- The Need
- The Solution (you are here)
- How It Feels
- How To Participate
- Code of Aspirations
- Code of Aspirations Explanations
I already told you what I miss in some of the world’s best groups. Now let me tell you what I plan to steal:
- Men’s Group – there’s something about being a man. At the very least, being categorized as a man imposes a certain set of expectations on you that is unique to half of the population. It’s a one-size-fits-all mandate that actually fits no one. Pretty much everyone who was born with a penis then struggles against that mold that they don’t quite fit. That’s something. Maybe that’s reason enough to say that this being a man thing is significantly unique from being a woman. I’m still interested in experimenting with a co-ed group, but men-only certainly seems simpler for starters.
- Bible Study – These guys have an ethical aspiration that most of the others lack. They aim at something higher than themselves. It’s not good enough to just rest as the person I am today. There is something more important than what I currently am, and I want to never forget that, while beauty and value are inherent, character takes maintenance and enrichment takes work.
- Masculinity Retreat – Space away. It is important that my feet come off the hamster wheel and my brain gets a fresh environment in order to take inventory of the deeper things.
- Support Program – Vulnerability, authenticity and acceptance! Adaptation to change. Hearing other people’s current mistakes. Autonomy. The list goes on an on. If it weren’t for my lack of a chemical addiction and desire to explore other topics, this is where I’d live. These are my people.
- Book Club – The secret wisdom of our species is hidden in books. I may not have actually completed an entire book until after college. Then I discovered I loved reading when I didn’t have to any more.
- Social Society – I didn’t think community was important to me until I lost them all at once. After sitting face-to-face with suicide, I realized that there’s probably something important to this connection-with-humans thing.
- Co-op or Networking Association – At least when I attend, there’s a bravery to it. I hate them so much, but I tell myself, “Put one foot in front of the other, and be open to the idea that there might be something valuable here.”
- Accountability Partner, Parent, or Pastor – As long as what I’m being held to is what I’ve already said, it can be helpful to run into an actually curious, “…but didn’t you also say that…” Others usually see the self-contradiction more starkly, and it’s probably impossible to live without hypocrisy, but at least I want to be able to see it.
- Meditation Meeting – There’s so much to love here. (1) We’re all from wildly different backgrounds, but engaged in a shared spiritual journey, so there is necessarily a strong acceptance of others, despite conflicting worldviews. (2) With so many different worldviews, there’s too much to “fix” in the other people (if the goal was to make them more like you). So we end up not starting down that path. (3) Despite a mountain of differences, we are dedicated to finding a way to imagine, “You are just like me.” (4) In this way, we are focused inward, using differences as catalysts of self-improvement instead of conflict.
- Self-Improvement Collective – These people sincerely belief that change is possible, and are often willing to experiment with anything and embrace radical change to reach their goals.
What I Want
*I want a container for concurrent, vulnerable self-exploration, where the safety of the group isn’t based on the beliefs we share, but the judgement we lack.
*I want to break bread with an ill-defined group of gluten free, raw dairy, lactose intolerant, carnivorous vegetarians. We each need something different, but we all sit down together without judgement about the other’s ridiculous diet because we know there is a more important commonality: we all need to be nourished. And we all trust each other to find what is best for them. That does not mean that all diets are equal or there are no nutritional truths. But the guy who deeply feels he needs to try an all-sugar diet in the face of diabetes? He still has a place at the table as long as he wants it. We are all doing our best to do our best.
*I just want a place to be…
- HONEST, where
- Attendance is an admission of brokenness
- I am known, fully me, changing as I plod through the journey of my heart.
- We don’t have to like or agree with the material we choose or others in the group.
- CURIOUS, where
- The meetings don’t end with conclusions.
- Silence is more acceptable than a trite or reactionary answer.
- Experimentation is valued over perfection, and curiosity over judgement.
- ACCEPTED, where
- I don’t need to hear your deepest secrets unless they are relevant to the discussion.
- There is room for current mistakes, not just stories of messiness in the past. Enough grace exists to toy with the outer edge of our capabilities.
- Full acceptance does not require even partial agreement. You cannot say anything that I disagree with enough to reject you.
- Baggage is assumed, but not the project (take that to therapy).
- Your indiscretions don’t disqualify you from having an opinion, goal or dream. You are complicated and unique, and perpetually valuable. You are not about to be met with judgement.
- AUTONOMOUS, where
- The “leader” has nothing to teach, present or prove.
- Goals are discovered from the inside rather than assigned from the outside.
- A confession doesn’t initiate an intervention.
If it sounds like I need a friend, I do. But I can easily make more friends. Anyone can! Just follow your mother’s advice and, “be the kind of person that others would want as a friend.” But I’d rather be me, and not everybody wants a ‘me’.
If it sounds like I’m lonely, I’m not. I’m worse than lonely. I’m parched. I’m thirsty for something that I only know exists because my thirst calls out for it.
The Music Department
I actually came closest to this “alone, together” feeling as a music major in college. Our hallways of not-quite-sound-proofed individual practice rooms were a raucous space throughout the day. I didn’t notice anyone else’s music most of the time because I was too busy making noise on my own instrument with the assignment in front of me, repeatedly attempting the next phrase that I couldn’t quite play yet.
If I sat quietly in my tiny room, I could hear others playing – mostly messing up, since we were all toying with the outer edge of our capabilities. I would often hear someone else attempting a piece I had learned months or years earlier. I could play it better than they could, but I did not need to intervene. They had their own teacher, and what they needed most was the struggle in which they were currently engaged. I was likewise grateful that no one stopped in to fix my problems while I practiced. I, too, had my own teacher and my own goals.
I would hear students far superior to me, whose worst mistakes still sounded more impressive than my masterpieces. Depending on the day, those musicians often either inspired me to keep practicing or convinced me there was no point in ever practicing again. But mostly, I just thought it was cool to have a room amongst these other musicians. I had no judgement on their lives. I couldn’t even see them. In all likelihood, we had nothing in common – not color or gender or politics or worldview or level or style – nothing but the common struggle against our current capabilities to be just a tiny bit better than we were the day before.
And sometimes not even that! Many a practice room saw me take early morning naps or make out with my girlfriend or study for an upcoming test in another class. But I showed up because, at least for that time, I wanted to take advantage of the space created for aspiring musicians.
There was no barrier to entry except the desire to be on the path, and there was no penalty to leaving the path. We knew what we were, and just as importantly, what we weren’t. There were others on that same campus who were aspiring to be doctors and mathematicians and astrophysicists. But we had a calling – if even for that moment – to dive into this aspiration, because the struggle beckoned us. There was no looking up or looking down, just looking ahead, at the music on my stand.
- First, I’m at least a little afraid this kind of connection isn’t real. Why does this group not already exist? Why are all the other men not compelled by the lack of autonomous community in their own lives? What do they have that alleviates their need for this thing and where do I get some? I don’t want to want this anymore than a deer wants to be thirsty; I’d rather find a reason why I don’t need it. I’m afraid I should be embarrassed and I’m just not yet.
- You’re not supposed to say out loud that you don’t like the systems that exist. They were created long ago by professionals. It’s been good enough for everyone else, and if you’re normal, it should be good enough for you. The systems are “right” and the admission that you don’t fit in there means there is something wrong with YOU.
- I’m also seriously haunted by the echoes in my head of the voices I’ve heard in real life that list the reasons I can’t, I shouldn’t, I don’t deserve to pursue community, or that what I’m looking for isn’t a real thing and I’m crazy. Am I crazy?
I’m Not Crazy
I know everybody else feels this way – at least at some point – because there are a million pop songs about feeling like you don’t fit in, every modern poem talks about belonging, and every gang, political affiliation, and religious cult depends on it.
But I don’t men who are really trying to change it, as if that’s just a phase and I’m supposed to be over it. So maybe this is all just an embarrassingly public case of arrested development…? Superficially, there’s a bright, stinging fear that I just need to chill out and let this pass. But below that, there is a deeper, more substantial ache that knows it won’t pass. I’ve felt this way all my life. I’ve sat in a million groups and had the Voice of Restless inside screaming either “No one is being real!” or “We’re not actually doing anything here!” Usually both.
Why is it that time after time, men have said to me in hushed tones, “I feel like I’m always the one reaching out, and I wish I didn’t have to. I wish they would reach out, but I guess not everyone is looking for that kind of friendship,” or “I stopped attending and no one even noticed!” We don’t fear we’re missing out when we’re not there; we fear no one else is missing out on us. We fear that our absence does not create a void. We want to be void-worthy.
So maybe I’m more long-winded about it, and maybe I’m just a more aggressive pursuer of solutions, but I think there have to be a bunch more freaks out there who are something like me. I’m not the crazy one. These desires are common to man.
The Crazy Ones
The crazy ones are the ones who convince themselves they are content with a “study” or a “ministry” that neither honestly studies nor truly ministers. The crazy ones are the ones who plan with perfect logic, the trajectory of their lives and then expect their plan to stick. The ones who would sooner expel gas in public than their inner child in private. Who feel love and never express it, feel loss and never acknowledge it, feel lonely and never say it.
They fix every feeling, just as it’s beginning to be felt, not only in crisis, but always. They are in control. Put together. Composed, and decomposing. When you ask, they are always “Doin’ great!”, but only as a prescription, never as a description. No, their lives – their feelings – never get described, labeled, nurtured or treated. They deny themselves and those around them of every treasure mined from the depths of “mad”, “sad”, or “bad”. Reality is an illness for them, and bottle of “Man Up” is all that’s left in the medicine cabinet.
But they are the “normal” ones, the majority, the common man. Because, amidst a populous that is determined to slather their hearts with others’ expectations and defile their personhood with the putrescence of conformity, a clear line glows between what is normal and what is natural, separating the legitimate from the logical, and reorienting the concept of “perfect” itself. The Divine calls out, “You were beautiful before you tried to be. Re-find the you that rests. Be perfect, even as I am perfect.”
We might be the freaks, but we’re not the crazies.
Almost – Encounter Groups
By chance or fate or divine intervention, I have discovered the actual writings of a man I have oft quoted and never really known: Carl Rogers. His book “A Way Of Being” was a peek into my own soul. I am open to eventually regretting his influence, but at the moment, he is an important guide on my journey. A few of his condensed thoughts on group experiences are here: http://www.elementsuk.com/libraryofarticles/myway.pdf
Almost – Spiritual Directors
Though I’m not a fan of the title “director”, I think the principles of Spiritual Direction or Spiritual Companionship sound a lot like what I’m looking for. Warning signs include a huge price tag to be “trained” in it, and endorsement from the Christian establishment. It claims to be a non-controlling relationship, with a threatening control on who can practice it.
“Supremely, spiritual directors/mentors/pastors are persons who have a sense of being “established” in God. Otherwise they are too dangerous to be allowed into the soul space of others.”
But I’m willing to keep an open mind about the guiding principles. After all…
“Most great things out there only look perverted because the church leaders got a hold of them. If you can dig past those damned arrogant pricks at the top, you’ll find a lot of value in the original principles!” – Jesus, Matt. 23
Permission to Experiment
We repeatedly emphasize, “This is an experiment!” to give ourselves permission to mess up and to question the logistics or goals of the group. This isn’t a proven formula yet. It’s a recipe we we’re all creating together. Even these words in this sentence are perpetually up for revision. You will, no doubt, help form the group, just as surely as it will help form you.
Because this is an experiment and none of the outcomes are predetermined, nothing we can do could wreck this. The goal is learning from a self-exploration experience. Whatever happens in the group (including disbanding), we can look inward and notice what reaction arises. That is a successful group: when participants look inward and notice, in curiosity, what is going on in there, however dark or enlightening it may be.
One Last Disclaimer
At a networking meeting, it’s perfectly acceptable to offer someone a drink. Nothing wrong with the group. Nothing wrong with the offer. It’s what they’re doing there.
At an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, it’s perfectly unacceptable to offer someone a drink. Nothing wrong with the group. Nothing wrong with the rule. It’s just not what they’re doing there.
Perhaps you’ve had the experience of being appalled at how someone else could rudely interrupt another person’s grief with hollow platitudes and dismissive “encouragements” to “just get over it” or “move on!”, only to learn later that the grieving person looked back on that experience as being transformative. It was just what they needed.
You don’t know what another person needs. Maybe what someone really needs is for someone to come in and fix their problems and tell them what’s wrong with them or their boss or their spouse. That’s just not what we’re doing here. We don’t look down on the other types of groups that we also attend and enjoy. We’ve just got a different set of aspirations here.
Read on: What a Group Feels Like