Saturday, May 20, 2023

Response to Julian Kwasniewski & Rob Marco on Men's Groups

[May 20, 2023] Earlier this month, Mr. Rob Marco published an article at Crisis called "Why Your Catholic Men's Group Will Eventually Fold." It is an excellent piece that reflects the author's dissastisfaction with Catholic men's groups and speculates on why they seem to be characterized by shallowness, posturing, and ephemerality. Robert Greving wrote a follow up called "Why Your Catholic Men's Group Should Eventually Fold," building on the reflections of Mr. Marco with what I would call a more sociological approach, observing that men's groups reflect the modern tendency to try to programitize and officialize things that are meant to be organic. Both of these articles are thought-provoking and I recommend you read them both, especially before perusing the rest of my piece.

This week, Julian Kwasniewski offered a charitable rebuttal to Marco's take with a piece on Catholic Exchange called "Seasons of Life and Root Remedies: A Response to Rob Marco's Men's Group Article." Kwasniewski critiques Marco's piece on several grounds: that it is too pessimistic, offering a criticism but no alternative; that men's groups are meant to be in a state of flux as men come and go through the seasons of life; that the good accomplished by such groups often outlive the groups themselves.

I think all articles offer good perspective. Mr. Marco and Mr. Greving point out serious shortcomings in how men's groups tend to operate, while Mr. Kwasniewski reminds us that experiences will vary amd we have to have proper expectations.

I wanted to offer my own contribution to this discussion, although the title is perhaps click-bait because I am not going to directly "respond" to either Kwaskiewski or Marco, but merely add my two cents. Incidentally, I wrote on this some years ago in a post called "Man Pandering" (USC, 2017) in which I lamented that official men's events tended to reduce masculinity to a short list of cultural indicators: barbeques, brewskis, and chest-thumping.

I am going to take an extremely personal approach to the question by discussing my own experience and obsverations about Catholic men's groups. Before you judge what I am going to say, please read till the end, because I might throw you a curve ball. 

While I appreciate Julian Kwasniewski's optimistic take on men's groups, my own experience is much more aligned with what Rob Marco described—I have found men's groups to be not only disappointing but overwhelmingly disappointing. I will begin with a synopsis of my history with men's groups, then share my observations, and offer my take.

Also, this is going to be long and personal, so I beg your forgiveness and indulegence. 

My Men's Group Experience

I think I was 26 when I first joined a Catholic men's group, which was the parish Knights of Columbus Council. I have already spoken at length of my experience with the KofC in my 2020 essay "Some Hard Talk About the Knights of Columbus," but I will quote one of my central criticisms from the article:

[A KofC meeting] can often feel very much like a meeting of your local Planning Commission rather than a band of Catholic men heroically coming together to serve Christ. They can be marked by excessive and profusely dreary tedium. There is often a serious case of buyer's remorse: one signs up for the Knights out of noble motives and the sort of ideals encapsulated in their "Into the Breach" video, and then the reality of KofC meetings is sitting around a table with a bunch of spreadsheets listening to some Boomers quibble for 45 minutes on how to allocate the $27.68 the council netted from its last pancake breakfast. And as you sit there listening to the back and forth, you start to wonder if attaching yourself to this organization is really the highest and best use of your time.

In short, while the men of the Knights are all fine gentlemen of good character and piety (in my experience), the reality of Knights events was always mind-numbing to me. I know the Knights do good things fundraising for their respective parishes, but in terms of finding any social or personal satisfaction in my particiption, it was nil. I was out of the KofC within 12 months.

Men's 30/30

A few months after this, me and some guy friends at my parish started a weekly men's group called the Men's 30/30. We would meet in the church in the evening for a 30 minute Rosary, then head over to the parish hall for 30 minutes of fellowship, which was just sitting around eating food that someone's wife had prepared. It was an closed group—we did not advertise it, and attendance was by invite only. This was deemed necessary as a "quality control" measure, because we all wanted to be able to rant about Obama, talk about guns, and float conspiracy theories without having to worry about what normies would think.

I liked the "closed club" atmosphere of the Men's 30/30, which was more conducive to building friendships. I met a few guys there that I stayed in contact with over the years. Since everyone was a friend of a friend, even if you didn't know everyone you at least knew someone, so there was never that awkward "I'm a total stranger" feeling you get when you show up to these kind of events.

The Men's 30/30 folded after a few months though. Men were too busy; they were tired after a long day of work, wanted to spend the night at home, and grudged having to meet at the parish. We started holding the meetings at one of the dude's houses which was more centrally located, but after that happened it inevitably lost its spiritual orientation while also still failing to convince men to come. Attendance became irregular until it dropped off entirely. I'd say it's whole lifespan was 6 months. 

I will say, though, the Men's 30/30 had the greatest natural chemistry of any men's group I've been involved with because all the men were of the same age, same interests, and were all what I would characterize as "blue collar" (except for me; I was the silent academic one who didn't know anything about hunting but was still grateful to eat the venison).

Diocesan Events

I attended various diocesan men's conferences in my late 20's and early 30's. Some of them were very large, stadium-filled events with nationally known speakers; some were smaller, more akin to men's retreats. They were all...mehhhhh. None of them left me with any enduring benefit that I was aware of nor was memorable enought to make we want to go back. I usually struggled to stay awake through them, to be honest. 

Men's Bible Study

I gave up on men's groups for a good ten years or so. My life changed considerably. I became much more socially isolated, divorced, and working from home. Plus, as you age, you see your friends less frequently so I was only getting out with my real life friends a few times a year. One day in confession, around age 40, a priest told me I was too solitary and should get involved with the local men's Bible study (which was held at a neighboring parish, not my home parish). Now, truth be told, I had no interest in doing this. Few things sound less appealing than going to a parish run men's Bible study. But I had recently resolved that I was going to accept any invitation made to me, regardless of how I felt about it, in an effort to break my social isolation. So I went.

I think I managed to keep it up for three months. It was very awkward. The men were all guys who would never probably hang out organically: a few Boomers, shabby Gen-X guy who played drums, clean cut software millennial just starting his family, and an assortment of others. The chemistry can best be described as forced. It felt like an torturous blind date where two people who have no background or connection are compelled to slog through an evening of trifling chit-chat for the sake of etiquette. There were Bible readings by the group leader, followed by opportunities for various men to contribute observations, which few did. Lots of awkward dead silence. They all seemed like fine people, but nobody acted enthused. I wondered if every man there had been forced to go there by his wife or confessor. Despite the months of attending, I never remembered the names of the men I was with and nobody seemed to form any friendships. I forced myself to continue attending for awhile until a scheduling change relieved me. I followed the Bible study emails for awhile after I left and it seems like the group folded a few months later.

Parish Men's Club

At a parish nearby, the priest invited me to join the men's club. He told me how great it was and talked it up, so I told him I'd check it out. I went to one session. I was the youngest guy there by decades. It was all retired men, or men on the cusp of retirement talking about retired men subjects. "Yessir, me and Vivian took the camper out to Yellowstone this summer," sorts of discussions. I sat there taciturn with vacant eyes trying to mentally calculate whether waiting through it was worth the free dinner I was promised. As soon as the cheese pizza came I grabbed two slices and was out of there. 

Brewing Clubs

I don't know how to categorize this one, so "brewing clubs" may be a little inaccurate, but its the best I can do: At my parish, there is a vibrant group of men—generally in their 20s and 30s—loosely associated by their love of socializing, folk music, Catholic culture, and home brewing. These are the guys that wear tweed, read Chesterton, smoke pipes, and organize dances. Most of them attend the Traditional Latin Mass, at least semi-regularly. They love the Church, have impassioned discussions about culture, theology, and literature, and in general do a fantastic job nurturing the young adult social life at my parish.

The only problem? I don't care for any of this stuff.

I don't drink beer (despite the efforts of all my beer-drinking friends who always insist I just haven't tried "the right kind," it all tastes awful to me no matter what). I have no interest in brewing and certainly no interest in tasting. And as I don't smoke, I certainly don't want to stand around smoking pipes.

Though I can play several instruments, I have almost no interest in sitting around in a social setting playing folk music while everyone half-drunkenly sings along to the same tired old Irish drinking tunes. Guitar is something I pick up when I am alone in my room and want to think about how depressed I am; it's an intensely private thing for me to take up an instrument and play, and I feel like the personality is entirely sucked out when I'm just gaily strumming along to some folk song about jailed Irishmen and drinking wenches. Everything that makes music rewarding for me is vacuumed out of it in those sorts of festive social settings.

Dancing? I love dancing, but I seldom have anyone to go with so I always end up getting paired with the little kids or elderly people, both of whom can't do the moves. No thank you.

I similarly am not keen on have group conversations about Church or culture or literature; I live and breath that stuff 24 hours a day. I don't want to talk about it for leisure, too—at least not in a group setting. Besides, group conversation itself grates on me. I really loathe standing around a group of ten people who are all talking. Nobody gets more than a few words in; nobody is talking to anybody in particular. New people enter the conversation and throw off the topic; a thousand subjects are begun and never sufficiently explored as the discussion flows too quickly. I always end up just standing there. One time a guy invited me to go to the restaurant with him after work. I was delighted and went with joy. But when I got there I found he'd also invited eight other people without telling me. I was incredibly frustrated at this; I ended up just sitting on the end of the table eating in silence.

The ideal conversation for me contains between 2 to 4 people and that's it. I am the sort of person where when I am in a large gathering, the first thing I do is find one person to be "my person" for the evening. I latch on to them and parasitically siphon them off from the larger group like a lion taking down a straggling wildebeest. Then I create a one-on-one discussion with that person, effectively transforming the group event into my own private affair going on within the larger group context; sometimes I even try to get that person to leave ("Hey, wanna get out of here and take a walk?") A group-qua-group serves no purpose for me socially except as a hunting ground to find individuals I want to commune with directly.

Back to the brewing club gang: honestly, at 42 I am starting to feel a bit old to hang around them. Yes, ages can mix. I have many younger friends and they are very rewarding friendships. Yes, mentoring, yes yes yes. But you can only hang around people younger than you for so long in a social setting before you become painfully aware of the dissimilarity between you and they. You start to feel pathetic. But the biggest problem I have when I engage with this group is simply that we have radically different ideas of what constitutes "fun" and "bonding." The things they do that they find fun, I find tedious. They are fantastic people and solid Catholics, but we don't have much in common, and that actually matters; it matters way more than the fact that we all have testicles. 

What am I Expecting in a Men's Group?

Thus is my synopsis of my experience with Catholic men's groups. They have, in general, been very disappointing experiences for me, ranging from "This is okay but unsustainable," to "Why am I wasting my time?"

The biggest problem by far is lack of chemistry; they don't feel like organic gatherings, but something more akin to grown up play dates. But man, we Catholics sure love our groups and programs. You know how Evangelicals are always making cringy films that are bad movies but they feel obligated to speak well of because they have the right message? Well, that's Catholics but with our programs.

But this devolves into another question: what am I expecting out of a men's group? I think Julian Kwasniewski got to this point very well in his piece when he talked about what men's groups are realistically supposed to accomplish. He speaks nobly of their purpose: "enriching faith," "character-formation," "virtuous habits," "accountability," etc. If he gets these things out of his men's groups, that's fantastic. I've never found a men's group that did any of those things. 

But, truth be told, none of that stuff is what I want out of a men's group anyway. Anytime I joined a men's group, I think I was hoping to simply find friends—to merely meet a kindred spirit. I never thought that was a lot to ask; we made friends so easily when we were young! A kid randomly gets an assigned seat next to you and that becomes your best friend. How simple it is for children! I never thought it was much to presume the place to find friends was amongst men who shared the faith. But it seems like an uncrossable chasm at times. Sometimes the events seem structured in such a way that guarantees that a person like me won't find friends. The atmosphere serves not to build bonds but only to remind me of the agonizing distance between myself and those standing all around me.

One time a reader of this blog reached out to me and asked me to meet him for breakfast. I did. It was a lovely experience. Very natural. We didn't really talk about Catholic stuff too much. Beaming with pride, I showed him the cord of firewood I had in the back of my truck and told him about where I'd found it. We talked about hiking. That was nice. Easy. Real. I became friends with that guy. He brought some of his others friends to my house and I made them dinner. It was delightful, intimate. Today those fellows are all my friends, and dear friends they are. It all grew so seamlessly. I cherish that.

My experience with men's groups is quite the opposite. They feel like someone gathering all the men in a room and saying, "All right you guys, we're all here together—now play." I just don't feel like the mere biological incident of me having testicles is sufficient justification for needing an organized, structured time to be set-aside with other testicle-bearing individuals. I'd rather just BS with the men I encounter casually in my day to day life: listen to my barber tell me about the turkeys he saw in his yard; catch up with old friends on the phone to hear how life is treating them; talk to the randos at the tavern where I go to study my Latin about whatever subject enters their liquor-sopped brains; listen to my handy-man tell me about his summer plans while he's installing my window.

Are those interactions "friendship"? Admittedly, no. But at least they are organic; at least they emerge out of my real life daily routine without me having to go to a man play date. 

What's the Problem?

Now, if you are sensible, as you read through this, you likely thought, "Sounds like you are the problem." And you would be correct. I am the problem. Sure, various social structures have their own strengths and weaknesses; such is to be expected. But the real problem here in these scenarios is me. I just despise this kind of structured socializing. And I do stretch myself; I do "put myself out there" and "get out of my comfort zone," but that doesn't make it any more enjoyable. It still crushes my spirit and makes me want to scream. 

This is, I think, the missing piece that needs to be acknolwedged in all sides of this discussion, both those of Mr. Marco and Mr. Kwasniewski. People have varying levels of social tolerance, ranging from socially amicable to extremely introverted and socially avoidant. Simply put, not everyone is going to benefit from the social structure of a men's group. The fact that I have found these groups empty cisterns does not mean they are bad; the fact others have benefitted does not mean they don't have problems. Mr. Kwasniewski has evidently had good experiences with them. His character, personality, and upbringing have no doubt all played a factor in determining the types of social settings he enjoys. Same with Mr. Marco. For me—and I suspect for other introverted persons—these sorts of gatherings are not "fun." They are dreary and confusing: confusing because you feel like you ought to go, you should like them, and you want to be invited, but the events themselves are tiring, tedious, and energy-draining. 

I don't have a solution. But I don't need to. Julian Kwasniewski criticized Mr. Marco for not having a better solution for the problems Marco addressed. I say, who cares? I don't need to have the cure for cancer to complain that my cancer is painful. I think the best that can be said is some will like these groups, some won't, and I suspect a lot of it depends on personality. Would I like to have more male friends? Sure. But I have ceased thinking I will find them in a men's group. So, come sit in my parlor with me by evening and let's drink some tea and talk about the joys and disappointments of our lives. Come up north with me and let me show you my favorite hiking trails through the silent woods. Come, sit on the bench beside me in the park, where the water flows down the rocks by the old mill, and let's reminisce about our lost loves. Come, drive with me, and show me your town and tell me how that CVS used to be an arcade you hung out in as a kid. Sit with me in the diner while you sip a coffee and I suck down ten Diet Cokes and we can talk about the goodness of God in the midst of our brokenness. Then we shall be friends, and good friends we shall be.


Anonymous said...

I believe our local k of C is geared to money raising events and then various donations.

The tradition of god fathers and god mothers does a lot to foster supportive relationships.

Children are the ones that lead the parents to new friendships and associations.

Anonymous said...

Man. As someone who has tried (and failed) to start/belong to/enjoy men’s groups for years, this speak to me. Their inorganic nature of it is exactly right. I’m in a small parish with maybe two other families my age that are non-contracepting, practicing Catholics. But the thing is: I just don’t get on with the dads. It’s taken me a decade to give up the dream of men’s groups or local Catholic dad-friends, but once I did, I found I enjoyed my heretical (but noble) friends more. I call it grounds for evangelization, but really they’re my kindred spirits.

Boniface said...

"The tradition of god fathers and god mothers does a lot to foster supportive relationships."

Yeah, but you tend to choose godparents from among people you are already friends with, the being a godparent is a consequent of friendship, not vice versa. Anyhow, I seldom see my kids' godparents. One of them won't speak to me at all.

Paul said...

I'm the author of the original Crisis piece (I go my Paul on my blog). As I mentioned to you, Boniface, I appreciate your sharing this experience and that I'm not the only one struggling in that sense. Things will always fall short this side of heaven. Keep up the good work, and if you (or anyone) is interested in expansions on this topic of friendship, I have 10 posts or so on the topic here (it's something I give a lot of thought to as a man):

Anonymous said...

For what it’s worth, I’m an extroverted 40 year old woman who feels the same way about these groups in general. I put so much effort into them until 2 years ago when I married. Fifteen years of working (really hard) on meeting new people and making real friends, and I only have one to show for it (she’s great though!).

Also, I tried going to a prayer group at our new parish last week. One lady seemed very interested in recruiting me, and I thought, “Oh good! Maybe we can be friends!”. But after arriving, I quickly realized she is very much an organizer, but probably not interested in forging an actual friendship with me.

I feel badly for my husband because he’d like to make new Catholic friends, but I have a sinking feeling it might not happen at our parish.

We do have wonderful conversations with all the people we meet in our every day interactions, just like you described.

In short, I empathize with your post!

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Oncet, me and friend joined the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The best part of it was the first meeting cos we met in a classic Irish Pub and me and my buddy both like Guinness.

Before the third meeting I quit in a snit.

I was in a trad study group in Portland, Maine for a few years. The Diocese of Portland, Maine includes the whole spiritually dead state. The study group was an island of sanity in a sea of profound ignorance and indifferent insipidity.

It helped me save and sustain my faith and the only problem I ever ran into is when I told one of our members - a teacher at a local Jebbie H.S.- that Ghandi was a goon.

He had been raised to revere the phony. C'est la vie.

O and I did win a bet with the teacher. I bet him that his Jr class could not name the ten commandments.

That was the easiest won bet ever :)

I think it was Chesterton who said life was too important to take seriously. I think he was right even if it wasn't he who said it.

I am slowly making a friendship with a guy in a Maronite Parish but I have always been a loner so whatever as the kids say

Watcher said...

My experience with men's groups is limited. I helped start one about 12 years ago, and it's still going, though I no longer attend. It was in a different parish, and I didn't want to spread myself too thin. Your observation about organic vs forced socializing is something I hadn't considered. I grew up thinking the excitement was always "elsewhere", never in my neighborhood, but have learned that I need to be available in my immediate surroundings. We all have something to offer, but not always on our terms.