Doing "Men's Work" is Harder than You Think
I join a group of guys from The ManKind Project, an organization that, for 30+ years, has helped men live authentic, happy, purpose-driven lives by equipping them with better emotional tools.
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[Note: The meeting that serves as the subject of this essay occurred in 2019 before the pandemic.]
Although gardening tools and sports equipment gather dust along the walls, it’s clear that this is no ordinary garage. A “talking stick,” approximately Gandalf-height, stands in one corner. The other hosts a hand-built shelf with a collection of books that include Emotional Clearing, Power vs. Force, and Anger Busting 101.
This “man cave” offers little in the way of creature comforts except for plastic folding chairs. Still, twice a month, Michael Pierce parks his car on the street and rolls out a fraying Navajo rug, transforming this oil-slicked space into a masculine refuge, an inner sanctum where men come to weed out their toxic emotions.
Despite his 60 years, Pierce moves with the buoyant spring of man decades younger. His cropped curls, square jaw, and baritone voice lend him a vaguely thespian mien, a dead ringer for a modern-day Henry V if he moved to California and only wore flip flops. As we chat about the night's agenda, he casts a warm, inviting energy. But the perceptive twinkle in his piercing blue eyes suggests a lifetime of soul-stirring work to embody such natural ease.
It's the type of poise I envy because demons also haunt my past. During my career as an Olympic fencer, I secretly battled intense anxiety around sexual intimacy. And although years of therapy helped me put that chapter behind, I can, at times, feel itchy in my skin. It's the reason I'm here, sat next to Michael in a circle of men that all share the same mission of living their lives with personal integrity and radical authenticity.
As the session begins, my eyes float from one face to the next. The six of us are a kaleidoscope of contrasting identities: young, old, black, white, gay, straight. And despite knowing only half the group, each member greeted me earlier this evening with the echo of a bond formed long ago, like brothers marching against the tide of history.
"Who's ready to check-in?" Michael asks after reminding us of the code of the group: strict confidentiality. One by one, the other men offer a brief description of their desired outcome for the evening and current emotional state. I commit to being present throughout the night despite the fear welling in my chest and stomach.
Like the others, I finish with the words "I'm in," a punctuating phrase that somehow encloses us within a metaphysical set of parentheses. They respond, in kind, with "aho," a pronouncement that, in this community, stands for "authentic, honest, and open."
This shared vocabulary is just one of many elements passed down by the ManKind Project (MKP), the non-profit organization that oversees this group and a thousand others like it around the world. And these spoken rituals serve to remind men that within these circles, it is safe to leave unhelpful mores of masculinity behind.
But this first round was only the appetizer. Over the next two hours, each man will receive several turns to share. No one will monitor the time allotments. However, Michael strongly encourages us to be clear and concise — "warrior speak" in the verbiage of MKP — and to own our statements through the use of "I" rather than the depersonalizing "you."
Each man steadies himself before beginning the agonizing process of scraping the goo from his interior life and offering it up to the group. No topic is off-limits. Others talk about their fathers, their mothers, their partners, their children. And while there are small servings of joy, pain is the main dish on the menu.
A veteran member halts his share mid-sentence. The twitching muscles around his eyes reveal turmoil beneath his skin. But he skillfully navigates through turbulent waters, eyes closed, hand on belly, as he breathes into the discomfort. Then, he floats it to the surface, his eyes raw and wet, rather than plunging it back down into the deep.
I watch in awe. There have been moments in my life when my emotions burst through the floodgates—losing terribly at the Olympics, the death of a grandparent, ending a long-term relationship. But, even after years of therapy, breath-work, and meditation, I still feel a knee-jerk urge to throttle my tears when a film threatens to make me cry.
When my time comes to share, I launch into the tale of my past, juxtaposing my confidence as an athlete with my insecurity as a man. But after having written and spoken publicly about my bedroom struggles, my story feels rehearsed, like I’m cranking the shaft on a music box.
I pause when a large, white cat approaches the edge of the open garage. It slips under the heavy, blue furniture blankets between the man cave and the alley that Michael hangs before each meeting to muffle the din. When it spots us men, the cat halts, back arched, fur puffed before hurrying off.
The distraction’s knocked me off course. Rather than returning to my story, I wonder, out loud, if my drive to share my personal history is a perverse manifestation of a long-held eagerness to please; if I'm performing vulnerability among these men simply to belong.
Michael disagrees and counsels me to breathe into my feelings. But when I close my eyes and draw air deep into my lungs, I slam headfirst into the familiar barricade that often separates me from my emotional life.
My difficulty emoting is not due to fear of being open. The last ten years of my recovery process have peeled that layer from me like the skin from a grape. Instead, it appears to be a lack of skill. My mind yearns for the release, but my wimpy tear ducts, like unexercised muscles, fail under the weight of such a heart-wrenching task.
I know better than to listen to this gremlin voice in my head. But when I compare my arid analyses with the tender authenticity of the men sitting before me, I can't help be feel weak. And I wonder: when will I finally clear the passage to pure emotional expression?
As if reading my mind, Michael tells a story that eases my concern. At the time of 9/11, he lived in New Jersey. And while he had already spent six years becoming a certified leader in the ManKind Project community, his newfound emotional literacy failed him in the initial period that followed the attack.
The magnitude of the traumatic event knocked him straight into shock. And even after traveling into Manhattan to observe the smokey air and planeless sky, he continued to numb the pain that vibrated within him.
It wasn't until several days later when he went to an MKP staff meeting that something finally released. Another man in attendance had worked on Wall Street and lost six friends to the carnage.
"I have no more tears," the man said, a few simple words that gave Michael permission to unleash the ferocity of the sadness he'd bottled up after that fateful day. Within seconds, Michael’s cheeks were slick.
Perhaps, beyond any philosophy or protocol, this is the real value of the ManKind Project and organizations like it. Men must physically watch others they respect breakdown in order to see that the rules of manhood are bullshit. It's observational learning, empathy by fire, male tribal behavior turned on its head, at last, to offer the world a modicum of good.
But why is it so hard to get men to sit in their discomfort? While the ManKind Project spans twenty-one nations and touches over ten thousand men’s lives per month through group work, those numbers are a drop in the bucket.
Part of the problem remains an issue of optics. Even though "men's work," the broadly accepted term for this space, makes this kind of structured sharing feel more like hammering railroad ties than the therapeutic exercise it is, too many men still believe that feeling-out-loud is an activity reserved for the feminine.
The three founders of the ManKind Project were keenly aware of this problem during the eighties when they created the New Warrior Training Adventure, a weekend retreat* that remains the core offering of the modern organization. They set out to design an experience that would stand apart from other soft, new age men’s retreats of that time.
Today, the experience draws a couple of thousand men annually. However, I can see why some men may feel resistance toward the aspects of the program that draw inspiration from Native American traditions and the hero’s journey popularized by writer and professor Joseph Campbell.
However, in a culture that increasingly commercializes spirituality, yoking the promise of emotional growth with mythological language can provoke an allergic response for some. This is, in part, the reason why new entrants to the space have introduced new language and shifted their marketing approach.
The founders of Evryman lean into fitness culture, often describing their work as “emotional Crossfit.” Junto offers “emotional mastery and personal transformation” tapping the verbiage commonly used by Tony Robbins, a popular speaker and coach in the arena of self-development and growth.
No matter what you call it, this is raw, messy work. Men’s emotions are skittish, and it takes the skillful reassurance of men like Michael and the supportive affirmation of groups like this one to coax them in the open.
Before the night comes to an end, we all check back in again. I talk about the dampening of my anxiety and close the session with two final words, “I’m out.” And although I discovered no answers, I am grateful for the collective gaze of these men and the permission to get it wrong a hundred times before I get it right.
Perhaps this paradigm comes from my many years as an athlete, but I believe that it’s just a matter of time and persistence. Less Die Hard, exploding through the wall, more Shawshank scratching my way to freedom.
We all exchange a round of hugs before I head through the alley back out to my car. Before rounding the corner, I catch another glimpse of the white cat perched along a grey-brick wall. I stop, then cautiously step towards it. Sensing my presence, it freezes, its frame spooked, violent, and gleaming against the moonlight.
Then, after a long, fragile moment, its muscles uncoil as its tail resumes swatting at the crisp autumn air. It takes one last look at me, then turns its back and marches off into the darkness of the night.
[Footnote: *The ManKind Project now conducts all men’s groups over Zoom and teaches its curriculum online. The New Warrior Training Adventure will return once it’s determined that live events are safe.]
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