MDI is where men can be men

Written by Rob Cribb of the Toronto Star on March 1, 2012

Michael is sitting in a circle of a dozen men, most of them strangers, discussing his most intimately personal life challenge.

“My daughter is having trouble with drugs,” the 40-something single dad exhales to the unfamiliar crowd. “I got a call from the hospital saying she’s having issues with suicidal thoughts.”

The men surrounding him sit silently listening. Some nod knowingly. One whispers, “I’m sorry.”

It’s the opening minutes of a recent MDI men’s group meeting in Toronto, a weekly gathering of men who come together in a strictly-male-only environment to talk through their trials, share their successes, seek guidance from brothers and rediscover a long-lost sense of fraternity.

The group leader on this night, Chase (men in the meeting asked that full names not be published), begins by apologizing for not properly preparing for the meeting. And it’s no fleeting act of contrition.

“I screwed up because I was being lazy,” begins an extended soliloquy of self-immolation.

“I let this man down,” he says pointing to one. “I let this man down,” he says, moving around the circle. “I need to look each of you in the eyes and tell you.”

It’s a serious level of regret for not having the agenda nailed down.

Most of us saunter into meetings unprepared, say nothing and fake our way through with meaningless jargon and compliments on the quality of the muffins.

These guys seek accountability.

“What specific things do you want to do to make a change?” one of the men demands of Chase.

“I will not take on any new commitments until the end of the week to wrap up what I have on my plate,” he responds in an on-the-record declaration.

Throughout the meeting, the men make these “commitments” to address whatever challenges they are facing.

In some cases, a “buddy system” is employed to ensure the commitment-maker has a willing ear between meetings to assist and ensure the mission is completed successfully.

At the next meeting he is asked to report in. They actually keep track.

But the overall mood here is far from condemnatory.

When Ron, another in the group, speaks of the challenges at home with a new baby, the men quickly rally to plan a “meal train” where each commits to cooking and delivering a nutritious meal for the family.

“This really helps,” says the frazzled-looking new dad. “Thank you.”

Some of the men around the circle are newcomers, others have been coming here for more than a decade to one of several MDI groups across southern Ontario.

Leon, a 42-year-old with nine years in the program, says this is where he is “the most honest me.”

“At home I have to be strong. At work, I wear a different mask.”

Juan attributes the wisdom he’s heard here for helping him avoid the “absolutely wrong approach” with a troubling situation involving his daughter.

“It could have been a tragedy. But they gave me the truth. I got much more than I ever expected here. It was life changing.”

There is a growing contemporary chorus of men’s advocates preaching the need for men to spend more time in communion with each other away from work, wives and girlfriends.

It is time carved out to communicate in masculine ways, to hear the experiences of those whose socialization is instinctively familiar, whose understanding of life’s challenges feels somehow intuitive.

“There are things that these guys understand that I can’t talk to my wife about,” says Josh, who has been coming here for eight years. “It’s a way of talking, a different kind of honesty.”

Geoff Tomlinson, an organizer with MDI (originally called Mens Divisions International) says he comes here to say the things he can’t say to his girlfriend.

“If I’m feeling really inadequate, it’s not something I want to talk about with her. I don’t want to bring that piece of crap in my life and make it hers.”

Phillip is a newcomer. This is his second meeting.

“I keep dropping hand grenades in my career,” says the burly 50-something. “I get into disagreements and I quit. (Being here) is uncomfortable in a way I need to be uncomfortable.”

Eventually, the source of that discomfort is revealed.

“I don’t have a lot of men in my life. I’m still struggling with my (recently deceased) dad. He was hypercritical.”

Tomlinson emerges as a redemptive voice.

He came to men’s groups 15 years earlier with his own career suicide tendencies.

Nine months later he was promoted and is now a successful businessman.

“Here’s what I did wrong,” he says. “You shouldn’t do it too. There’s a quality of truth here. We men are very honest about our failures.”

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