."
I've been blessed with a good marriage, a loving and supportive wife and family, and friends I trust and in whom I can confide. I'm still proud to be part of the facilitators' team, and happy each month to be able to help a few men have a place to come and be themselves, to share their lives and feelings without shame and without judgment, and without repercussions--like I did, and still do. My own life changed forever the night I braved the unknown and walked into my first men's group, and I shudder to contemplate who or what or where (or if) I'd be without that precious resource. The changes have been many, some great and some small, and some I probably can't see yet. Some, I hope, are still to come.