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A Promise Worth Keeping

Copyright © 1995 by Glenn Leichman


One night a few years ago, my friend and neighbor Bill invited me to attend a workshop that the poet Robert Bly would lead the next month, a workshop for men only. He asked me if I would like to go with him. I was touched by his offer of friendship and intimacy and agreed to go. As soon as we arrived at the auditorium, I knew this was going to be different. Over 400 men, old and young, bearded and clean-shaven, were packed into the auditorium. Denim was everywhere. You could practically smell the testosterone in the air.

When the workshop began, everyone seemed possessed by a sense of freedom which enabled them to say things they claimed they had stuffed down for a very long time. I was impressed by the level of honesty and forthrightness, and by the amount of deep grief and sadness I heard that day. Men spoke of failed marriages, failed careers, missing fathers, losses large and small. Each man seemed to be taking a look deep into his heart and soul and offering his suffering up to the collective consciousness. There was little blame offered, no sense of female bashing; instead, one man after the next offered testimony to his own sense of personal loss.

Since that day I have attended many more workshops and retreats for men only. As a psychologist, I now work with more male clients than ever before. I lead workshops and retreats for men only. What I love about this work is the personal sharing and the discovery of each man's story. When we meet, we are not following a program. We have no map, and oftentimes it is not completely clear where we are going. Instead each of us is wandering down the recesses of our own psyches, plumbing the depths of our own souls. Which makes me suspicious of any group who claims to have "found the way", who has a plan to save or change the world, or who claims to be able to help us to "win."

One group that offers such a plan calls itself the Promise Keepers. I first read about them this past summer in an article that described a meeting they held in Portland which attracted 25,000 men. I have never been to a men only workshop with more than 1000 men, and I consider myself fortunate if I can get 35 men to attend one of my retreats. What are the Promise Keepers promising that we aren't?

The Promise Keepers were started by Bill McCartney, the head football coach at the University of Colorado. It is affiliated with evangelical Christianity. Their philosophy, or at least how I understand their philosophy, is that men have lost their way. They no longer have control of their wives, they no longer have control of their children, they no longer have control of themselves. They leave marriages and abandon their children. They have affairs. They don't have a connection with God. And they need the support of their community and a forum to gather in.

Promise Keepers wants to become such a forum and create these communities in the hope that men then can take back control of their lives.

The problem I have with this approach is simple. How can a movement offer a solution for all men when each man's problems are his own? How can anyone else know what I need to do to nurture myself, to heal myself, or to transform my experience of the world?

In a recent article in The Journal of Psycho-History, President Clinton's political problems are analyzed. The author, Dan Dervin, contends that there are three problem areas which any successful politician must address in order to survive. They are 1. toxic sex (defined in this article to include promiscuity and adultery), 2. the violence of youth, and 3. controlling women. The Promise Keepers hope to restore men to their supposedly rightful place in the family. This would in one stroke solve all three problem areas listed above. If men are dutiful to their wives and take their parental responsibilities seriously, they will put women where "they belong", cease having affairs, and raise healthy non-violent children. Sounds easy, doesn't it? A lot easier than dealing with our grief and helplessness about our limitations.

Promise Keepers. Its about keeping promises. What promises have I made that I need to keep? Since the day when Bill and I first went to that men's workshop, I have promised to work with and amongst men. Each time one of my groups meets I look forward to becoming more aware of the depth of my soul, of my sense of humility, and of my own limitations. As the poet Rilke eloquently states in his beautiful poem "The Man Watching,"

"... Winning does not tempt that man. This is how he grows.

By being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings."

I hope that my experience will expand, rather than contract, my ability for compassion and embracing of all mankind. Perhaps together we can stumble upon some way to come together, to comfort ourselves, and to become more complete human beings.

Go to next article, "God's Loneliest Creatures"

Return to the Promise Keepers page