Why Men's Gatherings?

From Menletter April 2008


By Tim Baehr

First Impressions

He was bigger than life: deep, masculine voice; athletic body; full of raunchy jokes and good humor. He seemed friendly enough, but perhaps a bit distant. Maybe a bit intimidating. He would probably contribute a lot to this men's gathering, but he looked like he could make his way in life on his own confident terms. Call him Mr. C., for Confident.


(All of these men are imaginary. You or I may have met men like them, but they're all off the top of my head.)


He was less than imposing: slightly nasal voice, pot belly, sarcastic sense of humor bordering on confrontational. Mostly quiet, though, as if he might spend the gathering simply observing and judging the rest of us. Call him Mr. J., for Judgmental.


He was almost invisible: balding, a little stooped over, thick glasses. Said little, seemed to want to go somewhere and hide, like he'd arrived here after taking a wrong turn somewhere but was too polite, or too shy, to back out. He might spend the week holed up in his cabin. Call him Mr. O., for Out of Place.


He was a wild one: flamboyant shirt, long hair, headband. Real earth-father type, seemed to know some of the rest of the guys, and was knowledgeable and ready to share his thoughts about mythology, poetry, the history of the men's movement, various typical rituals at men's gatherings. Could be a real asset to the group, or a disruption. In some way, almost as intimidating as Mr. C. He would bear watching. Call him Mr. W., for Wildman.


When we see most men - casually or even in everyday encounters, we often react to their outward appearances and behavior. Tom is awesome - he really has it all figured out. Sam is a jerk - why is he so successful? Peter can't be trusted. Fred would be great to have a beer with, but he's a bit distant. Allen is very popular with the ladies. We may get to know some of them fairly well, but men in general can be intimidating to other men. We seem to judge each other on a short scale from awesome - and unapproachable - to contemptible - and unapproachable. With nothing much in between. Maybe it's our evolutionary heritage to be suspicious of other men, to regard them as rivals, and as uniquely different from ourselves. Frankly, we can be creeped out by the very "otherness" of other men. We feel envy. Or contempt. Or fear.

The Gathering

Then we go to a men's gathering. We stay in rustic cabins, far away from city and suburb. We start out slowly, with a get-acquainted circle and some group activities, some of them even a bit zany. We share a couple of meals, and cleanup afterward. We begin to observe, in an environment outside our daily lives, that we all have a lot in common, even before we know each others' stories.


As the men begin to trust each other, the stories come out in whole-group or small-group activities or in one-on-one conversations. We discover that Mr. C. is in the middle of a horrible divorce (or maybe a corporate takeover that will cost him his job). Mr. J. is a highly-paid computer consultant with a few patents of his own. He is quietly observing other men because he has no idea what other men are like and has little confidence that he measures up as a man. Mr. O is the CEO of a medium-sized company, a self-made millionaire - and he has just lost his grandson to cancer. Mr. W. is a recovering alcoholic who has been unemployed for two years, living on food stamps and small support from his parents, who have little money themselves. He's plunged himself into men's work to try to find some resolution in his hard life, including having been raped by an uncle three decades ago.


We also discover, as the week unfolds, that Mr. C. is unsure of himself and desperate to be liked. He also writes powerful poetry with images that will stick with us for years. Mr. J. finds that he has a deep empathy with other men, and that men have begun coming to him for advice. Mr. O., in beginning to heal from the loss of his grandson, finds a deep spiritual place inside himself. And Mr. W. finds that he can be quiet and learn from other men. He learns to vent and release the rage against his now-dead uncle and begin a process of forgiving.


We discover, further, that it's not all Sturm und Drang. Men can be funny - zany - hilarious - even in the face of crushing life events. We find, as a group, that we may be more resilient that we thought.


What's happening here? In a weekend or longer, we have been introduced to a bunch of men with whom we might have little in common on the surface, so little that we might never get to know them. Or if we did, it might take a few months or even years to learn what we can in a few days at a gathering.


We may not be ready to share our own story, but we hear stories that may be funny, blood-curdling, inspirational, or some combination of the three. And we find out a few things about ourselves and about men in general:


      We have wounds that we carry around, some close to the surface of our lives, and some buried deeply into a numb place in our essence.

      We have triumphs, small and large successes that we and others may have devalued, sometimes for years.

      We realize that our stories are not unique. They may differ in the details, but we can often find one, two, or legions of men sharing similar stories. We are not as alone as we imagined. Our stories, even the most difficult and burdensome ones, can be carried on more than just our shoulders.

      We discover that building trust, sharing stories, and realizing we are not alone can be carried back into our everyday lives. We have a world of men out there suffering and celebrating along with us.


This is not touchy-feely stuff in which our deepest feelings are dragged out of us against our will. I've found that we share our stories, or parts of them, when we're ready. I've never been to a gathering that forces any activity on the men or ridicules them for not taking part. And sometimes just being a witness to activities at a gathering can be enough.

Why Men?

Why just men? Why can't men's gatherings be people's gatherings? I think, in addition to the obvious issues of sexual tension, it's because, from the age of ten or so, males behave differently in the presence of females. I remember us guys boasting, showing off, being gross - or being shy, clamming up, hiding our feelings - when girls were around. The differences in behavior may change as we get older, but they remain.


I've noticed that, among just men, boasting and showing off get very little mileage. Girls seem to have bullshit detectors for these kinds of behavior in boys. The detectors are more likely to be activated in boys and men when there are no females around. Being gross is still fun but loses its shock value.


Even when we are able to reveal our deepest emotions, our failures, our triumphs to women, aren't we seeking comfort, sympathy, acceptance, approval? That's what we hope for, anyway.


To get comfort, sympathy, acceptance, and approval from other men, especially a roomful of men who have come to know each other well, is different in how it arises and develops.


Women have told me that they have a natural and quick understanding of each others' issues, and in women-only groups making revelations comes easily. A kind of woman-to-woman bond is already there. Understanding is openly and freely expressed, with sympathy, stories from others who've had the same experience, and advice.


In mixed groups, women may respond to men's emotional revelations in the same way as among women. But I've heard from men that sometimes there's a bit of an edge - disapproval, challenge, maybe scorn. I think women may be as uncomfortable with men's emotions as men are purported to be.


I've seen understanding happen in roomfuls of men, played out in a masculine way. After some hesitation (it is harder to get started), a man will begin his story, and often the room will fill with grunts of recognition and appreciation. Though it doesn't always happen this way, typically no one needs to say "Me too" or offer verbal validation. No one interrupts with advice or a story of his own. Bonds are forged with a few well-chosen words, a question or two to draw out details, or just a shoulder-squeeze or a hug.


In such a roomful, men realize, suddenly or slowly, that they are part of a vast brotherhood. I've heard men say, "For the first time, I feel like a real man."

A Word or Two on Ritual

The ritual aspect of men's gatherings - the drumming, sweat lodges, truth circles, talking sticks, telling of myths, blindfold walks, mask-making, and so on are a way of making our work concrete. A ritual or ritual object is a tangible sign of some internal change. When we use the talking stick, we are making manifest our respect for other men and what they have to say. When we enter a sweat lodge, we are using a physical ordeal to open our spirits to a new way of thinking or feeling. When we drum or dance to drums, we are releasing our everyday consciousness to bring it to a deeper level through rhythm.


In most of our society, little boys are taught to sit still and behave - highly valued behaviors in a regimented school (or office!). Maybe it's the adult men who sit still and behave who are the overage boys. The rituals at a men's gathering are analogs to what real, initiated men have done for tens of thousands of years.


I was apprehensive and uneasy when I went to my first week-long men's gathering. Would there be hazing as part of some arcane initiation rite? Would there be some in-group of knowledgeable men, with us neophytes being relegated to the margins? Would there be some wild goings-on that would make me uncomfortable? Turns out it was none of the above. I got drawn into the activities and fellowship and had a blast.


Depending on where we're coming from in our lives, going to a men's gathering for the first time can be terrifying, scary, off-putting, exhilarating, or life-changing. Some of us may see only pointless silliness in the rituals. We may be afraid that all the men except us will be weird in some way. Or we may have a deep longing that resonates with what we've learned by reading.


If I were reading this article and had never been to a men's gathering, I might be adventurous enough to want to plunge right in, or I might be wary enough to want to ease into the experience. A weekend gathering could be a good place for a more modest start. I'd remind myself that at least some of the men, maybe a majority of them, have gathered before for this event - some of them many times - and survived. In many of the weekend events I've been to, the attendees themselves create the program by sharing their knowledge in small workshops. I've seen workshops ranging from knife sharpening and computer repair to men's intimacy and the sociology of pornography.


But the contents of the workshops are less important, in my opinion, than simply being with other men, building a community of trust and good humor, sharing meals, and being away from home and work, city and suburb. I rather like my "critical mass" theory: Get a dozen or so men together in the woods, with good hearts and good intentions, and magic happens.


I wrote last year in more detail about what happens at men's gatherings. You might want to read about it here: http://tinyurl.com/3vkhav. There are links in that article to further information about weekend and week-long gatherings.


I hope you'll consider going to a gathering! Mr. C., Mr. J., Mr. O., and Mr. W. are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Mr. You to help enrich their lives.


ęCopyright 2008 by Tim Baehr