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When I was younger – sure, I could attend some church-sanctioned, predictably docile midweek “ministry”, even knowing that, despite the church’s pre-service PowerPoint advertisement about the “life transforming” groups, no real transformation was happening. At least what we were lacking in actual change, we made up for in what we called “fellowship” or “inspiration” or “discipleship” or “outreach” (which somehow could all be accomplished while bowling, as long as the lanes were reserved by a church leader; bowling on your own time is a “hobby”; bowling with the same friends on the church calendar is “ministry”). 

But I’m too old for that crap now. I know something is missing, and I need it too immediately to pretend it’s present when I know it’s not. I can sense that it has to do with community, but it’s not a group like any that I have experienced so far. And I’ve experienced a lot of groups, so I am quite certain I do not need another:

*[Wo]Men’s Group

Don’t get me wrong – women’s groups have their own problems.  But the man brand of crazy is the kind I have the most experience with.

I’ve never been hunting, I didn’t play football in high school, and I don’t like the taste of beer. I can’t cook a steak to perfection, and I don’t bond with dudes through “a good ribbing”, because publicly pointing out people’s actual insecurities usually just looks like bullying to me.  I’m more annoyed than endeared by any dude who randomly punches me in the chest. 

I don’t agree, in principle or in experience, with most sentences that start with, “As men, we…” unless it ends with “…have numerous, mobile gametes that search for eggs to fertilize.” Because that is actually what it means to be a “real man”, and not much else, as it turns out.  The rest of it is generalizations and stereotypes.

And I don’t have a problem with stereotypical men any more than I have a problem with stereotypical giraffes.  I’m just not one, so I’m not interested in joining a group based on that common ground. But I’d be happy to sit down and hear the struggles of being a giraffe or discuss how being our best selves manifests differently for each of us.

*Bible Study

I love the book. I love the people. I hate the format.

…also, I don’t love the book.  At least not the way it’s used. It’s an anti-establishment book that has been co-opted by the establishment; an anti-religious story that spawned a religion. It is beautiful and powerful, but religious organizations have reduced the scriptures to being their whore: they’ll tell you how great it is, how badly you need it, and sell it to you to make you feel better, but if you treat it a way they don’t approve of, they’ll rough you up.  I’d like to have a relationship with the Bible, but only if I can have Her without the pimp.

I also hate the part of the meetings where we “search” for the right answers to one of the elementary questions of “What do you think the Bible means when it says…”. I know the right answers. I have a degree in theology. I’ve memorized several entire books of the Bible in multiple translations. I can tell you what it meant in the original Greek and Hebrew, and give you seemingly new ways to re-state the concepts you already believe, so you can feel like you’ve changed something in your relationship with God without actually having to rumble with any conflict in your heart. I’m tired of playing church. It’s all so freaking boring! I beat that game and rescued the princess. Let’s do something in real life.

*Masculinity/Femininity Retreat

  1. I don’t want to become a ‘Promise Keeper’ who is ‘Wild at Heart’, or any other predefined mold that I can cram myself into so I can feel like I belong. I am just a ‘me’, and my journey is to uncover what that is.
  2. I don’t want a “band of brothers” or any other mellow-dramatic military analogy.  I am immediately turned off by anyone who wants to call out the “warrior within”, because the call is often accompanied by either a sales pitch or a pointless dare, and usually both.  I don’t think that tent camping in the mountains with some other pudgy, middle-aged suburbanites means I now understand the bonds formed at Iwo Jima.  I’m not actually at war, I don’t want to trauma-bond with anyone, and I especially don’t want to disrespect the experience of those who have.
  3. I don’t need a pre-planned, gender-wide guilt trip. I don’t think that “sexual purity is the foundation of the masculine journey.”  That might be true for some, but for a lot of the people I see at support groups, the foundation of their self-actualization is not found in taming their plumbing, but instead how they deal with their sobriety.  Or anger.  Or co-dependence.  Or suicidal ideation.  Or a million other things.
  4. As one of dozens more examples, I don’t know that every ‘real man’ is supposed to “lead his household.” Maybe…? But even if I did agree, I don’t trust that Reverend Keynote Speaker’s definition of “leading” is nearly as universal as he wants to convince us it is.

*Support Program

My soul is never more at home than at an AA, NA, or CR meeting.  I knew 12-steppers were “my people” from the first moment I stepped into a support group. It smelled like coffee, cigarettes and grace.  We start with vulnerability and owning our choices. We create space and have grace for each other’s daily failures. It is safe and honest and beautiful. The only cover charge is the humility to admit you don’t have your shit together.

But I don’t quite fit in for a few reasons: First, I’m not an alcoholic. I’ve never smoked a doobie, shot up on mushrooms or lit the cocaines with the riff raff in the back alley. Fortunately, I WAS raised in a home of deep co-dependence, so nowadays, “my people” will usually allow me to attend on that basis. (Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think I’m better than those people. I’m definitely worse.  My sins are too salacious for daytime TV and my story shocks even the hardest users. But my greatest handicap in life is being a human. And I think almost all my foils are not the problem – they are just symptoms that manifest when I’m trying to be something I’m not.)

One of the beautiful things about support meetings is that anyone can show up, and that no one will be judged for not showing up. But that also means there is a lack of intimacy.  They have vulnerability in spades. But sustained relationship over time? Not usually. And, because the group is focused on the 12 steps, there isn’t a lot of time to engage with new or other material. I wish I could explore with “my people” on other related topics. This is not a criticism of their method, but a definition of what I miss in the groups.

*Book Club

I love books!  I don’t care to spend time discussing what the author’s intent was; all that matters in any book is what it resonates or stirs up in me. Whether it’s Mein Kampf or Purpose Driven Life, the only message that matters is the message – in agreement or opposition to the author – that is extruded from my soul when the content of the text comes in contact with my spirit.  Art is a two-way street, so the truth and beauty exists in the collision of souls between artist and audience. 

A painting of a sunset cannot speak its own beauty without something in the observer to act upon.  So an artist sees great brush technique. The lover sees a night of romance. The man fresh from solitary confinement sees indescribable freedom. Each sees the full painting, but only hears a miniscule whispering of the complete message (much of which the artist did not even intend). In the same way, a book cannot speak its own ideas. You’ve read a word, a sentence, a paragraph, a book, a library, and you bring your mass of experience to every message you encounter.  That is what I want to hear – the collision of a different mass of experience next to mine.

Also, book clubs usually read books.  Fair enough.  But that misses out on movies, podcasts, music, and every other art that presents Truth to our lives.  Whatever the form, I want to experience deep messages that call me out to be the best me.

*Social Society

The church calls it “fellowship”, the rest of the world is more direct in just calling it “hanging out”. My soul is not fed by hanging out. It’s great.  I just don’t need more of it right now.  If I’m going to take time away from my hobbies, my work, my wife, and six small kids, it needs to either be more valuable than that, or significantly enhance what I bring to those domains.

*Co-op or Networking Association

Regardless of my occupation, the only service I want to provide when I attend is support and perspective. I want to show up as who I am and not what I do.  When I enter the door, I want to take off all the hats I wear.  ‘Me’ is the value I add to this group.

*Accountability Partner, Parent, or Pastor

No one else can direct my life and nothing good has ever come from others imposing their truth onto my choices. They can encourage me and lend strength to my journey, but ultimately, I alone am entrusted with the power and responsibility to steward my heart and walk out the fullness of healing. 

I don’t want people who will call me out to be more Godly, but instead to be more Jamin-ly, trusting me to hear what Christians would call [the] Holy Spirit for myself, and giving me the freedom to honestly change my mind about what I’ve heard or how I’ve heard it, even if my course correction conflicts with a message someone else believes they have received in their life. 

Even under the best intentions, manhandling my actions only displaces my symptoms: stopping my drinking only accelerates my smoking unless I’m addressing the reason I’m drinking in the first place. Accountability for actions is a great way to alter habits, but it’s a terrible way to cultivate a heart.  Self-control is not just self-suppression any more than driving a car is just staying out of the gutter. There is a higher calling than muting or taming our ‘sin nature’.

*Meditation Meeting

I love my group meditation.  They are some of the most open people, and definitely the most compassionate people I know.  But like the narrow focus of the support groups, our CCT meetings always target our meditation practice.

*Self-Improvement Collective

I don’t need an MLM-style ladder to climb or a set of motivational speeches.  I don’t want friends who know I’m destined to succeed, because I know I am fully capable of self-destruction and, in fact, it will take a persistent act of bravery to not succumb. I don’t even want friends who will always take my side. I just want fellow travelers who don’t need to take any sides. I will make mistakes and other people should not violate their own convictions to wander with me into my missteps.

Plus, I cannot truly improve myself anyway. I need a holy spirit within me to draw me back to a self I was created to be. I am listening for something deeper than a recognizable me – my internal plum line. And I’m going to start with curiosity about why I’m not aligning with it before I go hammering my actions into place or “transforming” myself into a “winner!”

If you can guarantee my results, you’re probably taking more ownership of my choices than I want to give you.  So I’m not looking for a group with the promise of any other trite provocation: “breaking free”, “transformation”, “developing the leader within” or “becoming an agent for change”. I’m not “up for the challenge” to join “an exciting, edge-of-your-seat journey on a path to greater fulfillment.”

And I get it. I’ve annotated a growing library full of self-help gurus. I’m a fan.  There’s plenty of good in there to incorporate into my routines and mindset, but I’m also at a place in my life where I’m most interested in truths that are equally true…

  1. even when they’re not being shouted at me,
  2. even if they don’t rhyme, and
  3. even when the adrenaline level is back down to normal.

If I have to stay “pumped” to remain inside the bubble of your truth, I think I’d rather just save my money, thanks.

The Mythical “Perfect” Group

This may come across more negatively than I mean it.  Let me clarify: I don’t look down on anyone attending any of those groups.  I could make a list of what I love about each group just as easily as the list I’ve made here to express what I miss in each group.  They can be effective at meeting their goals than the kind of group I’m hoping for.

  • Support groups can do a better job of maintaining sobriety
  • Bible studies can do a better job at studying the Bible
  • Networking associations can do a better job at networking.
  • …and on and on…

I just have different goals at the moment.

And, yes, I am painfully aware that any group that has humans in it is sure to be flawed, so my attendance immediately makes the group less “perfect”…whatever that would mean.  I am not looking for a perfect group.  I’m just looking for a different kind of group, with a different set of goals, to meet a different set of needs.

So even after my internal dialogue about contentment, and how there is no such thing as a “perfect group”, a penetrating itch persists between the shoulder blades of my soul, just out of the reach of those other groups. I want all my favorite parts of the groups that frustrate me. Maybe that’s too much to ask. I don’t think it is.

Plus, part of what I’m looking for can only be filled by the Divine anyway. S/he is the only One who can validate my existence and permanently stamp the passport that says I belong on this planet; that I have – and deserve – a space. No group can provide that.  That happens just between the Divine and me. So what I really want is to be left alone…together with others.

Read on: The Solution