Men: From the Inside
Guest post: by Garry Gilfoy
I was recently asked to deliver professional development to some therapists on the topic of ‘men’s issues.’ I left my son’s football game to do so and found a gathering of about 60 people. The ten or so men attending were sitting on the periphery of the room.
I warmed up by reading a poem called Rain from Nowhere by Murray Hartin. It tells of a man with a young family. We catch him on the day he intends to end his life. After years of drought, he can’t see any way to hold on to the family farm. That same day he receives a letter from his father telling him of the tough times he’d had on the farm and how important it was to hang in there for his wife and children. Everything will be alright, assures his dad. It’s a heartbreaking poem. I can’t read it without tears rolling down my face. The whole room cried with me. When I composed myself again, I asked what it was about the poem that moved them. It was, predictably, the father-son relationship.
I then asked everyone to briefly consider some words they would use to describe God. Then to consider the same question about their fathers.
Before I could go on, one bright spark spoke up to say the descriptors of God and their father were the same. Others echoed their agreement. A few chirpy women close to the front said some lovely words like “unconditional love,” “acceptance,” and “supportive.” I thanked these women, raised my eyes to the horizon and said “men?” Out it poured – “distant, angry, non-existent, judgmental.” The contrast was stark.
I’d been asked to speak to this group partly because I train therapists myself, but also because I co-host regular men’s weekends. They are powerful events – no booze or drugs, no experts speaking down to people, no theorizing, no therapy and no talking over people. We speak openly and honestly of our own life experiences. We welcome silences. Tears and laughter are profuse. Within hours, hugs are commonplace. By the end of the weekend we do an affirmation ceremony, each of us saying just what it is we value about the others. That’s the hardest thing of all – being acknowledged for what we bring to others.
When these events began, we thought it was our duty to create themes to guide the weekends. We needn’t have bothered. Regardless of what we thought might be helpful – relationships, our working lives, changing roles – again and again the topic returned to father-son relationships.
And there was something I noticed over the years of revisiting this inexhaustible well of grief. Time after time I was deeply affected by the emotions of these brave men who would talk and cry in front of people they often hadn’t met before. My own father, long dead, was emotionally detached at best. Yet he was not violent, not irresponsible, not an alcoholic nor emotionally abusive. The many conversations about fathers were not true for me, yet they found a very deep resonance within me. I began to recognize this as how we experience archetypes. These stories go deeper than our personal relationship to our father in this lifetime.
There is a very profound father-son archetype that lies at the root of our relationship to our own God, or higher self, or whatever you deem to be the part of us that needs desperately to shine but so often cannot. Rather than the popular Jungian struggle for dominance between father and son, I’d suggest the higher archetype can be found in the Biblical phrase, “This is my Beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” It’s about recognition and acceptance. And the damage or neglect that came from our own fathers is reflected strongly in this relationship with our higher self. We know deeply that this is not how it’s supposed to be. At some level we experience that great being of light at the core of our own self, and long for its expression in our lives. When we struggle, we do so against the backdrop of unconditional love that we sense awaits us, yet is never quite attainable.
By the end of my talk I felt I had to affirm the many female therapists in the room. They struggle with their male clients, and many with the men in their private lives. I could only applaud them for caring so much and continuing to try. They know men are worth it, whether they see much evidence of this or not. Women are very often the first port of call for men who finally muster the courage to ask for help. Yet, in the end, I think that men need to make meaningful contact with other men. It’s only here that we can redeem our Gods and our demons.