This article is written by a participant at the European Men’s Gathering 2022 and originally posted in German on the Swiss Men’s Work site here. We appreciate the opportunity to post the English translation here. You can read more about the author Patrick Pierer here.
Field report about the European Men’s Gathering 2022
By Patrick Pierer
From August 3rd to 6th, 2022, approximately 70 men met under the title “The Death of the Patriarchs” in a sports boarding school in the remote north of Denmark, in the Thy region. The focus was on the topics “Initiation” and “Leadership”. The participants knew nothing about the exact program until their arrival. The men who had traveled there were able to experience both topics at the most intensive level – probably in a different way than expected.
The setup: 57 participants mainly from Denmark, Holland, Sweden and Germany. We were two men from Switzerland. The leadership team consisted of a charismatic leader, an ex-NATO soldier and a seemingly unassuming man who later turned out to be one of the main architects of the event. They were assisted by a team of helpers, a kitchen team and a “Council of Elders” consisting of a Zen teacher and a Greek Orthodox priest from the USA, and a churchman from South Africa – the father of the leader. Out of consideration for future participants, this report will not go into detail about the program as it thrives on not knowing and surprise. I therefore focus on my personal experiences and insights.
Encounter with the Past
The “European Men’s Gathering 2022” was a consistently intense experience for me – physically, mentally and emotionally. The challenges I encountered were partly consciously planned by the originators, and partly they seemed to arise out of the constellation without a conscious intention. In these 3 days I not only encountered masculinity itself, but patriarchy with all its facets: team spirit, loyalty, brotherhood, cohesion. But as well dominance, struggle, mass psychology, power abuse, violence and dogmatism. I felt thrown back into the history of the last centuries or even millennia. In an artificial setting and a reasonably protected space, I was able to experience our traumatic past and find out how I behave in it myself.
To make it more comprehensible, I am asking the specific questions that I was allowed to answer for myself in these 3 days: Am I able to unwaveringly maintain my own integrity within a crowd? Can I stand up for my values and beliefs even if it means disadvantages for me? Can I raise my voice against a supposedly overwhelming opposition? And the most important question for me: Despite all the differences and despite my own negative feelings, can I approach a supposed opponent and meet him with compassion and love? Am I able to connect instead of divide even in confrontative situations?
Integrity – Responsibility – Compassion
The answers that I was allowed to experience for myself sometimes deviated greatly from my desired self-image. Above all, the difference between integrity and responsibility in the sense of leadership was painfully demonstrated. Integrity means listening to your inner voice and following it. However, men of integrity are often quiet in groups, make decisions for themselves and let the others go their own way. Responsibility means that this very man of integrity takes responsibility for the situation and for the community and gives his integrity a clear voice. He doesn’t do this out of rebellion, but out of an intention to give everyone an opportunity to make a conscious choice. It is an act of compassion. He sees the pain behind aggressive actions. And he meets even the fiercest adversaries with a loving and yet clear attitude, because he no longer wants to continue the struggle and division for himself. These were the challenges I personally encountered.
Healing of the father wound
In these 3 days I was given the opportunity to heal my own trauma in a re-enactment of dark parts of my individual and the collective past. And I had to do the healing myself, because no help was provided for this. Although there was lively exchange in the core groups, I had the impression that most of the men were left on their own with old wounds reopened. I would have liked the support I felt needed to have been part of the program. Men who offer their tools and experience in healing these wounds to others. And that there would have been more space to process what was experienced and to become aware of the dynamics behind it. I think that a lot of potential was wasted here.
It was strongly perceptible that it was the intention of the organizers to heal the father’s wound. The fact that in the honoring speech to the father on the third day half of the men still mostly expressed their pain and disappointment and were unable to honor the qualities of their father, was an indication that this intention could only be partially realized. This impression was reinforced on the fourth and thus last day when we had the task of processing what we had experienced in a stage play: The performances were characterized by sarcasm, absurdity and black and grotesque humor, which in my view was a sign of being overstrained. The question arises how many men went home with a healing and how many with a re-traumatization.
On this last day we also talked about concrete approaches to anchor the process and the knowledge gained in everyday life in the long term. It was made clear how important honest and trusting male friendships and regular exchange in groups are for men in order to receive honest feedback, give each other support and ensure commitment. Challenging for me was the statement that the way out of the excessive demands and the pain in a “chaotic and out of joint world” consisted in revitalizing the qualities of our forefathers and choosing an existing story in which “the world still has an order and structure”. This story should serve as a guide for us in our lives.
This message also triggered resistance in the plenum. Some men felt pressured and expressed their displeasure. I would summarize the statements of these men as follows: “How are we supposed to improve a world with the principles that led to it?” Einstein found that problems can never be solved with the same mindset that created them. Thus, the overwhelm and the pain cannot be eliminated with the stories that caused them. So past stories may serve as inspiration, but not as a life plan.
To Grow up
And at the same time I realized that it is just as nonsensical to reject the past and our forefathers. Because we are children of this story and whether we like it or not, it is our heritage. And only when we accept this, along with its painful parts, can we empower ourselves to break new ground. As long as we avoid pain, we either blindly seek refuge in the past, or we symbolically kill our fathers and, paradoxically, will create the same world again. Exactly these two sides were shown there in the plenum. What needs to die, I think, is the longing for a role model, the longing for a father to protect and guide us. I realized that the path to adulthood inevitably leads through the valleys of pain.
Write your own story
Behind the pain we find compassion and the realization that everyone before us had good intentions and did their best. Then we are free to honor and accept as a gift the qualities and noble values of our fathers and forefathers. And to forgive them and leave with them what we don’t want to carry on. We step out of the role of child and victim and become the fathers of this world ourselves, writing our own history. And I was particularly fortunate to be in a core group that did just that in their play on the last day. What I wrote earlier about integrity, responsibility and compassion is the essence of this story. This process was possible because we took the healing work into our own hands. A benevolent facilitator who gave us the space was just as important for this as having men with the right tools and strong personalities in the group.
For me, the European Men’s Gathering felt like an initiation. What I leave behind is the expectation that other people will decide and act for me. I take confidence in my integrity, but much more into life. That no matter what the circumstances, it supports me in its own way when I’m ready for it. And I take with me the humility that tomorrow I can stumble over my own desired self-image again. Having said that, I recommend participation in the European Men’s Gathering to those men who are really determined to complete their initiation into men and who are willing to take it into their own hands, to perceive their needs and to ask for help when they need it. Because I think that’s what becoming a man is all about.