A few weeks ago, nine men, including me, were invited by Dan Zenka, VP of communications at the Prostate Cancer Foundation (and author of the blog My New York Minute), to join him in Washington, DC on a one-day retreat. All of ten of us are living in either the presence or aftermath of prostate cancer. Dan’s project is to create and post videos for newly diagnosed men that will give them a better idea of the likely impact of this cancer on their lives, spoken in the words of guys who have already been there.
So, what do you get when you take ten men who’ve never met, all from wildly different backgrounds, whose ages range from their early 40s to their late 60s, and stick them in a room for a day? And then surround them with a video crew recording their every word? Long awkward silences? Guys shifting uncomfortably in their chairs? Idle chit-chat about careers and family? Whatever you might get, it’s probably not going to be male bonding.
The popular web site, AskMen.com, has this to say about male bonding: “[O]ne of the key differences between men and women is how we socialize. Social scientists point out that men tend to hang out around activities, and women around emotional connections. But you already knew that: As men, we get together to do something.”
The site then lists what it considers the top ten male bonding activities, ranging from #10, “fixing something”; passing #6, “going to a strip club”; through #3 “fishing”; up to #1, “grabbing a beer after work.”
Inviting ten guys to share a room with a video crew is definitely not on AskMen.com’s top ten list. It would probably not appear on any list of male bonding activities, no matter how long it was. And why should it? After all “men tend to hang around activities, and women around emotional connections.”
Except when the ten men in the room share something that men normally don’t talk about: the physical, psychological, emotional, and, yes, spiritual impacts of prostate cancer. Among the ten men in a room, there has been botched surgery, incontinence, the inability to have sex, the ever-present “overhang” of dread that the cancer will return, the loss of emotional connection with a partner, the never-ending hot flashes similar to menopause, the living through cancer treatment along with another chronic disease like lupus, the loss of body hair, the shrinking genitalia, the relentless and repetitive experience of lying alone on a narrow table while a giant machine sends life-altering x-rays into your nether region. You might not expect to see male bonding, except when the ten men in the room have have these life-altering experiences in common.
These are not subjects you would typically bring up while grabbing a beer with a buddy. But under the unusual circumstances of a shared prostate cancer diagnosis, emotional connections are made with lightning speed. At last! Someone who “gets it!” Feelings that have been pent up for months, even years, in order to maintain a semblance of “manhood” in front of others burst forth, sometimes accompanied by tears. All these moments shared among men who have never even met before.
Like soldiers cast together in military combat, the members of this group have a common—and potentially deadly—enemy. Within this context of shared, traumatic experience, real male bonding occurs. And, AskMen.com’s argument notwithstanding, this bonding is based on shared emotions, not shared activities.
These ten men in a room, oblivious to the video crew surrounding them, speak with breathtaking frankness and honesty. We are changed by this experience—we climbed to a mountaintop and went beyond it. We shared things we never thought we could say aloud with people we hardly knew. Our emotions were laid bare. We named our fears and our frustrations, but we did not do so alone. We had our fellow soldiers at our sides.
The day ends. We leave the room and return to our familiar lives. But something has changed. After today we will always be available to each other for encouragement and listening, even though we can’t grab a beer together. Even though we are once again spread across the country, we are men who have bonded. A band of brothers.
I am honored to be among them.