I had a bit of a revelation yesterday with my counsellor.
I’ve been seeing a counsellor for six or seven years, initially for marriage counselling, and then separation counselling and then it morphed into general life counselling. The marriage counselling didn’t help us save our marriage. Maybe it staved off the end a little longer – I don’t know. But I needed it during the separation, especially in the first weeks. It was a safe place for me to completely unload. It was a safety valve that let me survive the rest of the week and to begin to come to some kind of terms with what had happened.
It was also the start of a journey into myself.
Make no mistake, a crumbling marriage is a highly stressful time. No human being should be put through that. No human should even want to be put through that. And yet… looking back, I can’t deny that it was the catalyst for a tremendous learning experience. I was questioning myself, how I thought, how I lived because the biggest thing you want to know in the midst of that situation is “what did I do wrong?”
I did do something wrong, of course. Most people will point to specific behaviours on one side or the other. Or categorically not blame either party. What I did wrong was that wasn’t true to myself. That’s all. It’s a pretty big “all”, to be honest. But you just can’t easily change what you are like, what you do and don’t like and simply how you behave. A lot of it is learnt over years if not decades as you grow up from child to adult.
The counselling gradually gave me tools to look at myself during this time. Counselling was a place where there was no topic out-of-bounds. The early sessions gave me time and space to accept and then to understand the sorts of behaviours that had fueled those destructive arguments in my marriage. It was important to accept first. I know that now. At the time, just learning to accept was strange and counter-intuitive. But unless you accept things, you will keep criticising them or denying them. Often both. And that inhibits understanding.
Other things happened along the way, of course. Going through that dark place and back out again has led me to sign up for a number of different adventures that I would not have had the balls to do before. It is difficult to convey what this really means in a mere blog post, to be honest. Even for me, a normally eloquent writer. Perhaps one of the earliest was white-water rafting with colleagues. My parents were a little surprised. At least one of my work colleagues was, too. But I did it and I’m happy to have done so. Unlikely to go again, though. But I went.
Or buying a kilt. And wearing it out all day. At work. And then to bible study! I’ve got several kilts now, and although my parents were unsupportive at first they’ve accepted it enough to actually ask to borrow one of me for a fancy dress party.
Or flying to Adelaide and then spending three days driving an old sports car back to Sydney. Sight unseen. I’ve still got the car, too. Even though it spent two years unregistered because of the NSW road rules.
But as adventurous as those and other actions were compared to what I was like a decade earlier, that’s not my point. I’ve grown as a person. I’ve matured in a way that a lot of people I associate with have perhaps not.
People who go through psychiatrists and counsellors for behavioural problems (usually addictions) have a strong tendency to turn into counsellors themselves. This is an artefact of learning so much about the topic. My journey has meant I’ve learnt a lot about life transitions. There are lots of names for aspects of this: rites of passage, life journeys, etc etc. Anthropologists have known about these in less industrialized cultures for a long time. These sorts of transitions for males is a bit of a topic at the moment, because in a lot of ways our modern Western society does a poor job at making men out of boys. And this is because these transition rituals are missing.
It was with this awareness that I came across The Mankind Project (MKP for short). At core, this program is devoted to helping men accept that they are men and that there’s nothing wrong with that. The programs have their basis in the sorts of anthropological self-examination of the coming-of-age rituals in our society. Or rather, the lack thereof. For many men who are involved, this might be the only safe place they have – the only place to be a man amongst men. Most men in the program have been through tough times, and some of the teachings and programs are devoted to helping men understand themselves and accept themselves.
Much like what I’ve been doing.
I haven’t done a lot of the MKP programs. I don’t need them quite as desperately as some of the participants do. I already have spaces to be true to myself in. One of those was with my counsellor. I worried a little that I’d kind of abandoned the MKP programs. There was no judgement from the participants, of course. It doesn’t work that way. What I realized the other day was that I don’t need the other MKP programs.
In working my way through and over the grief and other emotional pain from my failed marriage, I’ve learnt how to make my own path of ongoing betterment. Part of the MKP program was useful, important, even. But that was where my path co-incided briefly with them. What that process did teach me was about acceptance of myself and also about finding my dreams and hopes.
The Mankind Project and specifically the major piece I did was focussed on a modern re-imagining of Initiation. In pure anthropological terms, this is a ritual before which a male is a boy and after which he is a man. The responsibilities change, the privileges change, the place in life changes. But in a healthy society that looks after this ritual, the boys have been learning how to be men all their childhood lives. And they continue to learn after they are formally men. The formal ritual is only a small part. A highly visible part, to be sure, but a small part. What’s more, the ritual is somewhat dangerous and often scary. Deliberatly, so. Yet the boy is still kept safe, often in ways he may not understand for years afterward.
The initiation I did with the MKP was, for me, part of a much much bigger and longer process. My failed marriage was part of that. The tempering that came out of that was important. The tools of exploring are also a part of that and could not have happened without that ordeal. I finally realised all this a few days ago when I saw I was using these tools of exploring to rebuild my spirituality.
Being true to yourself, knowing how to understand yourself means that you are much more willing to explore the edges of your map. It means I’m not afraid of what I don’t understand. And it also means I can enjoy the exploring a whole lot better.