When men feel that being vulnerable with other men is a worthwhile risk they will begin to experience themselves as “real.” Not “real men.” But real people.
“When Joseph and I meet in our men’s group, which still goes on, we realize as men that we never do really make it through on our own. It’s a fallacy, a myth. ‘Go West young man …’ It’s one of the biggest lies that the industrial revolution in America ever taught us. Something has been lost.”
This was Welcome to the Men’s Group Co-writer and Co-producer, Scott Ben-Yashar talking with The Good Men Project editors, Kent Sanders and myself, about the men’s group where he and his partner, Joseph Culp, who not only co-wrote and co-produced but also plays one of the characters in the film, first connected.
The story dances through deep questions about spirituality and fatherhood, material wealth and sexual attraction, mental illness and homelessness, and on into ridiculousness and hilarity. A group of men come together over a bounteous array of food (don’t watch this film while hungry) in a lavishly appointed home (which, as the plot develops, we learn is paid for through illegal means) to pass the talking stick (I need to get one of those), and get real with each other. They listen to each other’s stories, call each other on their BS, lift each other up, and occasionally hold each other down.
This, say Scott and Joseph, is what these groups do. They restore that something that was lost in our translation of masculinity, in our adoption of the lone hero facing the world with no backup band. As Joseph shares, “Our idea of men became one of rugged individualists who can get on and get by, who can compete with each other but never need each other.”
In the film the men often express frustration, even anger, with each other. Yet they don’t just walk out. Why? Because, they say, as they have experienced in their own group, some little voice deep down inside says, “I need this group, I need these men.” And that need is hard for men to experience, let alone express, but it’s there and it is part of what has been lost to men and is being revived.
In making this movie they say they wanted to not only honor what they feel their group as added to their lives, but also to shine a light on what is possible in this time of shifting roles and attitudes.
We both had backgrounds in theater and psychology, acting and business, and we came together and said, ‘What if we could write a piece that illustrated this phenomenon?’ Because we felt it was an important phenomenon—that men are changing. The attitudes of men are changing. We’ve been called upon to change by feminism, yet not wanting to lose our essential maleness or our deeper sense of ourselves as men. But we knew that we could act, behave, and learn in a way that was different from our father’s generation.
The height of the ‘men’s movement was in the 90’s. But here we are some 30 years later and we realized that most of the country, indeed most of the world, does not have a frame of reference for this level of sharing, this level of intimacy and vulnerability, with men. So we aren’t going back over something that’s been done, or a cliché, we’re presenting to the public an illumination of that kind of male relationship and what it can mean.
What is the origin and purpose of “men’s groups?”
In the early men’s group of the men’s movement, brought men came together in highly ritualized gatherings to learn how to talk and share and search for an authenticity with each other and from each other. They held each other’s feet to the fire, if you will, about learning to be honest with themselves and others, learning to be honest about their hopes and fear, honest about their relationships, success and failure, and all the things that the world takes for granted.
And why would men need to learn to talk?
One of the things we talk about is male suicide. Well male suicide is incredibly high with American males. It’s the highest population of suicides—men between 35 and 55. Why? Because they don’t talk. They don’t know how to talk. To each other.
Male vulnerability, they say, is at the heart of the men’s movement, this film, and what is lacking in the world. And this story makes it clear that vulnerability is difficult, and dangerous for a man.
Joseph and Scott point out that in America we have a presidential candidate who violently denies any vulnerability. They wonder if their film and what it represents isn’t the antidote to that poison. I suggest that perhaps Trump’s popularity is also the frightened public’s response to the challenge their film presents. Because vulnerability is scary, and some people would rather not answer the call to risk it.
But the gem that they offer, in our conversation and in the story, is that vulnerability doesn’t negate or even reduce the value of a man.
Far from it, in fact I would say that, as with any other challenge we overcome, it is quite the opposite.
The balance of the risk and reward of learning vulnerability isn’t a new question. As Scott and Joseph point out, Men’s Groups are modern, but also an ancient ritual. Men have always needed spiritual support, and to share the “male mode of feeling” as a way to sustain them through challenging times.
Men seek spiritual connection and support. It is often quite natural for women to come together and share their feelings, but for most modern men this is a new idea. Men should have a place beyond the local bar or card game to find out what is really going on with each other. Men must adapt to changing messages of being a man today, but where will they share their confusion and their questions honestly?
The feminist movement changed a lot for women’s roles, and it is still evolving, and men are learning to learn to change as well. How is it if a woman makes more money than a man? Men are taking care of children more and more. The tough persona of the man who does not talk about his feelings is disappearing. John Wayne is long dead. But men don’t want to be feminized either – they want to maintain a connection to what makes them truly male.
There are men’s groups all over the world that are trying to discover that original male energy by coming together to share their stories. Men are still caught between the “civilized” man vs. the “savage” man – between intellectual sensitivity and also the impulse for violence. There needs to be more honest conversation between men, more vulnerability, more trust. It is their hope that this film will bring more permission to have this conversation.
During our discussion the gentlemen were too courteous to leave me, the sole woman in the conversation, out and often made reference to the importance of women in men’s personal growth. But honestly, seeing men propose to become more vulnerable with each other and by extension, with the world, is a brilliant ray of hope for me as a woman. So often I see men who can only feel safe being vulnerable with women, and often only those women they have intimate relationships with. All of that need to be seen, to be honored, to be recognized as whole and valuable rests then on one person. There is an inevitable imbalance in that dynamic. But for a man to be vulnerable with other men, to open himself fully—or even partially but more than he has been able to before—that begins to right the balance. For everyone.
Vulnerability is never without risk. When we say we feel “safe” being vulnerable we mean that the level of risk is acceptable, that the potential reward is worth it. We mean that the limb looks reasonably sturdy and the fruit sufficiently delicious that we will venture away from the treehouse.
That fruit is what is delivered in this movie. Not men being perfect, maybe not even men being “better.” But men being real. And it is only when we permit ourselves to risk vulnerability that we become real—to ourselves. And when men feel that being vulnerable with other men is a reasonable risk, is a worthwhile risk, then they will begin to experience themselves as “real.” Not “real men.” But real people, whole and valued, not only by the women who love them but by their community and their world.
The Good Men Project will be hosting an exclusive Panel Discussion with the writers and producers of Welcome to the Men’s Group. For updates and an invitation to the online event please register below.
Welcome to the Men’s Group is an independent comedy-drama that takes us inside the intimate dynamic of an all-male support group when they gather one morning for a ritual breakfast and their unique form of male bonding—One Sunday a month, these eight men refrain from beer and football to sit in a circle where they share their personal issues, in the noble hope of becoming a bit more evolved than their fathers. On this day, things do not go as planned when one member appears suicidal, and long-standing conflict threatens to destroy the trust between the men. The film delves frankly into themes of male identity, competition, sexuality, shame, and grief.
Photo: Youtube/The Men’s Group Channel