A Gathering of Men

Author: Gabriel Rao

Calmness, Camaraderie, and Clarity in Yosemite

Sitting near a rolling stream surrounded by the breathtaking wonders of nature, I witness the power of water against rock — moving, reshaping. What a blessing to have this time to become fully aware of my surroundings and myself.

Just like a current reshapes stone, the power of a man sharing openly and honestly has the power to change the world around him. There is a beauty that takes shape when men come alongside one another and become authentic — authentic to the pain, to the hurt, and the sadness that accompanies loss and grief. A new world emerges. One not consumed with a mindset of fear and isolation but one rich in fellowship, openness, and support.

Amid the picturesque valleys, meadows, and granite towers of Yosemite National Park, a group of men came together for three days of adventure and camaraderie.

TAPS Surviving Men hike Yosemite National Park

With the hectic pace of life these days, we tend to grant ourselves very few moments to just be still. When grief has entered our lives, we may actually try to do anything within our power to not be still — perhaps through fear that stillness will lead to a cascading flow of tears or a fear of the unknown of what it means to be alone with one’s self. When we consciously seek and find moments of refuge, the act of contemplation can lead us to moments of clarity. In the calmness of this space called Yosemite, a group of men were privileged to be in a landscape so large, so awe-inspiring that our inner turmoil lessened as we all began to breathe — deep-breathe — once again. We also made a pact to experience the calmness as a whole and to freely grant ourselves individual time in nature.

For each of these men, the journey began with the seemingly simple acts of clicking a mouse, clattering a keyboard, or dialing a phone to register for the event. After taking those first steps and making the commitment to attend and challenge one’s self, preparation for the journey ahead became paramount.

Preparation is physical: rucking around increasing weight on longer and longer outdoor walks. It is also logistical: which time to fly, which airport to fly into, whether to rent a car or carpool, to stay an extra night. Questions race around — what to bring — ounces turn to pounds on an arduous hike. What do I really need?

Besides the obvious items for an adventure such as this, all we truly need is the commitment to be fully present in the moment and to be open to what nature and the group can bring to our lives and our grief journeys.

I’ve noticed over the years that after we have experienced a traumatic loss, not only are we robbed of our loved one’s physical presence, we are also robbed of something for which to prepare. We no longer have the desire or enthusiasm to prepare for that vacation, that dream, or even dinner. We often find ourselves in an abyss of only preparing for another tragedy. Joy is too far away to remember or rekindle. Comfort is found in sectioning off ourselves to shield emotional pain when that future tragedy strikes. But, when we find ourselves in preparation — like for this hike — we find ourselves preparing for things that are good and positive. A shift takes place. A seismic shift in direction, in confidence, and ultimately in hope for what is in store.

In this new state of preparedness we are able to transition into being present. When we are actively grieving, the last place we want to be is in the now. We may find comfort in thinking back to memories of our loved ones and ourselves. Or we picture the futures we thought we were to have but will now never be. The most unthinkable and undesirable place to be is here and now, a time that was never supposed to happen. But, with the shift of now being prepared for your surroundings and the days ahead you find a confidence to step into the present. To be fully immersed in the moment. You’re also forced to be in the moment so you can take the next step, look around the bend, hear the bird sing, see the waterfall, and soak in the warmth of the sun as it falls toward the horizon.

Another threshold is approached and breached as this transition takes place. Authenticity is a noun often kept at a distance due to fear. But with preparedness we can address that fear, gain a sense of control over it, and engage authentically. As this gathering of men stepped into authenticity our countenance was changed. Laughter became deeper. Uncomfortableness was expressed, whether from a misaligned backpack or from the early stages of an unfamiliar activity.

The flipside of this is how most go about normal day-to-day things: feeling uncomfortable but not uttering a word of it to others. A sort of comfort in residing in pain. But, now that trust has been established we find ourselves willing to be authentic, and vulnerable. Researcher and author Brene Brown says, "Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they are never weakness.”

The courage exhibited by our group brought us to a peak. A true peak in the summit of our hike, and a figurative peak in our experience as well. As we collectively chose to establish a radically authentic environment, we felt acceptance — acceptance from one another and acceptance of ourselves. Powerful. How powerful it is to be genuine — genuine to the hurt, the pain, the sadness, the grief, the loss, the hope, and the joy. To be fully visible, and fully seen.

TAPS Surviving Men at Yosemite National Park

As men we are often placed in environments where we are expected to be something. But here in this moment we have stepped into being just us. The unique us that are flawed, hurt, healing, lovable, caring, and genuine. This outward display of acceptance by our gathering of men opened the door for us to accept ourselves. Accepting our stories and our brokenness. Ultimately each of our experiences has shaped us.

Like currents that reshape stone, the power of a man sharing openly and honestly has a power that can change the world around him. Every man’s eyes in this gathering now look at a world that embraces him in a real and authentic way. John Muir said it well, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” And we agree. 

Gabriel S. Rao is the manager, TAPS Men’s Program. He is the surviving brother of Army Sgt. Elijah J.M. Rao.

We invite you to share an adventure with your TAPS family at an upcoming Expedition. For more information, visit TAPS Expeditions.