How Men Feel

Men rarely risk sharing their feelings with other men or willingly acknowledge vulnerability. We’d rather polish a persona of strength, self-confidence and invincibility. This seriously constrains our capacity to live a full life — not to mention that it gets really exhausting!

Recently, an opportunity to risk presented itself. It was as if my friend and I had reached a certain tipping point — we’d either go deeper, admitting the truth of our lives, or we’d stall-out and our friendship would flounder amid trivialities. Thankfully, my friend risked honesty, transparency, vulnerability within the safe parameters we’d put in place over years of light-hearted banter.

As with all forms of human intimacy some details are simply too personal, private, even sacred to be shared outside the relationship. That’s the case here. In fact, safe parameters built over time create the very trust needed for transparent honesty and deep human intimacy. Rare and difficult as all this may be, it’s wonderfully priceless when it occurs.

A couple lingering ruminations from our conversation may be shared, however. They certainly are not offered as incontrovertible “truth”. Rather, they are offered to stimulate curiosity and a sense of wonder about what happens when we risk honesty, share feelings and admit vulnerabilities.

Prescinding from the specific emotions or “secrets” men generally try so hard to keep hidden, my friend and I asked how we might disengage from the straight-jacket in which repressed feelings hold us. Acknowledging that we had such a problem appeared as the necessary first step — allowing what’s buried alive to see the light of day!

Then, what? That’s where our curiosity and wonder remain piqued. Though typical males often find it difficult to reveal a full spectrum of deep emotion, feelings unexpressed remain very much alive beneath the surface! How do we disarm their seismic force while tapping into their potential power, strength and capacity to transform our lives? Sounds so simple, even prosaic, but it comes down to letting go of control. 

Most folks often confuse control with power. They are not the same thing!  Risking honesty and transparency my friend gave-up control, or even more explicitly, disarmed the paralyzing control his fear, anger and repressed emotions had over him. By relinquishing control my friend paradoxically found true strength, real power and abilities beyond his imaging.

All of the great wisdom traditions of the world seem to proclaim in one way or another what we experienced. The Apostle Paul provides a Christian expression when he writes: “…power is perfected in weakness… For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:9f).

It’s one thing to praise these words from the safe distance of pious platitudes or Sunday sermons. It’s a whole other thing to get them into your bones, giving them flesh. Of this I am more than certain.





Keeping It Together

We’ve all had such times… times when life spins out of control and we ricochet from one thing to another.  The last month felt at times like being trapped within such a pinball machine.  Sometimes the best we can do is to remember to breathe!

Yesterday things returned to a more humane rhythm. This morning a ten-day ache in my jaw has noticeably subsided — a reassuring indication that my stress induced tendency to clench my teeth while sleeping had begun dissipating.

With this welcome — and not too soon — return to life-as-normal comes a desire to resume more regular postings here, to get back to Kneading Bread. Toward that end, I share a poem that appeared like manna to nourish me during these frenetic weeks…

There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about.

Ask: “What’s possible?” not “What’s wrong?” Keep asking.

Notice what you care about.
Assume that many others share your dreams.

Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.
Talk to people you know.
Talk to people you don’t know.
Talk to people you never talk to.

Be intrigued by the differences you hear.
Expect to be surprised.
Treasure curiosity more than certainty.

Invite in everybody who cares to work on what’s possible.
Acknowledge that everyone is an expert about something.
Know that creative solutions come from new connections.

Remember, you don’t fear people whose story you know.
Real listening always brings people closer together.

Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world.

Rely on human goodness. Stay together.

This poem by Margaret J Wheatley is entitled, “Turning to One Another”.

Quiet, Please!

Used to think that people who wore hearing-aids couldn’t hear — as if someone turned down their volume. Now I know differently. Some people need hearing aids because they hear too much!

On Monday I have my first-ever appointment with an audiologist. Closing in on 66, I guess it’s to be expected. My doctor tactfully softened his suggestion by saying, “It would be good to have a baseline for the future.” In my heart of hearts I knew I needed more.

There is a lot of clatter, clamor and bellowing commotion out there. I’ve really noticed it at parties and in restaurants.  But I am increasingly unable to differentiate what people are saying on TV or radio as well. It’s not that I cannot hear, I hear too well — too much has become an indecipherable cacophony of noise and babble.

Would someone please turn down the volume! My doctor tells me hearing-aids will help with some of this but they are not a cure-all. He was speaking about the functioning of my ears. We did not pursue an equally insightful political commentary in his diagnosis.

Couldn’t we all use a little more quiet right now? Don’t we all want the shouting to stop and a return to a more civil tone? Filtering out some of the “boys-terous” shouting on the airwaves and in our public square seems to be a desperate need many of us are experiencing.

Sometimes I want to turn off the volume all-together. But I fear what would happen if too many of us do that — the shouters and noise-makers would have a free-for-all. We’d all be in an even worse condition than we are now — imagine that!

What are we to do? We can start by setting our baseline, what’s acceptable, what we will tolerate. We also need to turn down the volume. Some voices we may need to turn off all together. Whatever may be right for us, we each need to protect our hearing, be conscious of the noise we generate, and moderate our public discourse.

This morning I happened upon a marvelous two-minute trailer for a movie to be released on March 12. It was a feast to my throbbing ears, a soothing respite from the incessant shouting. Treat yourself to a couple minutes of listening to this promo for In Pursuit of Silence. As the subtitle aptly promises, it’s a quiet movie with much to say. [link here]


Some Assembly Required

Mike is a retired school counselor in his mid 70s. We know him best as the grandpa of the kids next door. He’s over regularly to live-trap and “relocate” pesky chipmunks, sweep up the acorns from the yard’s stately oaks and otherwise do those tasks full-time parents don’t have time to do.

Mike likes to talk. Man, does he like to talk! Fortunately, the Englishman who came to Minnesota to get his PhD, fell in love and stayed. He’s bright, knowledgeable and curious about many things. Recently, Mike was telling me about his decision to resume more regular church attendance.

Mulling over eternal verities or ultimate questions about meaning and purpose was conspicuously absent in Mike’s priorities. What was most striking were not questions about death or an after-life. Rather, Mike was primarily focused on quality of life now! He explained how social engagement and sense of community are essential for maintaining mental health and physical vitality well into our senior years.

Such nuggets of wisdom from elders I would want to emulate get noticed by 65 year-olds like me. Same way with my 85 y/o bother-in-law, Al. He’s always been popular in our family. Now six years into their seconds marriages, he and Elaine are modeling for the rest of us what its like to age with grace, gratitude and charm.

This past week I took a sour cream raisin pie over to share with them. A longstanding claim in our family is that Mom’s double-crust recipe is far superior to any meringue version others may tout! After our self-congratulatory remarks (and second helpings) we engaged in easy, wide-ranging conversation as we always do.

What I noticed throughout Al’s animated story-telling was more than a sugar-high from dessert. He was engaged, grateful and enthusiastic as ever.  This time he kept apologizing for going off on tangents. Every story had about five subplots and as many asides. But his were not the untethered wanderings of a feeble mind. They were exuberant reminiscences of people, places and times we shared in common. A perfect accompaniment to my mother’s double-crust sour cream raisin pie.

Not all our stories are easy or happy. My sister died in 2007. Now Al and his wife talk openly and lovingly about their first marriages. Though family circumstances prevented him from graduating from high school, Al remains as curious, wise and insightful as any philosophy professor I had in college. Twenty years his junior, I have always aspired to be like Al — now more than ever!

These disparate conversations with Mike and Al suddenly converged yesterday as I drove east on 50th Street. On the marquee of the largest Lutheran congregation in the world these words foretold this weekend’s sermon: “Some Assembly Required.” Immediately I chuckled at the clever play on words.

My conversations with Mike and Al suddenly struck me as profound as any sermon a pastor will be preaching at Mount Olivet. Life — and I would hold the spiritual life — is not like putting together a swing set or gas grill. As useful as the owner’s manual is for putting things in place and for their upkeep, such instructions are woefully inadequate for conveying the function and purpose enjoyed in life’s many conveniences — and dare I say, coping with life’s inevitable annoyances.

Yes, some assembly is required. Yet a full life, a purpose-filled life, a life the likes of which Mike and Al model for the rest of us demands more from us. We are nudged and enticed to move beyond the verb, “to assemble” according to the prescriptions of even the best user’s manual. We are invited, even wired, to engage assembly as the noun it is, as community — that full, rich, diverse assortment of characters that make us who we are.

Yes, some assembly is required. Here we carry the stories that enrich and define us, the memories we treasure, the tales that will one day be told about us. In the gathered assembly we reverently hold what’s most valuable and sacred — communion with one another.

Questioning the Inevitable

You have probably noticed. Regulars here will remember that I turn 65 in August. I’m wrestling with that inevitability. Mostly, how can this be? Once again “old people” were right — it descends upon us faster than we can imagine.

Getting an AARP card at 50 is dismissed as a playful hoax, especially now that the organization has dropped “association of retired persons” from its moniker. Most 50 year-olds are at the height of their careers. Many parents are paying far more in college tuition for their kids than contributing to their IRAs.

Even at 60 I was full-throttle in my career. The occasion was marked with a great celebration in our back yard with 60 of my closest and dearest friends. Awards were given to the top five winners of the “How Well Do You Know Richard?” trivia contest. Organizers regaled us with a hilarious skit, “Richard, This is Your Life!”

But 65 is different! More and more people in elevators, fellow customers in stores, even neighbors out walking with their dogs now unreflectively refer to me as “Sir”! I can no longer claim to be taking “early” Social Security. And try as I might, I must not ignore those infernal mailings from the federal government assuring me that I am being automatically enrolled in Medicare.

Don’t get me wrong! I want to be 65! The age is not the issue. It’s just that tables are turned on us so fast. No longer do I feel a creation of my past. As more trappings and traits of who I was are stripped away I discover the irrefutable truth of who I am at my core. It’s as if the future has grabbed the initiative and is now apprehending me like an unknown suitor I am powerless to resist.

My perfectionism and need to “control” will surly be one of my last personality traits to succumb. Even aging is something I want to do well, as it should be done, perfectly if that’s possible. With that in mind I was drawn to a six-month project by writer John Leland who will chronicle six New Yorkers over the age of 85 as they move into their futures. [link]

Leland recounts the popular schtick — old age is presumed to be “a problem to be solved. People’s bodies broke down, their minds lost function, they drained billions out of the health care system.” That more than a stereotype, its my fundamental fear.

About five years ago I started to resent people who would say something inane like, “You don’t look 60!!!” I retained my composure by quietly telling myself, “They don’t know of what they speak! What is 60 supposed to look like?”

Here’s what I’d really like… to be part of a massive rewrite of cultural presumptions. As Leland’s series intends to chronicle, what if we began thinking of our elders/ourselves “not as a problem, but as an asset, a repository of memory and experience?”

Research actually shows that people in their 70s and 80s, far from wallowing in despair, are happier than their younger counterparts. What do “we” know that younger people do not? For almost all of human history, societies turned to the oldest people for advice and wisdom. Now, that wisdom too often sits unheard, devalued, unexpressed.

Rather than seeing ourselves as “old”, what if we initiated a cultural movement — one by one — to reclaim our full stature as wise elders? Note well, I am certainly not suggesting that we perpetuate the status quo in which too many of us pretend to be “young.” That’s precisely the trap which holds us bound and the foolishness that’s sure to frustrate.

Growing old isn’t easy! Some wise elders have even counseled me that it was even harder than they had imagined.  But still, how do we choose to proceed? No one does it perfectly. One requirement appears to be yielding control, as hard as that is for my personality-type.

Of one thing I am pretty certain, growing old well and embracing an invitation to become a true elder, is not essentially a medical problem or even determined solely by our psychological makeup. Rather, I am convinced it’s fundamentally a spiritual challenge, invitation and opportunity.

As I hurdle toward my birthday in August I am increasingly drawn to a prayer poem by the late Elizabeth Rooney, an Episcopalian from Wisconsin who seems to have fully embraced her elder-hood. I intend to take her spiritual wisdom with me into the years ahead:


I hope each day
To offer less to You,
Each day
By Your great love to be
Until at last I am
So decreased by Your hand
And You, so grown in me,
That my whole offering
Is just an emptiness
For You to fill
Or not
According to Your will.


You may learn more about Elizabeth Rooney, a “late-in-life poet” [here].

Reasons Unknown and Known

Panic attacks are hell! One struck yesterday as we were buckling up on our return flight from Orlando to Minneapolis. Suddenly I was shrinking, swirling as the world around receded into a solid cage. My body was being sucked out of my skin. Breathing stopped and became intentional, or not at all. I needed out! Where didn’t matter. It would not be a pretty sight if the ground agent closed the plane’s exit.

Why yesterday? What set it off? When might it happen again? I love flying. In fact, the year Mother Teresa died I had the good fortune of meeting her in Calcutta. I also visited Kathmandu and Bhactapur and I recall many of the sites devastated by the earthquake in Nepal this week. This trip enabled me literally to fly around the world! I even boast of having sky-dived from 15,000 feet! Planes don’t frighten me.

One of the most anxiety producing aspects of panic attacks is their unpredictability. Who knows why, when or where! All I know for sure is that I have experienced such terror six or seven times over the past fifteen years. So generic Klonopin goes with me whenever I travel — just in case. Thankfully, I rarely need its tranquilizing help.  The last time was more than a year ago when I was overwhelmed in the middle of the night at home in bed.

Yesterday’s anxiety was compounded by the fact that my just-in-case medication was safely tucked away in the baggage compartment. Never do I check luggage; yesterday I did. Why I checked it is a long story and irrelevant. My point here is to report why and how I made it through the ordeal, sans medication. The frightening experience suggests a few lessons we might all take to heart.

First, the lead flight attendant took charge with calm confidence and reassuring competence. I experienced first hand that these crew members may busy themselves with “pleasantries” but their main purpose for being onboard is much more important and requires special professional skill. Thank you, Rhonda, for helping me feel safe in your care.

Second, I’m reminded not to so easily take others for granted. Fellow passengers were patient and understanding. One man actually volunteered his seat — with infinite leg room — at the exit across from where two flight attendants sit during takeoff and landing. I was shown unmerited kindness and cut a great deal of slack by complete strangers. Its reassuring to find that, just below the surface and when we need it most, we survive within a community of care.

Finally, I share this story from yesterday and my history with anxiety in solidarity with so many others who struggle with mental health issues. There is entirely too much silence, stigma and shame associated with mental illness. This needs to end.

It will end when more of us experience the kind of caring support and understanding within community that I was given on a Delta flight from Orlando to Minneapolis yesterday.