Most blokes don't mind taking off their shirts revealing their manly chests. At one of the camp sites I used as a boy scout there were 'closed to the public' sessions in the swimming pool when we swam nude. I remember how grown-up I felt revealing my all.
In my late teens in the seventies I saw the original London production of 'Hair' and recall the impact of the cast showing themselves completely naked. In the eighties I directed the Quaker Youth Theatre. Several times the script gave cause for nudity: Quakers going naked for a sign; hippies letting it all hang out; gladiators wrestling in the fight school. Each time one or more of the young men willingly stripped off to heighten the drama. They saw it as kind of 'rite of passage' exposing themselves in their full manhood.
I recently attended a Men's Rite of Passage spiritual retreat with sixty seven other men. I explained in the first go-round, that I was wary of men. Not trusting them, I did not expose my emotional life to them. So I had come along to confront this hurdle and hoped to work beyond it. In the first small group I disclosed that even as an adult I cry easily. I was teased about this at my all-boys school. These naked feelings were considered unmanly. It seemed I did not fit in, not being a 'real man'.
In the anonymity and careful structuring of the retreat I felt very safe. There was a grief ritual. I sobbed a lot. At the closing session my group affirmed and cherished my ability to let go of my feelings in tears, several of them wishing they could enjoy this facility. That felt good.
Back in the big wide world my pre-conceptions try to restate themselves. I am a middle-aged husband and father, the chief executive of a charity, an elder of my meeting. Should I not always be rock like, composed and in control?
It is sometimes very hard to stay cool since my once glorious dancing lover now shuffles around, somewhat forgetful, after five major operations around her brain. She suffers from brain tumours and currently has three more developing. We can no longer avoid talking about the probability of her death in the short term. Often my heart feels like breaking and sometimes I am screaming inside. I had surprised myself at the violence with which I beat out my anger in the grief ritual on retreat.
The retreat leader Daniel O'Leary spoke to me after the first go-round commenting on the power of my voice and the truthfulness that lent to what I said about my wariness of opening my feelings to other men. He asked if I would read in a session for him. I demurred, I had read in public so many times. He quietly rejoined that I had a gift from God to be used. Towards the end of the week I did offer to read and was given Corinthians II Ch 12 v 2 -10. The reading turned out uncannily apposite for me concluding... "I just let go and let God. For when I am weak I am truly strong."
When we men reveal our wounds, yes we expose our vulnerability. Yet when we acknowledge our weaknesses, this self-knowledge can liberate and make room for healing. It opens us up to the Light, to the Creator that begat Adam and all the generations down to me ....and beyond me. Life goes on and we men are merely mortals.
(First published in The Friend, and republished with permission)