Online Men’s Group: What creativity means and finding our way back there

Pablo Picasso said: ‘Every child is an artist. The problem is to remain an artist when we grow up.” This sentiment was at the core of our discussions on creativity this week. Some of the members spoke of their journeys back to a sense of creativity with which they had lost touch. For one member he spent much of his life attempting to unravel a belief which formed when a school teacher told him his drawing of a horse ‘didn’t look right’. Despite this, he told the group this story from a studio filled with examples of his abstract and colourful art. Many of us have had similar experiences. And that may have been because we weren’t talented drawers or writers, did not achieve immediate success or indeed, were not deemed talented by teachers. And therefore, have since spent time believing we didn’t have a creative ability despite experiencing a creative urge throughout our lives. 

We agreed the term creativity – like many of the important things in life – is difficult to define because it represents so many different things. It is more than just painting, it could be coming up with an intuitive response in the workplace, cooking different things on the weekend or putting up a shelf that you’ve spent all of lockdown thinking about. By expanding this definition of creativity, we both allow ourselves to be seen as creative individuals as well as gain the motivation to do something creative and peer beyond the territory of our own maps. 

This question of telling ourselves what we can do and who we are loomed large this week. As one of the men put it: there are things that we don’t do because we’ve tried them and disliked them and then there are others that we avoid because our ‘self-censor’ tells us we’re not capable. We have to make sure that we do not stop ourselves from doing things because we have been brought up in an education system that taught us everything must have a satisfactory score and that the worst thing we can possibly do is get it wrong. Many of us agreed that we need to acknowledge that creative practices do not always have to possess a score or a saleable value but can represent an opportunity for simple enjoyment. 

Online Men’s Group: Can spirituality be helpful?

This week (24th August) the Men Up North group discussed spirituality. The term has a long list of entries in the English Oxford Dictionary attempting to assign a definition to its elusive meaning. The term, partly borrowing from French and Latin can mean an alternative to religion but strangely also a jurisdiction of the church. We found it – perhaps fortunately – impossible to attach one meaning to the nature of spirituality.

As we discovered, it is a challenging task to come up with one specific definition of spirituality for just ourselves, no less for a group of people with a variety of thoughts and experiences. Members of Men Up North suggested that perhaps it’s useful to leave the meaning broad because caging the idea of spirituality in specific and definite language can take you further away from the truth of it. 

That said, The Men Up North group, agreed that spirituality broadly meant connection, a sense of alignment and congruence with the things, people and places around you. For some it ultimately meant a connection with something bigger than yourself, perhaps a higher being or just a group of people; friends or strangers. For others, spirituality could be a subtle connection with nature, brought on by working together in the allotment or sitting in the garden during lockdown. 

As we all noted, religion has gained something of a bad rap for a number of reasons. As one member put it, religion has become a ‘dirty word’. Spirituality for some of us represented an alternative to organised faith and despite ‘the hippy-ish’ connotations, we could all agree that spirituality represents a valuing of love and connection without the rigidity of structured religion. 

We emphasised the value of compassion in spirituality and the opportunity compassion provides for feeling a sense of connection and love. As one member pointed out, it forces us to accept everyone irrespective of where they are coming from. It’s an action characterised by giving without an expectation of something in return. One member spoke of his attempt to show the neighbour who shot his cat compassion and forgiveness, given alternative was to be forever infuriated by the man who lives next door. Though we all agreed it is difficult to show compassion for difficult people, it is one of the most powerful ways we can establish connection. 

Online Men’s Group: Fatherhood and family

Fatherhood and family relationships were the topic of this week’s (29th July) discussion. The famed lines of Philip Larkin’s This Be The Verse begin:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad. 

They may not mean to, but they do. 

They fill you with the faults they had   

And add some extra, just for you.

Larkin had a close relationship with his parents and wrote to his father throughout his life. His memoirs reveal a close relationship with his family, something at odds with the bitter-sounding words of the first line: They fuck you up. But as we discovered this week, our relationships with family, whatever they look like, are complicated. 

Perhaps that is why Larkin’s sentiment resonated for the Men Up North group this week. The diverse influence of our fathers, or indeed the absence, has left us both grateful and resentful, amongst other things. For instance, some appreciate the sacrifices their father made, such as moving to a different country for the betterment of their family while others are still troubled by memories of their fathers lying, failing to pick them up from school again or the existential gap of an absent father. 

But as we discovered, those childhood experiences can gift us with the motivation to pursue a different parenthood and map out the design for a kind of parenting we would have wanted for ourselves. These reflections on turbulent relationships with family, while often difficult to express, are clearly not without their value. This week we reflected that parenthood presents the opportunity to invent a new person that embodies the qualities you admire in others and enact the behaviours that you believe benefit your children. A sentiment which was perfectly signified in the words Don’t be bitter, be better

And maybe being better can mean playing to your strength. Maybe you step back with the homework but take your children on an 50km biking adventure. Simply put, being a dad is doing your best. 

It seems fair to say that this week’s session was sad, and some stories were upsetting. But that doesn’t deny them of their benefit, both for those who shared and for those who listened. Hearing and understanding the stories of others’ lives can sometimes provide a lens through which to better understand our own life stories. This week it was suggested that in all of us there is both the adult we have become, and the child who holds onto the hurt and damage of growing up. But perhaps when we talk about our childhood, we can help the child in us let go of their grievances.