Not knowing. Not having the answers. Is this a masculine response? How do we rate as males if we admit we don't know the answer?
Facilitating twice a month in one of the MRC's five weekly drop-in men's support groups, I encounter the challenge of not knowing, not fixing, often. Our ground rules even remind participants that we're not there to fix or give advice. I see men transforming the way they talk to each other about the issues they bring up. How do you give support without trying to solve the problem? It's something that many of us men have to learn as adults, usually by unlearning the well-conditioned problem-solving response. We have to let go of expectations that we know what to do, that our heads will deal with what our hearts are experiencing. We have to learn to sit with someone else's pain, or our own, without rushing to find the path out of the pain.
It isn't what we were trained to do. But every week, that's what happens. Men sit in a circle, hear each other's stories, share their own experiences, and just acknowledge our feelings. It's something women are often schooled in doing, but for men it can be a whole new way of relating. Don't just do something, the joke goes, sit there.
The miracle is, change happens. Men feel heard, they benefit from each other's shared understanding. Nerve endings calm down. Those who speak and those who listen deepen their self-knowledge, strengthen their connection with each other. We deal with tough stuff: relationships in trouble or ending, illness and death of people dear to us, economic hardships and job struggles, and of course the residue of past hurts and trauma that won't go away. (We share the good stuff too: new or newly enhanced relationships, joyful experiences, and just the daily bread of a healthy life.) Through it all we sit with each other and send the message: you're not alone; we're here with you and for you. And men go away feeling different from when they came in. The problems aren't solved, but maybe the guys are a step further toward being able to cope with them.
Make no mistake: this is social change work. Every man who walks though our doors, sits in a support group for the first time, and learns what it's like to speak honestly about his life, is a different man afterwards. He has experienced a different way of relating to other men: not as competitors, not as critics, not as fixers, but as compatriots of the heart. If he keeps coming, perhaps he won't tolerate the superficial or competitive way many men interact "out there" any more. Maybe he'll relate to his partner or children or parents differently. Perhaps he won't accept old models of masculinity that say you've got to be on top of everything to be a "real" man. He might not be able to ignore sexist or homophobic remarks the way we're "supposed to." He might begin to model another way of being male that will be news to other men-and women-around him.
Gandhi said, "Be the change you want to see in the world." Every week we give men five opportunities to be their own change. And then we sit and marvel at the results.
Michael Dover is the MRC's development director and website manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.