Relationships, You & Your Family

From message to messenger

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The 12 men came on stage as the opening item. Ranging in age from the early 40s to late 60s and dressed in blue jeans and T-shirts, they looked confident and determined. Linking arms they began to sway and sing to the tune of Robbie Williams’ song “A Better Man”. The lyrics, however, had been re-written by one of the men.

This was no concert but a symposium on Breaking Stereotypes: Celebrating Positive Masculinity. The men were not professional performers. Each had his own story of being abused by their fathers and in turn, being abusive to their wives and children. They were on stage to declare publicly their change of heart and lives. The lyrics of two stanzas profoundly declared this.

There are things I have said and done
I have hurt you so deep, more ways than one
I am starting to understand
To rebuild trust, I have to be a man.

Let us walk the talk, let us take the walk
Respect is earned from the past we’ve learnt
Expression is the only way out, to mend your broken heart
And that’s all I got to show.

Being the man, or a new man, that they were proclaiming involved breaking from an old version of themselves. That version reflected some of the negative characteristics associated with toxic masculinity. In toxic masculinity, men relate to others by being domineering and employ abuse and aggression to assert themselves. They believe that the women in their lives should serve their needs and wants. They further believe that men should not display softer emotions or vulnerability.

In the audience watching the men perform were some family members. Wives and children who were once hurt and fearful. That day, they were there to support their husbands and fathers. I dare say, a few were even proud of the men’s courage to step forward.

These men’s actions reminded me of the final step of the 12-step recovery programme of the Alcoholics Anonymous group, one of the more successful models for the rehabilitation of addicts. It reads: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we [try] to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practi[s]e these principles in all our affairs.”

To me, this is akin to Christians being called to be witnesses of the change we have experienced. To affirm our turning from darkness to light, believers are to go and be messengers to others of the change we have undergone.

The men, on their own initiative, came forward to tell of their changed lives. Some had been interviewed over radio and been on webinars. All appeared using their own names and refused to have their identity masked. They were not satisfied in their own recovery but also wanted to reach out to others who may be like they were, trapped in patterns of violence and abuse for years.

Their changes did not happen overnight. Some of the men had been in treatment for four to five years. Also, it must be said that their wives and children played a key role in their recovery. Many stood by their men despite the pain and disappointments they had suffered. Their continued presence gave the men something to work towards. Some gave their support more openly by joining some of the men’s meetings to which family members were invited.

When I heard of what these men were doing, I realised that I was witnessing something extraordinary. These men were not satisfied with simply mouthing or repeating messages they had heard. They became the message of change. They lived out the change that they had experienced.

When I heard of what these men were doing, I realised that I was witnessing something extraordinary. These men were not satisfied with simply mouthing or repeating messages they had heard. They became the message of change. They lived out the change that they had experienced.

In therapy, we call this second order change or transformative change. It is the holy grail of all therapeutic work. As professional counsellors, we try to help our clients to change but are often unsure if the change will be permanent.

I am sometimes asked if my clients have completely turned around. Well, that day when I saw the 12 men on stage, I was assured that a leopard can change its spots.

Benny Bong has over 40 years of experience as a therapist, counsellor and trainer. He also conducts regular talks and webinars. Benny has helmed the You & Your Family column for more than 16 years and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.

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