LeadingAge Magazine · July/August 2012 • Volume 02 • Number 04
“Not in his goals but in his transitions is man great”
–    Ralph Waldo Emerson

“This is one of the most powerful programs I have ever attended at Friendship Village!” says resident Nobert Ciesil. One of 11 men who gathered for the three-session program “Exploring the Male Journey, Understanding Your Past – Choosing Your Future,” Ciesil had processed life’s ups and downs, making a personal choice to live the rest of his life sharing his wisdom with others.

Recognizing the need for retired men to self-actualize their journey so they can become elders, we combined our backgrounds in ministry, counseling, mythology, storytelling, and leadership to plan and execute a closed, three-session, men’s-only program for our independent living residents at Friendship Village of Schaumburg, Schaumburg, IL. We found that in moving from a professional life filled with activity and people beyond their families depending upon them, some men have a difficult time adjusting to retired life without identified quests.

Some men, faced with the realities of retirement and letting go of professional responsibilities, begin feeling unvalued and without a sense of direction and purpose. These retired men may face the risk of depression, loss of identity and low self-esteem. This not only impacts their own mental and physical wellness, but also takes a toll on their families and in turn, their surrounding communities. All of this creates an isolated identity unable to connect with others if they are family or friends.

We began to observe a group of men from our retirement community regularly gathering to play Nintendo Wii bowling. We noticed that the men were focused on the game, but that little interaction was taking place between them. There was a sharing of time and space, but no sharing of story or life. The game had become a safe container with defined boundaries that left little room for personal vulnerability or connection between the men.

Our interaction with these men told a story of lost identity. They had navigated successful professional careers, but in retirement had no dragons to slay, battles to fight, or goals to obtain. They had effectively lived out traditional male archetypes in pre-retirement (king, warrior, magician and lover), but had failed to connect the power of their past with the promise of their future.

Pondering this disconnect, we studied the works of Robert Bly, Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, and Richard Rohr, and dissected a diverse selection of cultural myths, spiritual lessons and pop culture references. We did research on the male heroic journey, how life’s losses impact men, and why some retired men choose to live out the remainder of life in denial, anger or bitterness. The resulting program offered retired men a vehicle for life review, for facing loss and limitations, and ultimately a choice of how best to live out their retired life.

Friendship Village resident Tony Dini says, “I was intrigued by the subject matter of the flyers of the program. That is what sparked my interest even though I was not sure what it was all about. After completing the program I learned about myself that I can make an honest presentation to others about who I am. I could also share my life stories that I may have kept to myself.”

For more on the participants’ view of the program, see this video (below) of four participants—Bud Ostrand, Tony Dini, Nobert Ciesil and Jim Moffett—sharing their experiences with the program.

The first session looks at what we call “The Heroic Journey,” the years of life from birth to about age 30. The entire group constructs a timeline identifying accomplishments and milestones from life’s journey. Time is then offered for each man to fill in a personal timeline reflecting on accomplishments they are particularly proud of or fueled passions in life. This leads the group into personal story telling. Each man is offered an opportunity to tell the group of a scene from their “Heroic Journey” timeline. The session ends with a group ritual where each man completes the statement, “The moment I felt most like a hero in life was …” The group affirms the statement by responding, “We are proud to be in the presence of such a hero!” We honor each man with a hero medal, and the room is filled with smiles and pride. You can really feel the energy level go up in the group and the individual as the presentation builds.

Session two looks at the middle years of a man’s life, ages 30 to about 60. This is a time when many men face some of life’s harshest blows. Parents and family members pass away; they may lose a job or have a career change; divorce or health concerns may hit them. We use another group activity where men identify losses and frustrations they feel most men face on their middle-year journey. Individual time is offered for each man to personally identify deaths of family members and friends; the loss of personal function, senses and abilities; awareness of personal limitations; and losses experienced in careers, social life or culture.

Next, each man is offered an opportunity to choose one loss or limitation and share his story with the entire group. The session ends with a group ritual where each man completes the statement, “With sadness in my heart and hope for the future, I let go of my grief over …” The group responds to each man’s statement saying, “We honor your woundedness and grieve with you, hoping that your pain may guide you to a new place in life.” Each man records his grief scene on a piece of paper that is offered into an open fire. There is a heaviness in the air as this presentation progresses and stories are shared. In the offering of the story to the fire and the sincere affirmation of the group, a step is taken to transform each man’s grief. It is not an easy session for any of us, but it is powerful.

We begin the third session with storytelling about other men we have met who might be considered one of three types: a “foolish old man,” an “angry old man,” or a “wise old man.” “The foolish old man” lives out his retired years missing the lessons of life and never facing his limitations and losses. “The angry old man” experiences the losses and pain of life, forgets life’s blessings, transmitting rather than transforming life’s frustrations. “The wise old man” integrates all of life’s joy and sorrow, passing on his stories and wisdom to others.

Time is now offered for each man to identify one person who exemplifies each of these images from their life journey. Stories of each image are then shared by individuals with the group, resulting in a personal choice as to how each man would like to live out his remaining retired years. A closing ritual vocalizes each man’s decision. Individuals affirm, “I can now see that life offers me choices. Today I choose the path of wisdom, letting go of—or offering my life to …” The group responds, “We hear your decision to follow the path of wisdom, and honor your journey into the future.” Each man is offered a token of a small smooth river stone to carry on his journey as a reminder of his decision. Men let go of such things as anger, impatience, and bitterness, embracing such things as listening to others more attentively, spending more time with family, or offering his time volunteering within our community or beyond.

Since we started in January 2011, more than 40 men have completed the program. We were invited to offer it at Roosevelt University’s Institute for Continued Learning. This enabled us to reach out to retired men in the surrounding community.

Roosevelt University participant William Borndahl says, “I found it comforting to be discussing similar situations with others. That my experiences and concerns were not so different from other men. I have applied what I learned in my daily life by being more concerned about the feelings of others.”

The men learn to integrate all of life’s offerings and share their life wisdom story with others. Men rediscover the deep respect for self and others, building upon a quiet confidence without boasting. By choosing a path of wisdom, a retired man can further develop his sense of community and live a life of unconditional love.

For further information, we encourage looking at the following resources:

  • Robert Bly, Iron John; A Book About Men, Element, 1991.
  • Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, Anchor 1991.
  • Robert Moore, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover, Harper One, 1991.
  • Richard Rohr, Wild Man to Wise Man, St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005.