Which is worth more, crowd of thousands, or your own genuine solitude? Freedom, or power over an entire nation. A little while alone in your room will prove more valuable than anything else that could ever be given to you. (Jalaluddin Rumi)
We can be redeemed only to the extent to which we see ourselves. (Martin Buber)
Everyone must come out of his Exile in his own way. (Martin Buber)
Solitude is the place of purification. (Martin Buber)
Egos appear by setting themselves apart from other egos. (Martin Buber)
The number 100, at least in this series, denotes, connotes and symbolizes some kind of ending. Endings, like beginnings, are moments of both reflection and new beginnings. They are also moments of sadness, loss, bringing to consciousness just how incomplete we all are, including each and every project, even a project of multiple essays that have been attempting to peel the onion of masculinity. Compiling and curating memories of conflict, separation, alienation, and my place in them leaves me somewhat regretful and much more open to how I participated in those divides. Impulsive, never far from a trigger-finger on flashes of anger, criticism, judgement and disdain of “the other” with or without offering an opportunity for ‘the other’ to explain, to contextualize. Having repressed my own needs/voice/recommendations/expectations, in my personal life, (although not so much in my professional life), I no longer permit myself such self-denial.
And because the determination is both relatively new and immature, it often comes off as arrogance, impatience, impertinence and offensive. There is, naturally, a price for such offensive behaviour, and aloneness is the principal cost. It is, however, the aloneness that affords the time, the quiet, the energy and the opportunity to look deeply into those unresolved conflicts, ‘failures’ and regrets that are an inevitable part of each life span.
Aloneness, however, is not a ‘sentence’ nor a prison. It is, as is nearly every other experience, both a blow and a blessing. It does, however, not mean that the two extremes of each experience are conscious at the same time; the bruising, often crushing impulse often strikes first, and naturally brings back all of the previous blows, regardless of whether they were physical, emotional, psychological or professional. And it is primarily from our bruises, failures, disappointments, embarrassments, rejections that we come to a more intimate awareness of how/who/what we are and have been to others.
To three daughters left behind (at 9, 14, and 17 respectively) when I exited the twenty-three marriage, I am deeply sorry that your lives were then, and have been ever since, impacted by both by abandoning you, and by your responses to that abandonment. I am deeply aware that abandonment, unlike a broken leg or even a serious surgery, does not leave a visible scar; it leaves a far more deep and permanent scar on your psyche, your spirit and your heart. At the core of that scar is inevitably an erosion of your willingness and capacity to trust, not only your father but also by projection other men and other persons in positions of authority in your life. I can neither remove the scar, nor can I say that I was even modestly conscious of its inevitability when I left. Somehow, I felt impelled to leave and face my own demons that had been driving my ambition, performance and insatiable appetite for affirmation, applause, and a kind of extrinsic acceptance.
Ironically, and tragically, it was self-acceptance I sought and needed, although I could not have known or said so back in 1987. I knew that, although I had developed a few skills, I had not pursued more intrinsic and what I have found to be life-enriching experiences of the human soul. Now thirty-two years later, when you have grown, become accomplished professionals in your chosen fields, I can only hope that your own persons and lives are filled with a more clear and confident perspective on your options and the supports you need and can access to face whatever crises cross your path.
To the hundreds of students who endured time in classrooms for which I was responsible, I want you to know that I learned more from you, individually and collectively, than I was able to teach to you. Fielding your questions, your opinions, your suggestions and your angst was enlightening and empowering, as well as challenging. There were times when I demanded too many words in essay assignments, thinking, probably inappropriately, that through extra practice, your facility with language would be enhanced. Were I to engage in those assignments now, I would place a higher premium on the variety, the imagination and the impact of your choices of vocabulary and prose and poetic structure and form. With respect to the manner in which we explored specific poems, novels, plays and essays, I would delve more deeply and more patiently into the finer nuances of each idiom, phrase, image and theme, in a more deliberate and disciplined way to illustrate the complexity and the richness of the writer’s thoughts/feelings/attitudes and their relevance to your lives. I would, however, never apologize for those infrequent moments when your “issues” (allegedly to draw the teacher away from the proposed and assigned curriculum) replaced the lesson plan for the day. It was in those moments when your perspectives were being poured into the culture of the room, and by extension into your own developing perspectives and attitudes. And those perspectives and attitudes (and comfort and facility with your own language) did not apply only to those specific issues, but also to the world in which you would and now do live for the rest of your lives.
To the teachers with whom I worked, I treasure the memories of your facial features, still many of them carved in my memory, as well as the tone, pace and musicality of your voices in faculty lounges. Unique, disparate in perspective and background, and sometimes interlocking with my own views, I nevertheless hold firm to the notion that for the most part our students were offered (if they were willing to accept it) a healthy environment and culture for their intellectual and social growth. Naturally, I did not always concur with either the strategies or the tactics of some of my colleagues, as, no doubt, neither did they agree with many of my own. Often far too energetic, enthusiastic and over-committed, I, unconsciously and naively, undoubtedly put others off by what some had to perceive as “unctuous obsequiousness” and what was then termed, “plotting for promotion.” Truth to tell, how to manage what was then, and continues to this day, as what some have called hyper-activity, was more the issue than political ambition.
To the principals and headmasters and the employers for whom I worked, I reflect on too many genuflections on my part, and too few open disagreements rarely permitted the kind of time they would have required. Schools, from my experience, at least from a planning and resource-allotment perspective, are nearly devoid of philosophic and curricular debate, except for those occasions when “Queen’s Park” issues some decree that attempts to shake up both academic, technical, vocational and artistic training and development, or to segregate students on the basis of apparent merit. As former Ontario NDP Leader, and former UN Ambassador, Stephen Lewis prophetically told an assembled OSSTF PD day at Widdifield Secondary School, education has been reduced to a discussion of numbers of dollars and numbers of students, when we all know that the process is much more complex than such a debate provides. From this vantage point, nearly a half century later, I still hear provincial governments and teacher unions arguing over class size, teacher assistants, and learning delivery models, all under the cloud of diminishing budgets.
There are a group of people charged with the responsibility for operating the Anglican/Episcopal churches in Canada and the U.S. respectively, in whose employ I served for approximately a decade. Beginning as a mid-forties theology student, in seminaries still more accustomed to recent university graduates, I found that while professional and accommodating, some students had at least as much professional experience as some of the faculty. Expectations, assignments in field education (parish internships), academic curiosity among class mates, and tolerance of differing views about theology, ministry, pastoral care and biblical studies varied dramatically between and among students of a literalist, fundamental, evangelical persuasion and those of a more liberal, poetic, mythological and philosophical/psychological bent. Asking questions in class could and did provoke impatience from those who “wanted to get out and save the world” without the hassle of more rigorous thought. Also, in parishes where significant pastoral trauma had not been resolved, or even addressed adequately, and where middle-aged men and women were more likely to be assigned, diocesan hierarchy were either unfamiliar with more recent theories and practices in grief management, pastoral counselling and spiritual growth or were uninterested in those approaches. The divide between the schools and the hierarchy, was, from the perspective of a student, unbridgeable. Consequently, what was being taught, (example liturgical hand-holding) was disconnected from the granular practice of ministry, especially in those parishes weighted down in depression, grief and conflict.
I managed to endure most classes, being aroused and awakened in John Kloppenberg’s class on Parables, and the class conducted by two sisters in Religious Education, both of whom belonged to an order whose original purpose was to defame the Jewish faith, until Pope John Paul revised their mandate to one of telling the story of the Jewish faith to non-Jews. James Reed’s class on Death and Dying, too, was both provocative and transformative, given my own grandfather’s attempt to take his own life, and the liturgical suicide by a clergy in a parish to which I was assigned. And then there were the months of training in Clinical Pastoral Education, a fancy name for “going inside” one’s own thoughts, perceptions, attitudes, beliefs” and becoming a presence of healing for others in extremis.
First in chaplaincy, where I was assigned to Emergency and Palliative Care, I found a kind of intellectual/emotional/spiritual ‘fit’ among others in extreme distress, some of them verging on death. Unexpected pregnancies, still-births, long-term palliative patients, whose spouses were so diligent and caring that they often died before their invalid husbands/wives, were just some of the encounters for our class of six. Writing the precise words of each conversation with each patient in our care, in a form called a “verbatim” was, to put it mildly, one of the most demanding and illuminating not to mention challenging experiences of my life. And these verbatims were then exposed to the class and supervisor for detailed and critical examination. “Why did you say that, when that it YOUR issue, not the patient’s concern?” is one of the interjections that could be expected in each verbatim review. Conducting funerals, engaging in prayer at the bedside of a dying spouse while her husband quivered, comforting grieving parents on the loss of a newborn and listening to long-term palliative nurse’s grief when a patient of her precise age dies of breast cancer at thirty-eight are just some of the more poignant memories.
And then there was the autopsy, the moment when each student is expected to participate as a pathologist and assistant perform a post-mortem, in our case, on a sixty-one year old woman who had been sleeping soundly at six a.m. in her home only to die suddenly and undergo an autopsy at 1.00 p.m. that same afternoon. Expecting a heart attack, the pathologist, along with the rest of us, was surprised to discover a large tumor in her lung, an illness of which she had been unaware. Anxious and even threatening to absent myself from the experience, I was persuaded by a wise, compassionate and insightful and intuitive supervisor, who counselled, “Just go and give yourself permission to leave at any time if you have to!” he told me privately and quietly. That was more than enough to encourage my presence, which was then followed by an extensive four or five-hour period of reflection during which I walked in silence around the campus of the hospital in Scarborough, before sitting down to type the reflection. Awe, amazement, curiosity, bafflement, wonder and humility are just some of the words that fail to express fully my experience, at the overwhelming gestalt of a human being’s incredible complexity, symphony, vulnerability and even ‘divinity’ and one’s over-powering experience of consciousness of one’s own totality in the light of these discoveries. They are much more than anatomical discoveries; they are discoveries that illuminate a universe previously excluded from my consciousness, except in the abstract. The multiple complex inter-connected, inter-dependent systems that keep each of us breathing and functioning stretch one’s range of comprehension, credulity and even faith to a point where there can be no doubt about the existence of something far more significant, unknown and unknowable than any personification of a deity in any theological treatise. Call that presence God given that we have no other inadequate expressions to attempt to begin a relation with such a presence.
On the other hand, the disparity between the profundity of the afternoon of the autopsy and the grimy, grovelling, snivelling, vindictive and neurosis-based leadership of the ecclesial hierarchy, fixated far too much on dollars and bottoms in pews, on political correctness and even worse, political ambition and reputation offers a contrast deeper than the chasm that exists between a mountain cave and its peak. Yes, both are an integral part of nature, and both have been here longer than any of us, and both will be here long after we have departed. Men who incarnate a crippled, bent and often broken spirit, who fear the feminist movement and consider it their duty to appease whatever demands, overtures and/or recommendations that come, especially from women of stature inside the church, (and that in many cases is a majority, given that many church offices are filled by generous, ambitious and highly motivated women.
Such women, however, while they firmly believe that they are “doing God’s work” when they fold the linen, or when they write the cheques, or when they hold their bake sales or their dinners, or even when they conduct a church school class, nevertheless, individually and collectively grow a culture of righteous infallibility. And they are, for the most part, endorsed and supported by their cheer-leading chancel guild members, in the face of a male executive predisposed to avoiding conflict at all costs. Naturally, one has to factor in the notion that volunteers, especially church volunteers, are both overly sensitive to their roles, and to the sacredness of maintaining and sustaining the standards of how those roles are to be carried out (thereby permitting undue gossip and defamation of those who do not “fold” properly). Consequently, any clergy walks on eggs in the face of the prospect of an instant departure based on the slightest hint of disapproval that might be legitimate from the especially male clergy, to some long-standing woman whose family may have funded the new sanctuary and parish hall. She not only thinks, but firmly believes, that this is “HER” church, and no clergy is going to have anything to say with which she does not and cannot approve.
And the men of the parish, for the most part, in my experience, are permitted much too much “influence,” once again based on the invalid and fallacious notion that conflict is to be avoided at all costs. Truth-telling, in even the most miniscule matters, hardly finds oxygen, unless it has been “lobbied” and “massaged” in private long before it hits the “street” of open discussion.
I grew up with a father who dubbed himself “Chamberlain” in relation to his “Hitler” wife, and his own father, too, was another example of a slightly lighter version of Chamberlain, to an autocratic, kindergarten teacher wife. I have watched men in all walks of life, lawyers, doctors, clergy, teachers, labourers and executives who have fallen into the trap of “silent subservience” not on every matter in the family or organization, but especially on significant matters. And while the feminine perspective and judgement is often more valid and more in tune with the complexity of the situation, especially around such issues as personal health, family relationships, and compassion and empathy when in duress, men have a legitimate and valid and credible perspective.
It need not be the perspective of anger or moping (self-pity) for which we are notoriously stereotyped. It certainly need not be based on a zero-sum game, whereby if I win, (as I must), then you must lose. Such a perspective, as is clear to most men and women, is a form of willed and almost traditional self-sabotage of many men.
Competitive spirits, regaled from minor hockey to collegiate athletic teams, might motivate a young man who has yet to discover something in which he can show passion and skill and who is still wondering around ‘in a daze’ as many young men are wont to do. Competition, however, as an exclusive socializing menu, simply does not work for many young men. And the fathers of young men who do not respond to such “hard-assed” paternal parenting are engaged in a process that will scar their sons for life, including throughout their own marriages and families.
Similarly, the fathers who acquiesce to the wives’ helicopter mothering, when they know that it is beyond the pale, for themselves, and especially for their child of either gender, are doing a different kind of disservice to their young child.
There is a kind of rheostat inside each of us that “knows” if and when it is time to speak up, and if and when it is time to call “time out” to stop a destructive incident from occurring, even with the best motive. And men, for the most part of the last three quarters of a century, even if the trend line is shifting more recently, need to hear another voice, albeit “crying in the wilderness” who has lived in a family, and attended schools led by spineless men, and worshipped in churches ‘clergied’ by spineless men, and worked in workplaces managed by men with spine and ethical clarity and confidence, and served in parishes and dioceses in which spiritual leaders, mostly men, were afraid to protect other men whom they knew were thrown in at the deep end of the parish pool without a paddle or a life-jacket, only to flounder and eventually break down.
And then when those floundering and broken men embarrassed the hierarchy, for their being weak, wounded, unproductive of dollars and numbers, those men in positions of power, authority and influence, have put their own reputations above the need for even full investigations, and a detailed and complex understanding of the precise situations in which those men were attempting to serve.
Men throwing men under the bus is more a signal of the inadequacy of those doing the throwing, than of those who may have taken their life, or who were dismissed illegitimately and without due process or who merely withdrew under circumstances they could not have known and were not given the opportunity to review prior to accepting an assignment. And, these spaces, for what they are worth, are a personal witness to the failure of too many men, including this scribe, who has had to shake off the image of Chamberlain, without resorting to its antithesis.