Towards a community of men
By Martin Wolterding
In my youth, I would listen to World War II returned servicemen discuss their war experiences. They talked of a unique time in their lives- radically different from the periods both before and after. The tone of gravitas that entered their voice struck me. There seemed a special reverence when they talked of the friends who fought along side them in the jungles of Borneo, the deserts of North Africa, or the hedgerows of France. Their tone bespoke a bond of love which had endured over the decades. In hearing them I sensed that the closeness they had with their war-mates somehow counterweighed the fears and horrors of the war. In many instances I came away feeling that for many of them, the war years were the best years of their lives.
Today, I live in the Blue Mountains. To live in this place of grey-green bush, clear air and quiet nights, is to live in the track of the bushfire. All who live in our mountains - the most fire-prone residential area in the world, know that sooner or later a bushfire will sweep past our homes. During the conflagration of January 1994, we all waited for the fire to come. For the first 10 days the fires raged along a broad strip stretching 800 km in New South Wales, seemingly everywhere but here. The news told of firefighters from many parts of Australia converging on our state, teams driving in from Victoria, Queensland and South Australia. They came and they fought against this great swath of flame and smoke. Then, when they seemed to have vanquished the fiery foe, flames broke out in the Mountains and the fire fighters came here to combat the new threat.
During those days of smoke and anxiety, I would often pass long lines of fire fighting vehicles speeding along the highway. Tears filled my eyes as I read the names of the far flung towns from which these men and their vehicles had come. Pulling over to the side of the road, sobs of gratitude washed over my body. I longed to flag down the trucks and embrace each sweaty, stinking, dust covered man. Men who had left their partners, children and jobs to risk their lives in places they had never heard of to save the homes and sometimes lives of people they would never meet.
Watching these men, listening to them interact among themselves I was reminded of the returned servicemen of my youth. For during this brief fiery crisis, they were not a collective group of individuals but a true community of men struggling shoulder to shoulder to save the community at large, and I longed to be one of them.
I considered joining the local brigade and talked it over with my neighbour who is a member. I've sadly realised that, with a doctoral thesis in its final stages, and being full time carer to our young sons, I could not yet make the commitment necessary. I fear letting the team down when they depended upon me. As soon as the thesis is finished I'll look into it again.
I wonder why in our culture it is only during wars and occasional natural disasters that we men come to the fore. Why only then do we seem to be able to tap constructively into that vast wellspring of male energy and unashamedly utilise our male skills: physical strength; the ability to focus the mind on a single task and a willingness (even eagerness) to take risks. Why is it that only during these times (or when we are drunk) that so many of us are able to open ourselves to other men, admitting our need for their support and respect?
I've lived in the Kingdom of Tonga for five years. While there I was struck by the solid sense of community and belonging which Tongans of both sexes seemed to take for granted. At adolescence, a Tongan male begins to establish an ever deepening relationships with a slowly expanding circle of men. Every Friday night, groups of men come together sitting around a bowl of kava- a bitter tasting drink made from a local shrub. They sing songs, tell jokes and stories often until dawn. For kava parties is the time when Tongan men share of themselves- of things light, personal, intimate and profound. Traditionally, the position in the kava circle is a direct representation of the status within the group. Every man has his position. Misdeeds which bring shame and achievements which bring honour are immediately reflected by shifts in seating in the kava circle. Two men vying for the same position must each argue his case; the others in the group make the final decision through consensus. Regularly, several groups come together where sharing takes place between age groups and with men from more distant parts of the island nation. The end result is that each adult Tongan male develops a deeply rooted sense of his place and value in the community of men.
In the last few years I have been to several men's gatherings - a modern attempt to establish temporary men's communities. During the first few days of these get-togethers I struggle to lay aside my defensiveness against 'strangers' and to overcome my fear of rejection. As I open up, giving in to my longing for respect and acceptance I begin to glory in the diversity of what it is to be a man. Soon I begin to feel a genuine bond of affection with others. For me these gatherings offer an ephemeral sense of community and I experience a relaxed joy that comes with knowing that I have a recognised and valued place within it. As the years pass and I establish lasting relationships with some of these men, the sense of belonging becomes ever greater.
One of the root problems in our society seems to be the ever-pervading isolation linked with typical male lifestyles in the last half century. We have unknowingly traded sleek cars, VCR's and computers for the community that our forefathers knew. Moving from place to place we suffer the loss of support systems from family and friends. Few of us have a sense of place and even fewer of us are secure and confident in our position in a larger community.
Vast numbers of men have careers that provide no fulfilment. These men, many of them only in their late 30's, feel their lives are effectively at an end. Thousands of men in mid-life have relationships which have broken down, without them knowing why. There is a general loss of meaning to their lives. The goals they once had no longer sustain them.
Perhaps by consciously fostering a sense of community with other men as well as with women and children we will bring a sense of relevance and meaning back into our lives. Perhaps we should seek out, modify and incorporate traditions like the kava party, which has supported many generations of men. Perhaps we should search for ways of fostering a sense of belonging, of being part of a community of men, without needing wars or natural disaster to galvanise us.
SOME FIRST STEPS
There are thousands of possible ways of fostering a sense of community in our lives. Here are a few suggestions. Perhaps you can think of others.
If you have an isolating job, draw up and initiate a long range plan to get out of it. Establish five and ten year plans which aim to bring you closer to the goals you consider valuable.
Work towards living in an area where you feel comfortable, an environment that nourishes you. Once there strongly resist forces that would move you elsewhere. By not buying possessions we really don't need we simplify our life style, reducing the income we require to live and increasing the options available to us.
Demand flexible job arrangements for men as well as women. Aim towards a lifestyle in which both parents work part-time.
Attend and foster regular men's gatherings especially those which nurture and accept manhood in its varied manifestations. Join or establish a local men's group. Get together with other men and organise outreach project or activities aimed at the improvement of the general community or disadvantaged sections of it.
Seek out elderly men who have wisdom and experiences to share and work to incorporate them into other age groups.
Establish and support clubs and organisations where young people, especially boys, work, play and learn alongside older men. Fishing clubs and hobby groups have great potential along these lines. Bush regeneration groups would be an ideal means of harnessing the skills, strength and energies of a wide spectrum of younger and older people of both sexes.
Many of us mature men have valuable skills which young boys crave to learn. We need regular outings to the bush where trustworthy men can instruct and guide young boys in camping, bushcraft, caving and rock climbing. Adolescent boys need to test themselves, often through strenuous activities. We adult men have the obligation to allow them to do this under supervision.
Joining or forming community choruses or theatre groups is a great way for a diverse range of people to get together for the creation of something of beauty and worth. We each need to turn off the television and learn to sing or play a musical instrument then get together to share the real joys of making music. Encourage your children to play complementary instruments enabling the family to make music together.
In your neighbourhood, encourage the formation of cooperative groups of families, baby-sitting clubs, car pools, community gardens and working bees.
For all of us, change from the usual way we have of doing things can sometimes be very fearful. If we can get past the irrational fear, the benefits to ourselves, our family and our community can be immense.
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