Courageous men learning to be in compassion
Six times a week, ten men walk into Stephen Andrew’s office on Middle Street in Portland, slip off their shoes, sit in a circle and do something that takes some courage at first—they talk about their feelings.
Andrew, a licensed alcohol and drug counselor and group psychotherapist, has been leading Courageous Men Circles in Portland for 23 years, nourishing souls with the power of compassionate conversation and connection.
“There has to be a hell of a feeding or these 60 men wouldn’t be coming through these doors every week,” Andrew says. “They can say, ‘There are people who know my story and know what I want in this life.’”
Men stay in these groups an average of 4½ years, and some have come for decades, devoting 90 minutes a week to listening, opening up, accepting, forgiving, and most importantly, connecting deeply. And that takes time. And practice.
“It’s not like when I’m watching the Patriots game with some guys I’d say, ‘This week I was really hurt by this…’ But I can do that here,” says Brian Holmes, who has been in the Tuesday night men’s group for half a year.
He’s in recovery, and sometimes he wants to talk about that. Other times, that’s not really what’s on his mind.
“I can share whatever is going on in my life,” Holmes says. “it can be very intimate, and it can be positive or negative—and I can be heard.”
About half of the men in these circles are in recovery from substance abuse or dealing with chemical addiction in some way. But, as the saying goes, everybody is dealing with something.
“We hit what I call a ‘male pause’ that says, ‘This is what it’s about?’” says Andrew, who is co-author of “Game Plan: A Man’s Guide to Achieving Emotional Fitness.”
“We happen to live in a culture that’s about succeeding and acquiring, not just for ourselves but for our families,” he says. “Here, we’re trying to sit with each other and say it doesn’t matter where you come from or what happened to you, it’s about sitting and listening with compassion. And then we turn that compassion and empathy inward.
We have this self-love concept in the world that says that you have to love yourself before you can love others, but actually you have to love others before you can love yourself.”
Doug Miller says his men’s group has fundamentally changed how he sees himself. “I’ve realized that I’m pretty normal,” he says. “You think you have these demons and realize it’s just the human condition.”
Bob Bitten, a Vietnam veteran who has been part of the men’s circles since the beginning, says, “I found that I’m not broke. I’m just human.”
Some members fight against a natural inclination to “fix” things, learning to stay out of the realm of advice-giving and instead in empathetic listening. (Bitten jokes, “Stephen tells us we have to be at least 40 feet from the building to give advice.”)
“The only antidote we have to shame is empathy,” Andrew explains. “It’s not advice.”
Some men had to learn not only how to talk about their feelings but to even recognize them. “I was thinking mostly about results, productivity, the job I was doing and how well I was doing it,” says Mike Sisk. “Provide, protect and perform—that’s the track I was on. I got on it in the morning, and I’m not sure I got off it at night.”
When the men’s circle took a break for the holidays, Sisk was a little surprised to find that he genuinely missed it.
“You can’t count on necessarily having the kind of emotional encounter you might need with other men at any other time,” he says. “This is intentional and you know you’re going to have that opportunity.”
“At the same time,” says Jon Morrill, “we are learning to be comfortable in our vulnerability that we can take it out of this room if we want to—and encourage our male friends to do the same.”
“It’s important to practice,” Bitten says. “The world of men often doesn’t allow for vulnerability. If you don’t want to get shot down when you try to be vulnerable; you have to practice at it.
“Or have the courage to be shot down,” Morrill says, with a smile.
Andrew describes men as “oppressed” in the sense that they’re taught at a young age that they shouldn’t show vulnerability or exhibit feelings other than anger. Plus, in mixed company, men often feel compelled to hide their anger to protect women.
But, in a small group of men who get to know each other week after week, year after year, they are able to lay down the burden of their rage, their shame, and their fear. “If you don’t connect deeply,” Andrew says, “you’re likely to develop some kind of compulsive behavior to medicate yourself.”
Substance abuse. Workaholism. Overeating. Sex addiction.Gambling. Violence. They’re all compulsions, Andrew says, and anyone who is emotionally connected with other people is less likely to be drawn in—or back in.
Some of the men develop real world friendships outside the weekly meeting.
“We call one another when we’re struggling, and just to know that they are there is really comforting,” says Kevin Mannix, who deals with anxiety. “We have problems. So what? Doesn’t everybody? The good part is that we’re trying to better ourselves, not to fix things— I’m always going to have some anxiety, but it doesn’t have to rule my life.”
In addition to the men’s circles at Health Education & Training Institute, Andrew leads intimacy support groups, a women’s circle and a group for caregivers, such as counselors, residential workers and recovery coaches.
Each group is limited to 10 members, and space doesn’t open up until someone leaves the group, which isn’t often.
“Why leave?” Andrew asks.
“Because they’re fixed? They weren’t ever broken. They come because they are struggling with loneliness, with isolation, with addiction, with violence and with trauma, and they want some relief.
We all want relief from those things. I never focus on a problem, because then you get more problems. I focus on love, compassion and community of tenderness.”