It appears that another hot day is on the way.
I'm thinking more this morning about men, emotions, and "acting out." Like so many men in our culture, I have often been prone to first repressing my feelings, and then allowing them to manifest in unpleasant, dangerous, foolish ways. I'm not universalizing: not all men repress their feelings, and not all women express theirs in healthy ways. But for close to twenty years, from adolescence into my thirties, I regularly turned my fears and hurts into self-destructive and exploitative behavior. I medicated with substances, I acted out sexually, and (though most folks in my life today have never seen it) I was a first-class "rager." I'm amazed that in the late '80s and early '90s, I wasn't shot on the freeways of Los Angeles; I had as toxic and nasty a case of chronic road rage as any I have ever seen. (No weapons, mind you, but lots of screaming and "bird-flipping" and wildly erratic driving.)
Last night, I gave thanks for the fact that I don't "repress and act out" anymore. Though Wednesday evenings during the school year are given over to youth ministry, in the summer I belong to a men's group. About 19 or 20 guys, ranging in age from mid-twenties to mid-sixties, gather in private homes once a week to sit and talk. Last night was only my third week with these fellas, and I can say I am enormously relieved to be doing this sort of work again. It's been too long since I was a part of a group of men committed to spiritual and emotional growth!
In the group last night, we talked about divorce and marriage and confronting fears. As you might expect with such a group, some men are unmarried, others are divorced, others are happily married, and still others are struggling in very unhealthy marriages that teeter on the brink of dissolution. What I like about the energy of "male space" (and this is not a suggestion that this could never happen with women present) is that the focus is not merely on respectfully hearing and validating the feelings of the person who is sharing. We do that, of course, but we also work -- often very confrontationally (yet politely) to push our brother towards taking positive action. Sometimes this gets carried away; so many men I know (including myself) are "good fixers". But though serious life problems can't be solved in one two-hour group meeting, there's something magical and immensely cathartic about having 18 other men paying attention to what's going on in your life, and gently but firmly confronting you.
In any case, we spent part of the evening talking about feelings and impulses. We all know so well how to repress and deny our feelings; most of us also have some hilarious, tragic, shameful, painful stories about what we've done when "acting out" as a result of that repression. We've raged, we've sexualized inappropriately, we've abused alcohol and drugs, we've gambled compulsively -- all the usual stuff. It's not new to any of us that we have to find a middle ground between denying our feelings and being consumed by them. But I was struck by something that James, our group facilitator, said last night. He said (and I wish I could remember his exact words) something like "We first have to learn to tolerate our own emotions, and then we have to share them." I thought about the Latin origin of tolerate, from the verb "to bear" or "to carry". And for whatever reason, that word worked perfectly for me.
All of my acting-out behavior -- and the acting-out behavior of so many other men -- has been rooted in the absolute inability to bear feeling negative emotion. We can't just hold the feelings at the surface, neither denying them or throwing them in other people's faces. But one of the clear benefits of grace, of spiritual work, is the ability to bear what was previously unbearable, knowing and trusting that that burden will not be with us always. Emotions, blessedly, are transitory (more so for those of us who are Geminis, it's true) - learning to acknowledge them, carry them, and yes, share them (as we did last night) is challenging but essential work.
Many people who have never done men's work have some rather unfortunate stereotypes about what goes on in such groups. In most cases, there's no drumming! There's not necessarily a lot of weeping, either; profound emotions were shared last night and no tears were shed -- but we've learned a long time ago that weeping is not a reliable indicator of having "gotten deep." We didn't drink beers or smoke cigars; this group of screenwriters and teachers and mortgage brokers and therapists and actors and financial planners and trucking company supervisors simply sat in a circle (some on the floor, some sprawled) and talked about some of the most intimate aspects of our lives.
I shared a bit about my father and my reaction to his death. The lads "checked in" with me to make sure that I wasn't secretly "acting out" to cope with my feelings; they expressed their sincere sympathies. And they made it clear to me, as some of my commenters so kindly have, that I am not doing anything wrong by simply moving forward and coping and teaching. I had worried I was unhealthily covering up my grief with activity, but I realize that I've been very attentive to my feelings in this past week -- and that the comfort I take in returning to work is not an unhealthy sign of denial but an indicator that getting back into normal activity, where I can do what I love and what I'm good at, is actually the healthiest way of coping -- at least right now. That may seem like a "duh" realization, but it was absolutely revelatory for me. I feel loads better this morning.