“My need for a community subsided as my backbone for being a man grew stronger. It was clear that in spite of losing my friends and my dream I had something I never had before: my voice.”
As a native of Vermont, I grew up appreciating small communities. As a young adult I can remember reading the quarterly magazine Vermont Life cover to cover. There was always a story about a small town coming together, which always brought me to tears and evoked a deep longing. One was about Windsor, Vermont, a town that houses the state prison. The citizens of the town took it upon themselves to rehabilitate the prisoners; they invited them into their businesses and homes to teach them what they never were taught. Another issue had a story of a town coming together to build a new barn for a neighbor who lost his the week before.
I longed for a community like these. I followed a friend to Idaho with the intent to co-create a community where I felt I belonged. I wanted a place where if I needed help, someone would be there. For the first year, it was what I wanted. But slowly it deteriorated, with the founders becoming angry and selfish. Because I was so attached to our success, and because it was a slow decline, I ignored the signs.
I became the lead instructor for an 18-month program. As the program evolved, the dysfunction increased. I was in the center of psychological dysfunction on par with what we are seeing now in Congress. As the founders’ romantic relationship explored their neuroses, it oozed into the community. As with a family, the community started acting out the dysfunction through their own fights and projections.
As the lead instructor, it was my responsibility that the students got the best instruction possible. It became harder and harder as the founders started fighting in front of the students. On a couple of occasions, while sitting in front of the room with the founders, I debated: do I just stop the insanity by saying it’s all BS, and risk the founders taking it out on the students? Or do I do the best I can at containing the craziness and deliver the program?
In spite of the idea of reveling in the pleasure of calling the founders on their insanity, I kept quiet. As soon as the program ended, I called a meeting with my old friend and founder. Because of our history, I assumed he would appreciate my concern for him and our dream.
It proved to be another time when my naiveté ruled. Not only was my concern not appreciated, I was attacked for being the problem. In shock, I backed off. A week later, I was a meeting with my friend and several of the community members. We were talking about what was next, and then suddenly the entire group was attacking me. In shock, I froze. First I couldn’t understand what was happening. Slowly I began connecting the dots: my “friend” told the other members about our talk in such a way to set them up to go after me.
As I came to my senses, I attempted to speak. “Attempted” is a good word. I could barely get a word out; I was shaking so much. Feeling that no matter what I said, I would be damned, yet feeling I needed to speak, I spoke. I knew I was making a fool of myself. Nonetheless, some part of me knew that the intensity of my struggle speaking was about much more than this situation. This voice inside me said, “Just do it. It’s more about speaking in the face of betrayal and anger than being right.”
I couldn’t keep my mouth shut concerning my principle about speaking the truth. I was more than willing to comprise on what we did next. I couldn’t compromise on moving forward based on lies.
Growing up with Asperger’s Syndrome, dyslexia, speech impediments, and more, I learned to discern what others wanted and gave it to them. There was one problem: my Asperger’s attribute of needing to tell the truth got in the way. I found myself telling off adults before I knew I was doing it.
Here I was again, telling off a friend, a teacher, and all my friends. By alienating myself from my community by saying the “emperor had no clothes,” I was blowing up my dream of a community. My years of hard work were exploding in front of me as I kept shaking and speaking.
But as I spoke, an amazing thing started happening: my speaking got stronger, I felt stronger, I began to realize what was occurring and what I wanted. I wanted no part of being with people who were lying and defending a lie. My fear transformed into anger. My shaking voice became outrage.
My deep seated principle of living the truth had a voice. My need for a community subsided as my backbone for being a man grew stronger. It was clear that in spite of losing my friends and my dream I had something I never had before: my voice.
After other similar experiences, and seeing many other men have theirs, I realized that as men we are meant to have our values and principles tested. Until they are tested, they aren’t ours. If it hasn’t occurred yet, your principles will be challenged in the future. It might be your desire for money, fame, love, or, in my case, community, that will be the test. Regardless of what it is, you will be tested.
This test will resemble Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey. You will start out on a quest for one thing, and find yourself in a deep inescapable hole needing to give up something precious to escape. As you climb out, you will acquire new skills and allies. As you integrate those changes, you will begin to experience yourself being your own man.
The new depth of self-love finds a way to eventually give you what you originally wanted, yet in a much more balanced manner. Today, I have the community I wanted and more. Seven years ago, I started a men’s group that evolved to several groups and over 50 men. My core group is my community. We all are equals. Our families are an extension of our group. We have each other’s backs.
Men such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. showed us that having a purpose and principles can not only transform you, it can transform the planet. They put their lives at risk. We put our social lives at risk when we stand up. All of us risk losing the life we created for something we don’t yet know. In our own Hero’s Journey, we discover our own source of power.
Recently I watched the Robert Redford movie Brubaker, based on a true story of a reforming warden at a prison farm in the South in the 1970s. Throughout the movie, you see Redford’s character Brubaker challenge the corruption in and outside the prison. You see how he puts his life at risk for the men. The closing scene has him speaking to his friend who got him the job. He tells her, “I don’t play politics with the truth.” She then asks, “No way to compromise?” His response, “Maybe on strategy, but not principle.”
Be proactive. The stress of not living your life based on principle will drain your passion. It may sabotage your relationships, career, and family. Don’t be like me and let the crisis blow up in your face.
Where in your life have you compromised your principles?
—Photo The Knowles Gallery/Flickr