Report: Men Gathering

Bellinter House, Navan, 30 September 1994.

A Report by Alan A. Mooney

This was an unusual weekend. Seventy men gathered to explore what it means to be a man. At the beginning no one really knew what was going to happen. We ranged in ages from 18 to 70 years with the average being around 40 years. It appeared to be a very diverse group as we all sat around making small talk and drinking coffee or tea. There was a certain falseness about it since we were all chatting but waiting for someone to take the lead and show us what to do.

It may not be unique in Ireland for such a group of men to gather together but it is not common. In fact the last time there was such a weekend was two years ago and indeed the present weekend was organised by a number of men who had been on the previous one.

This was not a “therapy” weekend. In fact it would have been very com­forting to be able to give it a name. We knew we would be playing drums at some stage because we had been encouraged to bring along a drum or some­thing that could be played like a drum – one man brought along a cooking pot! I had a Bodhran with me. Normally it is a wall decoration in my home and rarely has it been struck. Apart from that it was a question of ‘wait and see’.

Before we finally gathered in the main ‘conference’ room there was a small ritual that didn’t make a great deal of impact on me at the time. Each of the men were invited to pass through a room alone and on the way to pick a piece of paper with a message on it from a basket placed on a table. We were all given a designation of either ‘fire’ or ‘water’ and the message related to that element and, we discovered later, determined a small group structure which we would maintain throughout the weekend.

In the main conference room it began to become clear that this was not a ‘usual’ workshop. We began by starting to drum, at first tentatively, listening to the rhythm of the leaders and then taking up the beat. No introductions had been made at this stage, but the building sound of many people drumming and trying to find a harmony or resonance with other drummers was a kind of subtle introduction that broke down barriers. People looked to their neighbour and encouraged him or took a beat from him. We began to enjoy ourselves.

The weekend began. If I were to be glib about it, I could say it was a weekend of story telling. That would be true but it would not capture the incredible atmosphere that grew up between us during those days together.

What we discovered was the mystery of storytelling. For it was on that the weekend was based. It was about rediscovering things about being men through the medium of a well crafted story. The story was told to the accom­paniment of drumming by the leaders and at various stages we had the opportunity to tell what we thought was happening in the story. We dis­covered that the mystery of story is not in the story itself but in the hearts and experience of the people listening to it. We discovered our own stories.

The sharing of individual reactions to the various details of the story, as it unfolded, broke down the usual privacy of men. We began to see each other in ways that aroused understanding and sympathy rather than a usual male ‘power stand-off ‘. Allowing this to happen meant that we could be unsure of ourselves without having to compensate for that with defensiveness and aggression. We did agree though, that if aggression or anger were to come to the surface, we would deal with it without violence. That might sound trivial but the strength of feeling, at times in the groups, made me feel safer that we had made this agreement.

The story revealed woundedness in us and we came to understand that every man in the room had his own wound. It might have been inflicted physically or emotionally but it was a crippling wound that seemed to have the power to hold us back in our lives. It had the power to stop us being at peace with ourselves and with others.

We learned something we knew in our bones: That experiences that change a person’s life, mark that person. None of us have escaped being marked in ways that have undermined our sense of individuality and our sense of having a ‘right to be here’. Our wounds act as thresholds between what is going on inside us and what is happening in the outer world. Normally we do our best to hide the wounds we carry and so we do not see our own woundedness nor the wounds of others.

We began to learn to see the person coming out of the wound rather than judging each on the basis of our woundedness. The way to ensure that some­one will continue to wound others is to ensure that he is kept away from his own wound. We are good at denying our own wounds. It takes courage to face the terror of being out of control in our lives. It takes courage to face the possibility of being judged weak.

The story unfolded and we began to see the apparent chaos in each other’s lives. The barriers came down or for a time became transparent. This chaos was an indicator of the unfinished or denied experiences in the lives of the men on this weekend. Most of us were afraid. What would it be like if we broke down? Who would hold us? Where would it be safe? Would our world ever be safe again if we let go? All these questions hammered at us. It seemed everyone was asking them.

In some way men began to enter the world of their heart on this weekend. This world was entered by way of the individual wounds that each had been carrying and not allowing anyone else to know about. By allowing the wounds to be seen, the way was opened to permit another to come in, for a time, to share the desolation or pain inside. Each knew there would be a time to step back. To separate. This was understood and it made it safe to let go. Men could weep with other men because they knew that in this special context their weeping would not be used as another stick with which to beat them. They knew that they could go away from this place changed and the better for it. They discovered something most of us did not consider – It is possible for a man to trust another man and not die!

During the weekend there was some ignition of smouldering resentments and hurts in men’s lives and this was respected in the structure of the weekend. Men looking at the next step in the rest of their lives were con­fronted with their failure or the spectres of their earlier years. Unresolved and perhaps unresolvable relationships with fathers or traumas from childhood came to the surface.

Through the story we reopened these aspects of ourselves and touched the shame and the suffering inside ourselves. Men spoke of destroyed careers, deaths, lost lovers, damage done to others, damage experienced by them­selves. We touched the fire of loss, pain, shame, and guilt. The fire of lost opportunities or thwarted ambitions. We touched the fire of missing our fathers, whether they were living or dead.

To look at these things in an isolated way is lonely, to look at them with other men makes a real difference because in a strange way we came to know that we understand each other in a male way that is wholesome and welcome. It pours cooling water on the wound and helps it to heal.

Another kind of ‘water’ that made a great deal of sense to us was that each evening after we had finished the work of the day we were able to come together in the dining room where there was a bar available. Most unusual for serious workshops! We drank beer talked about the day and what had been happening for us. We made contact with other men in a ‘social’ setting that would otherwise have concerned itself with football or the latest political trivia. The experience of men gathering at Bellinter leaves an ache since it was too short and too sweet.