Shakespeare had the embattled Henry V making a final rousing declaration to his troops. “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me, shall be my brother.” This St Crispin’s Day speech offers that standing together as equals will win the day. It’s a statement of heroic connection at odds with the complicated modern view of masculinity.
This monologue, and its impassioned call to overcome problems with a shared aspiration, was one of the inspirations for abandofbrothers. Focussed on personal development, this community group works with young men who are drifting towards the fringes of society. “We don’t project anything onto them, we just bless them for the qualities that we see in them,” Ben Cole, the organisation’s external co-ordinator and film maker, tells me. The whole process broadly centres around initiation traditions. Ancient wisdom assumed if adolescent lads weren’t treated as equals amongst a village, they’d eventually rebel and burn it down. Fast forward a few thousand years and young Western men are increasingly at odds with the law, lacking the life skills to succeed or facing polarising expectations.
Popularly, a ‘real man’ either lusts after women or seeks conflict, ignoring the thousands of emotions lying between. The illusion suggests you must be considered tougher, more attractive or wealthier than your peers to have succeeded. There’s rarely a healthy discussion about failure or life balance. Chaotic family units, pressure from social media and years of injudicious stoicism have distorted male self-identity. “What about healthy masculinity? You have to say: ‘I don’t have any problems. I’ve got a good business, I’ve got a beautiful young woman and I’m king of my village.’” Despite the plethora of misogynistic, dick-waving, bravado on display across society, the male ego is a fragile entity. Where familial or community guidance fails, young men will instead seek reassurance from their peers when shaping self-identity. This lack of stability can to often see complex emotions manifest as violence, drug abuse or criminality.
Created as an attitude-free offer of support, where experiences can be shared without judgement, abandofbrothers shows there is a healthy way to deal with life’s problems. Cole concedes some might view the fellowship as a type of religion, despite abandofbrothers lacking key components like scripture, iconography or idols. “The age of seeing an authority outside of myself – a guru or somebody that knows better than me in control of my life – that’s out of date now. If we can empower each individual to be the sovereign of their own world, they will become successful.”
Now expanding across the country, to places like Eastbourne, Hastings, Bristol, the group’s collective efforts won them the Queen’s Award for voluntary service last year. The highest honour handed to such groups in this country, it’s recognition for ensuring over 80% of participants won’t reoffend. Much of the success derives from listening to individuals who feel they aren’t useful. “The ambition is to stand behind them and empower them to become leaders,” says Cole. “Young men who are troubled, who are at rock bottom, are actually a lot easier to ‘crack open’ than those who are privileged – because they’ve polished ego and education around them, which says: ‘I can’t be vulnerable. I can’t admit I have problems.’” Working in partnership with community leaders, local authorities, educationalists and service providers, abandofbrothers’ retreats and mentorships have helped their members find jobs, beat addiction and improve relationships with family and partners.
Instead of trying to quickly analyse, advise and fix, abandofbrothers empowers individuals to discover what kind of person they want to be. “Once you go through discovering and feeling your rage, it sees personal power reveal itself.” In all their exhibitions, anger and grief can limit your life, prevent healthy boundaries, spark addictions, emphasise neediness and cause a fear of communication.
Filming in the Congo with Bruce Parry, Cole witnessed older local men take the youngers into the jungle, stripping them of their weapons and paraphernalia. After a difficult ritual, they were reborn as a man, taking a seat at the table and being treated as an equal. Perhaps this simple tradition shows the benefits of a community nurturing their young, rather than projecting attitudes. It’s probably not a coincidence most male young offenders in Britain have an unhealthy or no relationship with their fathers, along with no adequate support network. “What our absent fathers have not done is bless us, put their arms around us and say they’re proud of us. To say that he’d have to admit a vulnerability.” In an attempt to fill this void, young people are shunted from charity to support service, all the way encountering strangers who lack time and resources. All through history, young people have resented being told what to do. Even well-meaning traditional systems place more faith in spreading perceived wisdom than reacting to a client’s individual experiences.
If there’s anything wrong with modern patriarchy, it’s a model of masculinity which is increasingly toxic and unhealthy. Bringing different generations of men together for a common purpose, abandofbrothers shows you need not endure life’s difficult journey alone. All participants have been through the same process, hearing their brother’s stories and establishing lasting connections. Cole suggest the movement provides a modern-day Holy Grail. “It asks the question: ‘What ails you? Where’s your pain?’ It listens and honours you for the journey you’re on.’” Words like honour might seem increasingly archaic these days, but the alternative is hiding our foibles away to fester and weaken. “Hurt people hurt people. If you listen to their pain, they feel that warmth. The gold that comes out of that darkness can be so wonderful.”