Spilling Coffee

I spoke with Pellegrino Riccardi last week.

But before we go any further, let me drop a brick of deep profundity on you: life is messy.

Yeah, I know. That’s like telling a fish it’s gotten itself wet.

Pellegrino is, among other things, a speaker, educator, and author. He came to me via Sam at his publisher, the Greenleaf Book Group, who wisely suggested Pellegrino would be an excellent guest for my podcast.

Kinda nailed it there, Sam.

Pellegrino and I had a short conversation a week or two before we were to record, quickly falling into an easy, “oh, this is cool” cadence that told me, among other things, that we’d have absolutely no problem making our way though a 45-minute recording session.

Because life is messy, I appreciate honest life stories that embrace, rather than sidestep, the raw, ugly bits.

Pellegrino’s is a story of love, cluelessness, violence, tenderness, missteps, cultures of honor, forgiveness, shame, redemption, vulnerability, fatherhood, and garlic – not necessarily in that order.

He tells one of the most refreshingly honest, occasionally harrowing “everyman” stories I’ve heard in a while. No scrubbed, polished, or otherwise approved-for-social-media filters – simply what’s real.

I mean, if you’re going to bring it, bring it all.

I’m not going to spill too many beans here, because there’s a podcast, several talks, and his book, Drowning Quietly, the subtitle of which is “Memoir of a Man’s Shortcomings.”

What I will tell you is that one of the things that made our conversation so refreshing was pulling out our garden spades and digging into shame, anger, and violence.

“Wow”, you might be thinking, “that sure sounds like a fun way to wrap up a week of work!”

It was.

As Pellegrino points out, when we men jump through hoops to hide the shameful stuff, particularly from other men, we drive it underground. There it becomes compressed, distorted, and concentrated, soon becoming volatile and dangerous. Eventually it finds expression because it must. Sometimes that expression works as internal poison. Sometimes it seeps into relationships, quietly corroding them. At other times it erupts in violent ways hurtful to self and others.

More often than not, it’s stuff that, when seen from an objective distance, is no more front-page news than spilt morning coffee. Yes, it makes a momentary (truly) hot mess, but then it gets mopped up.

In my own programs, we do a good chunk of work illuminating and releasing shame.

We do that work precisely because shame is something that, as Pellegrino addresses brilliantly, we carry around while putting on the good face, desperately wishing and pretending we didn’t have it.

Many of us even develop shame around the shame we carry – as if more layers of shame will somehow offer protection from the original shame. The result is just another, harsher version of beating yourself up for beating yourself up.

That’s like adding a shot of espresso to hide the spilt coffee.

I have yet to meet a man who’s found his way to kindness and self-compassion through practices of beating the crap out of themselves or, for that matter, plunging repeatedly into a pit of shame…

Here’s the thing: Doing the work of self-examination and truth-telling always appears harder to the uninitiated. There are all sorts of myths, including one that warns you away from even entering the swamp, for if you do you will surely drown, be abandoned, get swallowed by alligators, never come out, or a combination of all that and worse. The influence of the myths can’t help but create a strong seduction to avoidant armoring-up.

Ironically, that armoring has become part of the admonition to “man-up.” (There’s more to “man-up,” of course, but it’s often a demand for an immediate, distorted brand of courage…)

As Pellegrino and I discussed, there are myriad cultural models of manhood that, twisted and damaging as they are, persist. (He writes beautifully and honestly about his own experiences of those cultures – and the pain and hurt they cause.)

They persist, I suspect, because they sound reasonable. They’ve also been handed down without question from generation to generation for a very long time, and that’s created a lot of momentum to overcome…

Yet, the writing is on the wall – to say nothing of a whole lot of evidence, such as the epidemic of male loneliness and suicide – that’s telling us, in vivid, unavoidable color, that it’s high time for a different approach.

That approach begins with looking in the mirror and, if nothing else, (and there’s no shortage of something else) allowing and accepting the full, messy humanity of the one you see reflected back to you.

If he hasn’t yet, he will inevitably spill the coffee…

He will screw up his communication…

He will make lousy decisions…

He may even strike out at the ones he loves…

But the sooner he comes to terms with his flaws – his own shortcomings – the closer he will draw to self-acceptance and, dare I say, create space for self-love, responsibility, and self-forgiveness.

If you think I’m suggesting the “feminization” of men, I’m glad you think that. That’s nice…

Yet the work I’m pointing toward is likely to be the toughest, deepest, and most honest any man ever does with himself.

And yes, if it results in a few – or a few million – men softening the edge with which they meet the world, I’ll take it.

Because, as Pellegrino reflects in his writing and our conversation, those hard edges have done more than enough damage.

How about we simply tell the truth, take responsibility, and clean up the coffee when it spills.