The importance of belonging by Steven D’Souza and Khuyen Bui
By Guest Contributor Steven D’Souza and Khuyen Bui
Authors of Not Being, by Steven D’Souza and Khuyen Bui, explain the importance of belonging.
“We are in fact relational beings in a world where everything affects everything else and, as a result, to care for others is to care for ourselves.” – Daniel Christian Wahl, Designing Regenerative Cultures
Kenny Mammarella D’Cruz is a successful facilitator who founded MenSpeak. His work consists of creating small groups in which hundreds of men have shared in psychologically safe environments their hopes, fears and feelings of vulnerability. Many have experienced, either first-hand or through their relationships with others, the dislocations and disconnections of modern life that have given rise to mental health issues, suicides, college dropouts and criminality among young men. MenSpeak offers a space in which social masks and performance are set to one side, and people can talk openly about what concerns them, as well as be respectfully challenged and questioned by other participants.
A MUTUAL SENSE OF CARE
The mutual sense of care that Kenny has created for others stands in stark contrast to his own experiences as a child refugee moving to the UK from Uganda. Both of Kenny’s parents were born in East Africa but, as they had South Asian heritage, found themselves persecuted under the dictatorial regime of Idi Amin. Known as the Butcher of Uganda, Amin was a military officer who served as national president throughout the 1970s and was behind thousands of extrajudicial and ethnic killings. Kenny and his family were forced to flee the country.
My father was smuggled to Italy from Uganda. Once we were reunited, we moved to his refugee camp, then to a small town in Wales. We were the only non-white family in the community. As a family, we were traumatized and on the edge. We had no money or knowledge of how to cook, clean or look after ourselves. So, we kept our heads down and just survived. We didn’t really want for much, we didn’t really have much, and we couldn’t really talk about what we had been through because we were still going through it. If one of us had cracked, then we would all have cracked, and that might have been the end of us.
Just before we fled Uganda, I remember my father telling me, “You might never see me again and you are now the head of the family. You have to take care of your mother and brother.” From that moment on, at seven years of age, I went on duty.
The stress took its toll on Kenny and was compound by his experience of bullying and racism in the refugee camps. Suffering from PTSD, he developed various mental health issues, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, Tourette syndrome, trichotillomania, twitching and grunting, and body dysmorphia.
I was pulling my hair and picking at my skin. Pretty much anything to try and relieve the anxiety and try and maintain control when I experienced chaos inside me. I dealt with our situation by internalizing everything, putting on a good show, and being there as much as I could for my mother and brother — a habit I developed when my father wasn’t there. My father was depressed, trying to find work. Once he did, he was very busy and generally emotionally unavailable.
I learned not only from this experience but from my earlier life, too, that men were not to be trusted. At some level, I felt like my father had abandoned me. But also, I had become enmeshed with my mother, godmother and grandmother. I was their golden boy and it felt great. The downside, though, was I felt like I was responsible for all their emotions and well-being. I couldn’t do anything wrong because I couldn’t bear being told off or rejected. I had to get it right and remain their wonder child.
Because of Kenny’s caregiver role at home, he found that he couldn’t really play with the other kids. He belonged with neither the adults nor the children. Fearful of rejection, initially he also was careful not to be associated with men, who were demonized by his female-dominated family.
As I grew up, I overcame most of my mental health issues. I learned how to be present, how to calm myself down. I controlled my PTSD, stopped twitching and grunting, and began to present a normalized mask to the world. Working with Mother Teresa, with dying men in Calcutta, helped me get over my obsessive-compulsive disorder. By my late 20s, I had a successful marketing and publicity company. All my dreams appeared to have come true. I felt it was time to put myself before the needs and expectations of others for a while.
Serendipity, a sense of adventure and new friendships led Kenny to Fiji, Singapore and Australia, where he worked and traveled for the next five years.
On my return, I hooked up with my old male friends, though something was missing. They were distracted by money and power addictions, love and sex addictions, drug and alcohol addictions. Anything that distracted from themselves. I guess they took one fork in the road and I took another. Mine had more passion, maybe more purpose and soul-searching. I needed to share depth and excitement for life with them. So, I called a meeting of a dozen or so of us in my front room and said to them, “I don’t know what a men’s group is, but I’m starting one now. You’re all in it. I will still go raving with you and hang out like we’ve always hung out, but I need depth as well, and if you can’t meet me here, then you’re probably going to be chucked.” The sad thing was I remember telling a couple of them, through sheer frustration, that I miss them more being with them, here and now, then when I was abroad thinking about them.
Kenny’s invitation for others to join him had an unexpectedly positive response. Soon the group was too large to be hosted at his home. People heard about his men’s groups, told their friends, who told their friends, and before long the idea had coalesced into something with ground rules, check-ins and structure.
Today, I hold about a dozen men’s groups a month. A few men still come along who were at that first meeting. In addition, I train others to facilitate men’s groups, including other men, women, therapists, coaches and anyone else who wants to learn how to do it. With Covid-19 and social isolation, I’ve held small, weekday meetings over lunchtime to help keep men calm, connected, safe and sane.
The groups are different to therapy and other personal development groups, because they are as near to daily life as possible. People get to explore the truth and really get to know not only who they are but who they no longer need to be. It’s non-hierarchical, so I’m not the leader at the top of the pecking order. We all learn from each other’s experiences, successes and failures. We also get to share our fears and fantasies. We live beyond our histories and explore who we are, what we want out of life, and support each other as we grow into a new life.
SUPPORT GROUPS FOR MEN
While the idea of support groups for men may seem like a very specific niche, Kenny has discovered that they attract a wide variety of people. Some participants feel they have outgrown their lives; others who have been very successful and crossed off everything on their bucket list still feel empty inside. Many are going through some form of change or transition, such as imminent parenthood or career changes, or simply find themselves at a crossroads, needing to make life choices. Some want to fall in love but feel unable to do so. The groups also attract men who, like Kenny, have encountered difficulties relating to other men, having lacked positive male role models early in life or been sent away to authoritarian boarding schools.
The members of a community, argues executive advisor Charles Vogl in The Art of Community, must feel that they are invested in each other’s welfare, showing mutual concern for one another. Such perceptions matter. According to Vogl, “Communities function best and are most durable when they’re helping members to be successful in some way in a connected and dynamic world.” What had begun as a meeting group triggered by Kenny’s concern for his friends, then, had rapidly evolved into a genuine community of men.
These days there are a lot of leaders of men around, who aim to turn boys into men with their initiations, training, howling in the woods, nakedness and stuff like that. Men who’ve been there and done that show up at MenSpeak, as well as men who’ve moved through the pick-up artist community, or various social, sporting, religious and twelve-step communities. Personal development books and therapists refer men to my groups as a bridge to a calm, grounded, connected daily life. We connect with our authentic selves and test-drive who we think we really are, receiving invaluable feedback, before following our hearts into daily life.
While the groups may seem like indulgent ‘talking spaces’ to the casual observer, Kenny’s experience of their impact is significantly different.
I know for a fact that these men’s groups have saved several lives. The isolated learn to take part with boundaries. The abused or abusive break taboos and talk through their issues and are met in that toxic energy before transforming it into creative expression.
Kenny’s story shows us that while our experience might be one of fragmentation and trauma, healing can occur by coming together in community. Either in physical space or online, accessed through modern technologies, it is possible to find or create our own communities, the places where we belong. Kenny’s efforts have continued throughout the coronavirus pandemic with the establishment of a charity, introduction of an accreditation program to certify practitioners, operation of supervision groups and launch of an app. MenSpeak graduates have gone on to establish their own meeting groups, while others have downloaded free materials to inform their own approach. Kenny used his personal wounds to heal not only himself but to give something away, in which hundreds of lives have been and continue to be transformed the world over.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
STEVEN D’SOUZA is an executive educator, coach, and keynote speaker. He has authored or co-authored five books: Made in Britain, Brilliant Networking, Not Knowing, Not Doing and Not Being. Steven has been recognized by Thinkers50 on its RADAR list and was included in HR Magazine’s ‘Most Influential’ list. His work has been featured in national and international media, including Harvard Business Review, the BBC, The Independent, The Guardian, and The Sunday Times.
KHUYEN BUI is an author, speaker and sought-after facilitator who guides individuals and organizations to uncover the goodness that is already here. Graduated cum laude from Tufts University, where he studied Computer Science and Philosophy, he thrives on bringing analytical rigor into his inquiries of human messiness. Khuyen enjoys writing and storytelling and has won several awards, notably the Peter Drucker Challenge Essay Award and The Moth Boston StorySLAM Award. He can be contacted at www.khuyenbui.com.
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