Two weeks ago, in a blog on the importance of physical movement in the grieving process, especially for men, I ended with a quote from T.S.Eliot’s Four Quartets: “Not fare well/ But fare forward.”
The first Eliot quote I’d chosen was “Old men ought to be explorers,” until I read it in context:
Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and empty desolation…
Nope, I thought, doesn’t work. I’m writing about movement, not about being still. But the phrase “still and still moving” has stayed with me, reminding me that along with walking, climbing, driving, traveling to other states and countries, stillness and silence have also been essential in my pilgrimages, especially the one through the “dark cold and empty desolation” of grief.
I’ve continued to read more about the differences between the way men and women grieve, and one of the greatest of these differences is what’s been called “emotional literacy”: the ability to identify and talk about feelings. Unlike women, we men don’t talk about our feelings, primarily because most of us are taught early on not to let our feelings show. “To feel is to fail,” says a speaker I watched on a webinar about men’s grief. Sometimes, it’s not until a powerful crisis such as the death of a child that a man will even realize he has an emotional self. So because we may have never thought about our feelings, never tried to identify them, we don’t know how the hell we feel.
While women often gather together to talk about their emotions, men are usually uncomfortable “sharing,” and so our opportunities for becoming emotionally literate are limited. My chance came a year or so after my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie died of cancer, when I was introduced to Centering Prayer, a form of Christian meditation or contemplation. Without going into a lot of detail (if you’re interested in reading more about my experiences with Centering Prayer, check out https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2016/06/27/the-inner-pilgrimage-of-centering-prayer/), suffice it to say that the idea is to watch your thoughts and emotions go by without judging them, only naming them. And if I couldn’t name them, I was advised to pay attention to how my body felt when I encountered certain emotions. Where did I tense up: my belly, my shoulders? Did my face flush? What images did I “see” in my mind?
No one—male or female—who’s ever grieved will be surprised when I say that the easiest emotion for me to recognize was anger. Anger is one of the few—maybe the only—emotion that our culture accepts as being “okay” for men to show. How many movies can you think of where the plot turns on the macho male’s anger? For example, in the movie Witness, Harrison Ford, a man’s man if ever there was one, is pretending to be a member of an Amish community, a community of pacifists. Several of the men go to town for supplies and stop to buy ice cream cones. Some local hoods, knowing the Amish don’t do violence, show up and start bullying the men. Finally, Harrison can’t take it any more and beats the shit out of one of the hoods. The night I saw the movie, half the audience—men and women—cheered.
Anger is power. Anger is control.
Although not always. When Laurie died, I knew I was angry, but I didn’t know at what. So the easiest thing to do was try to find a scapegoat, someone at whom I could direct my anger. On Christmas Day, the day after Laurie died, I wrote a nasty letter to my priest, accusing him of abandoning my wife, her son, and me and spending his time fundraising for a new church building. “I can tell you one family that will never set foot in your goddamn church,” I wrote. I took a lot of anger out on my family, as well as on my students, the motorist ahead of me for not putting on his blinker, and other grieving parents at the counseling sessions I went to—You think you’re grieving? You have no idea what real grief is like! It took me a year to realize that the one I was really angry at was God. Finding a focus for my anger, I was eventually able to find healthy ways to express it, use anger as fuel to energize me in the direction I needed to go, which was to start writing my novel, Requiem in Stones (available—hint, hint, hint—through my website, Amazon, and Maine’s finest book stores).
Another emotion that I was able to identify fairly easily was guilt. Having recently divorced Laurie’s mother to marry Mary Lee, I was at first convinced that my leaving had caused my daughter’s cancer. Then, as it became clear that Mary Lee was keeping me sane, not to mention alive, I decided that it was because my first wife and I hadn’t divorced earlier that Laurie’s cells mutated from being caught in the middle of our frequent arguments. It wasn’t until I was able to acknowledge this guilt—that at some level I will always feel I murdered my daughter—that I was able to make peace with it.
Harder to recognize, because the feelings seemed at first almost the same, was my sense of shame. Guilt is feeling that you’ve done something wrong. Shame is feeling that you are what’s wrong. For me, guilt was an emptiness in my stomach and the feel of my face burning. Shame was hunching over, staring at the floor, my voice dropping off at the end of sentences, rubbing the knuckles of my thumbs with my forefingers. Simply put—and several writers have used this definition—shame is the deep conviction that you don’t belong. To which I would add, you don’t belong and it’s your fault.
It’s been helpful for me to read that some observers think that along with anger, shame is one of the major obstacles for all men in our culture. According to Matthew Fox, author of The Hidden Spirituality of Men, much of today’s aggressive behavior in our society—from mass murders to our newly elected president (okay, Matthew Fox doesn’t specifically mention him) is spurred by issues of shame and respect caused by our society’s understanding of masculinity. For example, most of us men fail to achieve the physical and emotional states projected on the movie screen by John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, and Harrison Ford, and because we’ve been raised to divide the world into winners and losers, we will eventually see ourselves as losers.
The Hidden Spirituality of Men has helped me understand why, after Laurie died, I refused to run her obituary in the paper. I knew, because I’d written about it in a journal, that for weeks before her death, I’d had a series of dreams about old high school basketball teammates making fun of me for being uncoordinated and slow. But I’d never seen any connection between my dream and her death. Now I think Laurie’s death had made me ashamed of myself, not so much because of what I’d done or not done, but because of who I thought I was: a loser.
As with anger, I needed to learn to manage my shame—to be still and look back at myself and say, “Oh, my God, I did that?” and grow from my knowledge.
As I continued to work on practicing awareness, I started to recognize other emotions. Eventually (and frankly this took time), as I sat in my Centering Prayer sessions watching my thoughts, I began to feel my belly softening—realizing, “Gee, that was a nice meal; I’m actually pretty content right now.” Or feel my heart open in gratitude. And then one morning, recalling Mary Lee and me singing the day before in the car with Buddy Holly, my whole body seems to feel enfolded in warmth: Oh my God, I thought, this must be joy! I’ve heard about that.
Movement and stillness are, I think, not incompatible; in fact, I think they’re parts of the same pilgrimage. Pico Iyer, a world traveler and travel writer, who’s been circling the globe since he was nine years old, writes: “Every time I take a trip, the experience acquires meaning and grows deeper only after I get back home and, sitting still, begin to convert the sights I’ve seen into lasting insights.”
For men especially, stillness may be more difficult than movement, but perhaps the key to being still is to recognize that it, no less than physical activity, can be its own pilgrimage: a transformative journey to a sacred center, and the source of healing.