I just returned from the first Men's Rite of Passage (MROP) in Texas facilitated by Fr. Richard Rohr http://www.cacradicalgrace.org/. I was one of three teaching elders and served on the coordinating team for the MROP with other initiated men from Texas. I was asked to speak on the topic of Male Grief. I've posted the talk I gave below:
MROP—John Knox Ranch (near Canyon Lake) http://www.johnknoxranch.com/index.php
Mar. 14-18, 2007
Mar. 14-18, 2007
Good morning Brothers. I want you to know that I am truly honored to be here with you on your rite of passage. And I am doubly honored to have you listen in with me on this day of grief.
My name is Jim Taylor. I am a survivor of the MROP. I get my one-year chip this May.
I have a beautiful family. My wife, Lynda, and I have been married 17 years. We have three lovely girls (8, 10, 11); so you fathers know how blessed I am. I’ve been in vocational ministry for 24 years. I like to tell people that I’m a recovering Baptist. I don’t know what that means for sure, but it is somehow descriptive for me. I told Richard that he makes me want to be a Catholic and he gave me this wonderful answer, "only the good kind."
I believe that’s what I want for my life, "the good"—Aristotle described it as the summum bonum—"the highest life." I imagine that’s what good religion does at its best—opens the window to God and to something really good for us. Perhaps, all of our traditions have some of that to share. Unfortunately, I’ve experience not-so-good religion along the way too. I think that’s what I’m really recovering from—bad religion. I’m sad to say that it seems I run into more and more people who know exactly what I mean by that. There are a lot of bad things we can give ourselves to, but bad religion may be the worst because it can keep us sedated, asleep, when we should be awake to the possibilities of God. I think this was something of what Jesus warned against when He said, "If only we would have eyes to see, ears to hear …"
Grief is a troublesome topic for men because, apparently, we do not do it well—certainly, not as well as most women. Until the past few decades in the West, not much attention was even paid to gender as a factor in grieving, but now, almost everyone agrees that men need help in this area. Ancient cultures, though, always seemed to get this and they thought it necessary to include this aspect of "finding the tears" in their initiation of young men.
That’s what I respect about the MROP. We get the chance to make a dramatic change in our lives. To open our eyes and see! If we have the courage to leap, we find that something amazing awaits us! That’s the promise of our elders, the men who’ve gone before us. They say that the leap is worth the risk.
Men often fear that we’re alone on the spiritual path. And what we experience here in our Rites of Passage is that we have many fathers & brothers along with us on our journey—something that connects us to the deep rhythms of being male and being spiritual. Today is another aspect of our collective experience as men that we will walk into together. But this is not the first time, gentlemen, that men have gathered to listen to our elders, to listen to nature, to beat ourselves into submission to God, and to huddle over the sacred whispers of our brothers about their own inner demons, and fears and pains and losses and failures. And we are not the first to band together in hope of healing. And it seems we have a lot of healing to do!
I started my "male journey" 43 years ago (I was born at a young age). I’ve had a wonderful life, but I didn’t always think so. I was born into a dysfunctional family. Both my parents abused alcohol and what’s worse they abused each other in the process. If you know about family systems, I was the child who tried to fix everything. That’s an impossible job for a kid to sign up for, but there was so much chaos in our home, I figured I had no choice. I remember watching my mom & dad over and over discovering new ways to hurt each other. All I knew for sure was that when they drank beer, bad things would happen. So, when the yelling started, I’d sneak in and find any unopened Beer and start pouring it out. I thought if I could just get rid of the alcohol … maybe everything would be o.k. I’d get up in the morning and clean the house to try and make the evidence of the night’s disaster disappear. I thought if I could just sweep up the mess maybe it would seem normal …
One night, when I was six years old, I sat in my room, peeking through a crack in the door watching the familiar scene unfold, my mom & dad screaming at each other—it was terrible! Jerry Springer stuff. My mom shot my dad that night and he knocked her out in the process. The wound didn’t kill him—it was just a 22, but I’m pretty sure a little bit of me died. I remember being absolutely terrified. I had no idea what to do—absolutely helpless. I do remember sitting there, though, making myself a promise: "I’ll never live like this!"—I didn’t know how, but I was never going to live like that.
Two years later, my mom decided the same thing, only she took a more drastic approach. She took her own life. I was so devastated I reached out for God. I never had any formal religious experience, but somehow I intuited that He could help me. You know, there wasn’t a broom big enough to sweep up the mess … would He please let it just be a bad dream … could I wake up in the morning and have my mom back? In that brief encounter, I was sure of three things:
(1) my mom wasn’t coming back, (2) God was somehow present for me, and (3) this was going to hurt like nothing I had ever experienced so far. I had no idea … How do you get over losing your mom when your only 8? I kept thinking, "What if I’d shown her that I loved her more? Would she have chosen to live? And worse, the inverse, "What if she didn’t love me enough to want to stay around?" Either way I was damned!
My way of dealing with the pain and chaos in my life was to stuff the pain and try to outrun it. I intended to become an achiever. I just kept looking for the hoops to jump through that would make me a successful person. I thought if I could jump through enough hoops, surely, the pain would go away, people would accept me, love me, and life would be different for me. I thought I could fix everything if I just knew enough and lived right. You may imagine how bad religion would appeal to someone like me, wounded, helpless, full of pain. I needed easy answers, a definite plan, clear steps how not to have anything like this ever happen again. Bad religion told me just what I wanted to hear, if I’d be good enough, pray hard enough, do all the right things, I could skip the pain. God would be on my side. I figured God was better than a rabbit’s foot. You didn’t have to count on luck. All you had to do was make Him happy and everything would be O.K. So, that’s what I tried. Only one problem, bad religion was telling me what it would take to make God happy. Bad news for me.
I was the straight A student. The over-achiever. The guy who sat in the front seat. I listened when the teacher spoke. I followed all of the rules. When I started going to church, it was more of the same. When life didn’t work for me, I tried harder and I became more determined.
My dad wasn’t able to help me. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was just as wounded as me. Every time I reached out to him, he responded with his own pain. I was always trying to make him proud of me. I thought if he was proud of me, he might find something to love about me. Since I was an honor’s student in H.S., every time I brought home my report card, I saw it as a window of opportunity. Maybe I could make him proud! As a sophomore, I remember bringing home a report card with all A’s and one B+. He looked at it and said, "Why’d you make a B?" He just didn’t have it in him to say, "Good job." In my woundedness, I went to my room devastated. I came back a few minutes later and told him, "Dad, all I want to know is if you love me? He said, "I put a roof over your head don’t I?" I didn’t understand that answer as a "yes." I wanted very simply for my dad to hug me. I wanted him to tell me that he was proud of me. And most of all, I wanted him to say that he loved me, that I was a good son, and that he believed in me. That’s the Father hunger guys (See Rohr, Adam's Return, 87-91). And I was starving!
I would have profited if I had known you then Richard. I needed a father, an elder, a healthy man to walk with me and teach me. I had no idea what to do with my pain or how to grieve. I didn’t lean into the struggles I was facing, I ran. My mother was gone. My father was under-supplied.
I later realized that my dad’s problem was really a problem of his own father: "Like father, like son." My dad was like most men of his generation: he didn't have a clue how to raise a son, or be a loving father. He was utterly at a loss. I kept hoping, though, all the way into adulthood that something would change—that we’d connect somehow. That everything that had been lost between us could be discovered somewhere like a great dug-up treasure that had been lost, but was now found. We’d be rich—no longer impoverished!
My dad died when I was in school working on a Master’s Degree. All the hope of healing gone in a brief phone call. I couldn’t understand why it hurt so much when my dad and I were never that close. But I know now—I was grieving for the father that I always hoped would show up someday. He was just as dead as my real dad.
Richard has a phrase that I learned the truth of the hard way: "If we don’t transform our pain, we will transmit it" (Rohr, Adam’s Return, 37). And that’s exactly what I did. Five years into our marriage, Lynda & I hit bottom. It was a humiliating experience. I had turned my pain and fear and unfinished grief into anger and transmitted it to my wife. She wasn’t on the same page as me and I thought I could fix her too. The only problem was she wouldn’t jump through my hoops. One night, we were fighting and she suggested that we call our pastor. I mockingly told her to go ahead, thinking she would never do such a thing. I had a reputation (very small one) but one that my ego inflated and wanted to uphold. I just didn’t know her ego wasn’t as stupid as mine.
She called … that was step one. I admitted my weakness and failure to control my anger and my pain—my life was out of control. After about 12 weeks, I remember our counselor saying to Lynda at one point, "Jim may be the loneliest person I’ve ever met." And he wept. For me, it was like someone had opened a window and looked right into my soul. I felt so very alone. All by myself and I hated it, but I still didn’t know how to fix it. In my ignorance I reached out and included everyone that I could in my pain, not knowing that it was a pathway into healing. Men don’t usually include others in their weakness. We like to hide, put on a brave face, move ahead, don’t look back. But I was forced into the dark. It’s one of those blessed-curses that makes humans unique among living creatures—our ability to examine ourselves and find ourselves lacking.
I admitted my pain, the unfinished grief, the fear of being alone, the father hunger that still ate at me. It was simultaneously—terrible and galling and humiliating—and wonderful and freeing and full of hope. Somehow I was able to accept that I would never attain perfection by being perfect. That was tough for me because it seems "there is a perfect ant, a perfect bee, but you and I are perpetually unfinished. …" Eric Hoffer wrote in Reflections on the Human Condition, that it’s partly this "incurable unfinishedness that sets us apart from other living things." And yet, we long to finish ourselves, don’t we—to find that perfect man inside us (Hoffer, Reflections, 3)?
There’s a native saying you’ve probably seen around here. It’s on some of our T-shirts, "A young man who cannot cry is a savage. An old man who cannot laugh is a fool." In some ways, it sums up the whole task of initiation. If the young man can learn how to cry, if he can be taught to connect empathically with the pain of others and the pain of the world, he will be on his way to becoming a true man (der Mensch); or, to borrow Abraham Maslow’s idea, the "self-actualized" man—the mature man. One who projects healing inspite of his own woundedness—wisdom inspite of his own failure—joy inspite of his own sadness.
Initiation rites help bring men to the place of pain where they can learn to cry, learn to face the shadow, learn to grieve. I can’t help thinking about Luke Skywalker in Star Wars when he was forced by Yoda to that dark cave to face his inner demons. He had to face his worst fears and transform his pain and anger. Something, by the way, that his father, Annikan, never was able to do; and so, he transformed into Darth Vader.
It seems men need a Yoda of sorts, this kind of mentor or elder who they completely respect; who we can trust deep down that these mentors love us and want our best. That they can take us into our journey—into the way we should go. This is the only person we will respect enough to allow him to tell us, "We’re full of shit!" It’s the slap in the face that men need. We’re all going to fail. We’re all going to suffer. We’re all unfinished. And we’re all going to die. That’s why we’re initiated by blood & pain. That’s why we get it on a gut level: "No pain, no gain." But in our heads, we’ll try to avoid it!
Women are better at all this than us men because they get this intuitively through menstruation and birth. They bleed and feel the pain and bring forth life. One way cultures have tried to bring this experience to men is to circumcise them. Can you imagine if they waited to do that to us when we were adults—maybe, when we got married? To bleed between the legs at the source of our greatest potency before we can have new life. That’s what the cultures were teaching the boys—that they had to walk into this downward way. They were intentionally bringing the boy into the "tears of things." One of the great warrior tribes, the Masai, in their rites of passage, would bring their young men to caves and leave them until they learned how to cry.
It’s clear that "grief work" in some form seems to have been a part of most ancient initiation rites. The young man had to be taught to go to "the caves of grief" and receive what early Christianity called, "the gift of tears." Jesus put it this way, "Blessed are those who weep." He teaches us in these Beatitudes that there are some things we can only know by crying—maybe not always physical weeping, but some inner communion with the pain of others. If not, the male remains in his self-centered and ego-driven, childish state—the false self. He cannot grow up!
Grief is simply unfinished hurt (See Rohr, From Wild Man to Wise Man, 83). There are two tasks that need to be accomplished during the grief period. The first is to acknowledge and accept the truth: that (loss) has occurred. This is the thing that we often try to avoid as men. We pretend we didn’t really lose anything: "this will make us tougher," "more of a man." Whether we are aware of it or not, we pay an enormous price for inhibiting grief.
The second task is just as tough for men. We need to fully express our feelings about these "unthinkable agonies." We hate this too. We don’t want to say we’re sad. That would feel weak and helpless to us. So, we just push the pain below the surface of consciousness. It’s essential in recovery to accept and put words to our painful experiences. Examples of this are recounted over and over in twelve-step programs, such as AA and other recovery groups.
In that stillness, in prayer, I found a new dimension of God that extended into the shadows of my soul. I began to find new life in the same desert where before I was experiencing only dryness and death. Kahlil Gibran puts it poetically, "Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears."
Women have a much easier access to this place than us. They have the language, conversation styles with other women, permission to cry, freedom to be vulnerable, freedom to physically touch and hold each other. Men have none of these.
Men just go numb inside. They withdraw, they become depressed, angry, and even suicidal, or they extrovert it in violence and various forms of abuse toward others. Lots of men are very angry. What they don’t not know is that their anger is actually denied sadness! They’ve put on a mask of anger to hide the tears beneath. Men are surprised to finally understand this. It’s a portal of freedom for them. It seems, once a man can allow himself to cry—to honestly feel his pain—he can access a kind of sympathy for himself and others that extends even to those who have hurt him. This is why men must learn to choose sadness over anger! That’s why once learned, we must teach it to our boys! Ancient cultures understood this—the man has to learn how to grieve (See Rohr, From Wild Man to Wise Man, 81-85).
We have to be taught because the "weeping mode" is the opposite of the fixing mode, the controlling mode, and even the understanding mode. It’s a completely new space for most men. We can’t get rid of the pain until we have learned its lessons! If we hold the pain, it’s a highly teachable space. It’s a place that God meets us and uses to confront our false-self and guide us into our true-self. But males have to be TAUGHT how to go there. We don’t go there naturally.
The male mind prefers to stay in the controlling, fixing, and knowing mode. None of which helps us with the true-self. We must confront the mind because Grief is not rational. Grief won’t stay up here in our heads. In reality, grieving is a messy and unruly process and it has no respect for orthodoxy. Grief will simply refuse to stay in the slots that we designate for it. That’s partly why it drives men crazy. We can’t tame it—no matter how hard we whip it!
There are models and theories about grief that may be more helpful to pastors and counselors than to those of us going through it. But it’s somewhat useful to view a sort of "grief map." We find this in Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s description of the stages of dying. They are actually similar to the stages of grief: Denial-Anger-Bargaining-Resignation-True Acceptance. The irony is that when we go through the entire process, we find new reserves of life, and energy, and strength. We can’t fake it, though, and we can’t rush the process. It has its time.
I think the most helpful aspect to "grief maps" is that they teach us that this is a process. But that’s part of the problem again, men are not that patient. We are "accustomed to gratifying most of our needs quickly. Expecting grief to run a quick and predictable course … (Hope Edelman)." Not likely!
Men have a hard time with grief because it’s not something we DO, instead, it’s something that’s DONE to us. It means we have to shift from the action mode to the receiving/suffering mode. Like Christ, we become vulnerable and suffer and endure our cross. We refuse to be comforted too soon, embracing the pain before there can be any hope of resurrection. Jesus used a metaphor that depicts this transformative journey. It’s our M.A.L.E.S logo (http://www.malespirituality.org/): the "sign of Jonah." Each man must sooner or later go into the belly of the whale and stay there without trying to fix it or control it or even fully understand it and wait until God spits him up on a new shore (Rohr, From Wild Man to Wise Man, 85). This is the "liminal space" where all in-depth transformation takes place—inside the belly of the whale (You can see the images behind me, on the Triptik, of Joseph in the pit, Jonah in the whale, Job on the dungheap, Jesus on the cross).
This is what healthy religion always does. It tells us what to do with our pain (Rohr, Adam's Return, 35). Healthy Religion always heals. It reconciles the irreconcilable. It sees with the third eye, as Richard said last night. Healing is discovered by embracing the pain. Healthy religion will help us in the transition from one stage (before the pain) to the next stage. Healthy religion will always invite spiritual transformation. But that comes with a warning: if spirituality is embraced, people will go through periods of distress because their confidence in the old assumptions about self, life, the world, and even God will break down and reform. They have to because that’s the nature of true spirituality—it reforms us into His image. A whole man, a true man, Full, Open, Extending beyond the boundaries of the false self. This can feel like a loss too—not of "things" themselves, but of one’s investment in them. The old structures and institutions we reform represent a very real loss, and at some level, what is lost will be mourned. It’s hard work to let go of the false self. The false self will always encourage us to sweep our grief under the rug because it would rather pretend the house is clean even though it knows it’s not.
Life is messy. We will undergo change, loss and grief from birth onward. Every venture from home, every move, every job loss or status change—every death, every end of a relationship, the demise of a pet, a belief-held that falls apart, every illness, every shift in life such as marriage, divorce, or retirement, and every, kind of personal growth and change will probably be cause for grief. These bring what Kubler-Ross calls the "little deaths of life." Shakespeare described them as "the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune." Grief is in fact like a "neighbor who always lives next door, no matter where or how we live, no matter how we try to move away. Whether we want to or not, every one of us has to learn the lessons of grief."
Again, If you do not transform your pain, you will always transmit it!
The cross is an emblem of transformation—a symbol of holding the pain, and refusing to project it elsewhere, or blame others, or hate others; instead, to let the mystery of evil, suffering, and human tragedy works its havoc on us until it brings us to compassion, patience, forgiveness, freedom from that very pain. True religion leads us THROUGH our pain, not away from it.
I used to think that it took courage not to grieve, not to cry, but now, I know different. It takes courage to work through and complete grief. We have to face our feelings openly and honestly, to express our feelings fully, and to tolerate and accept our feelings for however long it takes for the wound to heal.
Unfortunately, our misconceptions about grief keep us from developing the courage we need to face grief. Many of us fear that, if we allow grief in, it will bowl us over indefinitely. The truth is that grief experienced does dissolve. The only grief that does not end is grief that has not been fully faced.
By the way, guess who showed up on my MROP. My dad! Only it wasn’t the guy I grew up with—the one I was always trying to call into something deeper with me. No, it was my dad, as he is now. In all the fullness that God ever imagined for Him to be. Now, he’s calling me forward, inviting me to more …
Thank you, Brothers, for letting me share this sacred space with you.