While, sadly, none of the three of them brought me any gold, or even any myrrh (And who doesn’t love myrrh?), three aspiring wise men recently shared details of a new group that’s being organized. Peter Balsamo, Jerry Gale and Andy Horne are all founding members of the Athens incarnation of Men’s Wisdom Works,a local men’s support group under the OLLI@UGA umbrella. To call it a support group would be to low-ball it. Yes, it IS a support group, but it’s also a social network. It’s also a low-pressure therapeutic environment. It’s also one of the few natural avenues for making new friends once we pass a certain age.
The Asheville Model
The Athens group is modeled on an idea created by Chuck Fink in Asheville, N.C. In 2008, Fink had recently retired from a successful career in public relations and moved with his wife from Cincinnati, Ohio to Asheville. He soon discovered that he was depressed, bored, lethargic. But, through the magic that is OLLI, Fink organized a men’s group, a group which everyone around him was sure was going to fail. Instead, it thrived. In just ten years, it has already provided meaning and cemented strong friendships for hundreds of men. In fact, it was so successful that it expanded from one to fifteen groups in Asheville, and now, ten years later, has begun to grow geographically as well. One of the first destinations is Athens where it has been steadily growing this year.
“Men tend to define themselves by their careers, and once they’ve retired they ask themselves, ‘Who am I now?’” Those are Andy Horne’s words. As a psychologist who has worked with schools, the military and government, he’s seen this firsthand. “Do I still have meaning in my life if there isn’t a job to go to?” These are the kinds of questions retired men ask themselves, says Horne, but usually not out loud.
Since men, traditionally, haven’t been encouraged to share their feelings as women have and perhaps aren’t as deft at finding social support, these gnawing doubts can grow and fester, causing not only mental and emotional problems, but physical ones as well. In fact, research shows retired men face a larger risk than women of depression and even suicide.
“It’s an identity issue,” says Balsamo. “A lot of these men were formerly in high level jobs, supervisory positions.” Then, as soon as they retire – nothing. “It can be deflating.”
There are some firm ground rules for the Men’s Wisdom Works, including no politics, no religion, and no direct advice giving. “Telling someone, “You ought to do such-and-such doesn’t work,” says Jerry Gale, “Simply telling people what to do removes their dignity.” The OLLI set-up, in which a facilitator can subtly redirect a conversation before it heads down a dangerous road, makes maintaining these rules simpler and less divisive.
“It’s a step above a social group. It’s a way to get to know people on a personal level, to share in their joys and sorrows,” says Balsamo, a retired educator who moved to Athens in 2016. And, according to Horne, “It’s not just the men who benefit. I’ve had two women come up to me and say, ‘You know, I’d really like for my husband to join your group.” Wives can see their husbands’ misery.
Gale, a recently retired professor who ran the Family Therapy doctoral program at UGA, knows a thing or two about human dynamics. “I hate that Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus guy. He lumped all of us together. It’s simply not true.”
Getting together to discuss troubles, share victories, and lament our losses helps people of any gender, but, according to Balsamo, “There is no ‘one size fits all’ formula. This group is not for everyone. We’ve had men come to one meeting and not come back. But that’s OK.” For those who do participate, “it’s a special thing; it’s friendship.”
Athens Men’s Circle
Organized about 10 years ago, the Athens Men’s Circle has been meeting monthly since that time. Unlike the OLLI group, the men range in age from their 20s, 30s and 40s to several over 50. It’s modeled loosely on The Mankind Project, which originated in the early to mid-1980s and was based on the ideas of several men, but most famously, Robert Bly. The Athens Men’s Circle states on its website that it’s “where men come to speak freely and truthfully about the issues in their lives. It’s a supportive peer group in which men examine their behaviors, feelings and beliefs, and only give advice to others when it is wanted…It’s a safe space for a man to take inventory of his life and ‘do his work.’”
Michael Moore, 60, co-owner with his wife of Healing Arts Center, has been a member for four years. He describes himself as a “recovering Lone Ranger,” and says the group has transformed his life.
“It’s a loose structure. There are no rules, but there are guidelines. If a man doesn’t want to participate one week he simply says, ‘I pass,’ and we move on. It’s not a therapy group. It’s a clarity group.” There’s a code: What is said in the group stays in the group.
One of the many benefits of attendance is what Michael calls, The Stretch. “This is something we do to encourage positive change. If a man is, let’s say, a little lazy but wants to increase his exercise, he’ll engage in a Stretch. He’ll say, ‘Next week I’m going to ride my bicycle for a mile.’ It’s out of his comfort zone, and that’s the point. He reaches beyond what he normally does and more times than not he achieves his goal. That’s the Stretch.”
He explains his own “stretch” a couple of years ago. “My daughter and my parents have had a complicated relationship – my parents hadn’t met their two grandchildren, the oldest nearly three. I made a stretch to have a conversation with my daughter – it was very uncomfortable and it’s unlikely I could have done it without the men’s group.”
Ultimately, his parents, in their 80s, flew from Alabama to Seattle and four generations spent time together. “It was hugely emotional for me.” Ten days later his mother had a stroke.
Moore says each man in the Circle is free to address issues from dietary to spiritual. “We are doing work and we hold ourselves accountable, but any man can pass on the process at any meeting – no questions asked. It’s a safe space with confidentiality.”
OLLI@UGA WiseMEN Special Interest Group (SIG).Small groups of 8 – 12 men who meet every two weeks to discuss common issues and challenges faced by men living in retirement. The groups will use the guidelines of the long-established OM:NI program in Australia (Older Men: New Ideas). Confidentiality is assured. For more information: firstname.lastname@example.org 706.542.7715. Chuck Fink will present at a class at OLLI on Monday, Nov. 5, from 1 – 3 p.m.
Athens Men’s Circle.For more information, call Michael Moore at 706-351-2425. A new group is being organized for the Fall.