Two weeks ago my best friends and I gathered around a TV set and watched ourselves die.
Not literally, of course. We appeared on Channel 4's Cutting Edge documentary ‘The Secret Life of The Pub’, which claimed to reveal what men talk about when women aren't in the room.
They edited well for their audience, but they didn't do us any favours in the way we were presented, or in the way the interactions of a men's groups were portrayed. Our depth of connection ended up on the cutting room floor, along with our real life experiences and any nuggets of wit and wisdom we’d hoped to have shared. Meanwhile, methods of prolonging ejaculation (thinking about the dinner ladies at school) and ways of managing life-long phantom erections ended up cutting us up. Yes, we cringed and squirmed with embarrassment.
The electric buzz of fear we shared beforehand was priceless! We felt like men on a mission, an honourable quest, a band of brothers facing the unknown. We could fly together after this, but we also somehow knew we were going to die together.
I'm A Wonderful Thing Baby
The last time we shared such a buzz was when we were hiding behind the stage curtains at my wedding waiting for our cue. We surprised my new wife and all our guests with our narcissistic boy-band choreographed moves to Kid Creole and the Coconuts’ “I’m A Wonderful Thing Baby”, with minimal rehearsal and with all eyes upon us. Somehow we knew we could pull it off and we’d be heroes for it!
So the Channel 4 thing has come and gone and now forms one panel on my life's tapestry of weird and wonderful experiences, alongside working with Mother Teresa with the dying in Calcutta, walking on hot coals and shark feeding in Fiji during mating season.
Why did we agree to do it? One answer clarified in my mind the very next morning.
I was up early to trek across London to attend a seminar on how to engage older men. Few issues are closer to my heart than men, our mental and emotional wellbeing, communication, depression, isolation and reducing the escalating suicide figures. No one there had watched the show, not even my two elder men’s group friends, who had recorded the show and gone to bed. So this was a safe space to re-engage with normal life and let the confusing buzz of the previous night pass.
'Men must be stupid then!'
We soon found out that this seminar was not a safe space to be male. As the issue of why men don't go for regular prostate examinations arose, one female care worker proclaimed "…men must be stupid then!"
This was allowed to pass by the ineffectual facilitator, so I took him to task. However even when said woman apologised, she was immediately appeased with “Don't be so daft, there's no need to apologise here!”
I couldn't help wondering how this type of dismissive, condescending attitude contributed to engaging older men. Or to engaging men at all?
At another point my well mannered elderly male friend used a swearword. He was being expressive rather than aggressive, but he was chastised for his language and left humiliated. I wondered whether men are seen as dangerous and therefore there is a widespread cultural move towards our domestication. Neutered like unruly cats?
Better Icarus than Gollum
I made the point that older men don't need to be saved, patronised, smothered or told off for not complying. As a 50-year-old with over a quarter of a century's experience of working with men I made the point that we need space to basically exist. To be met where we are, express and operate from the ways our minds work and not have to fight for airspace.
If being part of any community means selling out on ourselves, allowing our spirits to be broken or having to deal with passive-aggression, aggression, humiliation or abandonment, then I for one will isolate and have some safe space to myself!
I entered both the TV show and the workshop with the same aim. I had hoped that some good might come to men, sharing what men's groups have to offer, doing our bit to open spaces where men can express ourselves authentically as we step up to healthier lives and contributions of value to our communities. Would I take the risk of humiliation before the eyes of millions again? Without a doubt, yes – I’d rather fly towards to sun and risk getting my wings singed than crawl around in pointless safety.
Man’s nature is to fix things. People, shelves, situations. Men often believe that women tell us about their issues because they want solutions. I have had to learn to control this urge and stay in the helpless pain of a conversation as my wife debriefs her day with both passion and pain. She generally wants a listener, not a fixer. I have learned to ask “Would you like me to listen, or come up with solutions?” To be there, to simply listen and to understand is generally as much of a hero as she needs.
For me, and older men in particular, the same principle often applies. Yes, sometimes we men do need to be fixed. The men around me are growing better at asking for support when we need it. But often we just need to be heard, and we cannot be heard unless we take opportunities to speak.
Last month ‘Newsweek’ wrote The Man Whisperer chapter about my work with men’s groups in their new book. I have been successfully running my men’s groups for over a dozen years now and am currently writing my how-to-run-a-men’s-group handbook. I have made our Check-in Round and Ground Rules freely available.
Ground Rule 12 (of 12) is entitled Live Beyond The Rules:
Boyish rebellion might be less efficient than manly exploration. Playing small to be liked in the group may be less valuable than playing big, possibly being challenged and growing with the experience. Explore your survival rules, restrictions and our boundaries to claim your authentic perspective and position in your life.
I’ll shamelessly continue to take risks, spread my wings and fly. Out of the shadows and into the light.
Before the we started filming for the TV show, a female researcher came in and told us: “You are our most articulate group on the show and we really want you to demonstrate how you can switch from emotional conversations with depth, to light conversations of erections and ejaculation control.” Hoodwinked, the joke was on us!
Yes, I’d do it again. They had a job to do, as I have a purpose to live. As millions now know, you can’t keep a good man down!
Photo credit: Flickr/Al King
By Kenny Mammarella-D'Cruz
Kenny’s group facilitation handbook: 'How to run a men’s group' will be out this year with full training programmes to follow. Contact him to stay in the loop and receive free chapters, updates, special offers, exclusive invitations, video tutorials, demonstrations and blogs for a better life.
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