My father turned eighty-three last April. Having had a stroke six years prior, he’d been in steady physical decline, progressing more rapidly within the year leading to his birthday. I’d notice him walk a little slower and his ability to communicate was slipping from his grasp. He could only speak in simple terms and by evening grew weary of formulating words. His handwriting shaky, he would ask me to address envelopes for him. Much time was spent in his chair in front of the television and he’d frequently drift to sleep during the day.
While visiting my dad over his birthday, I went to one of the parks along the St. Lawrence River, a man’s meticulous movements caught my eye. The metal detector in his hand swept across brown grass searching for coins, keys, or other trinkets lost through winter. His rhythmic sweeping would occasionally register static in his headphones and using a kind of garden knife he’d unearth the metallic material: items both mundane and profound. I was riveted by his methodical persistence, he seemed to me in meditation. Watching him, I considered The Inner Lives of Boys and Men, a Circle of Trust I was preparing to co-lead for Courage & Renewal facilitators the following month. I wondered if this man’s work was his socially acceptable way to be immersed in a contemplative life.
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In my twenties, I lived in Northern Ontario, a very rural and hardscrabble part of Canada. I grew to know a man who worked at a failing uranium mine scheduled to close, leaving him searching for employment in a very depressed area. He partially sustained his family
of seven through hunting. Though he loved the act of tracking deer and moose beneath the rustle of autumn foliage, he hated to kill. I’ve since met other hunters who have expressed a similar disdain for killing. Hunting has become an excuse for their inner life’s longing, to be immersed in the solitude of nature.
A First Responder has described to me that he “puts on an iron skin” to protect himself from the horrors of what he might encounter in his job. In his field, there is little tolerance for showing one’s emotional self, and he’ll often forget to remove this armor after work.
I recall silent car rides with my father and how rare it would be that we’d have a conversation deeper than weather reports. Perhaps we both lacked the skills and vulnerability to communicate authentically with each other. In the rare moments where we did dive a little deeper, the few words he’d offer were often profound.
How are men finding ways to tap into the solitude and community necessary for them to have a rich inner life? How are they finding courageous ways to express their true and full emotional selves in spite of the enormous social pressures and toxic masculinity, that still say this is not okay? Vulnerability, fragility, and a rich inner life are
not words often associated with the culture of men and boys.
During The Inner Lives of Boys and Men, many in the circle shared deeply about their own experiences as men, or the men and boys in their lives. As we explored the Script of Masculinity—those social expectations that define what it means to be a man—we recognized the complexity of masculinity in the 21st century: there is not just one way to be a man, rather a plethora of masculinities and ways that men show up in the world.
Despite a slow cultural shift towards a more compassionate and healthy masculinity, there is an entrenched story that continues to show itself too frequently in ways that are damaging, painful, and literally death dealing. As this archaic embodiment of masculinity hangs on, it denies emotions, except for anger and humour. It encourages violence and aggression as a means to solve problems and it discourages the skills necessary to allow boys and men to share their vulnerabilities with others. In Canada, four out of five deaths by suicide are committed by men, approximately 3,000 a year, or the equivalent of seven Boeing 777s crashing.
Parker J. Palmer writes, “Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our own suffering. Sometimes we visit violence upon others, as if causing them pain would mitigate our own.” It is often this separation of men and boys from their inner lives, that brings suffering to them, their partners, their families, and the communities that surround them.
Though it is common for men to gather, they are not often provided with opportunities, permission, or the skills to connect meaningfully and explore their inner lives. In creating Circles of Trust for men and boys, we create spaces for bravery, where sharing one’s inner truth is witnessed with compassion by other males. These rare moments in a man’s life are opportunities for emotional release, without judgment, and a chance to listen deeply to their own and each other’s pain and joy.
What I have witnessed is that men and boys, starved of genuine connections, have a voracious appetite for these explorations and to be seen in their wholeness. I have frequently heard from men, of all ages, that a circle like this was the first time they’d been able to share their story as men, with other men. These opportunities to share true
self, require courage, trust and fortitude. Unfortunately, men and boys connecting authentically with themselves and each other is still counter cultural.
My father died this past summer. The day we made the decision to move him to the palliative care unit, I found him in a rare moment of mental clarity. Looking deeply into his eyes and summoning my own courage, I told him what was happening, and that soon he would die. He’d completely lost his speech by now and so only raised his eyebrows in response.
Numerous men who worked in the plant he managed for thirty years, showed up at his deathbed and the funeral, and easily shared what a tremendous mentor he’d been in their lives. Still, other men expressed that for a son to lose his father was the greatest loss. Though I was at odds with many of my father’s traditional expressions of masculinity, he was my first and most consistent male role model. As a young man in my twenties, when I journeyed to search for and uncover my own inner life, without fail my father would pick me up or drop me at airports, train stations and bus depots. In these moments of
departure or arrival, he would always hug me and tell me he loved me.
Brian Braganza is a Courage & Renewal Facilitator and experiential educator specializing in vocational counselling, masculinity, and youth engagement. He supports a wide diversity of youth and young adults to live into their vocational call and have meaningful roles and voices in their communities. Brian delivers experiential programs for men and boys, which builds their abilities to connect authentically and live into their wholeness. He co-designed T.O.N.E., Therapy Outside Normal Environments, a unique men’s therapeutic project. Brian lives in a straw-bale home he built on an old farm near Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, and is also a wilderness traveler, poet and songwriter.