Standing shoulder-to-shoulder: The slant truth of Emily Dickinson and old farmers

This image of my ancestors returns to mind now that I am a pastor hoping to connect men of all ages to one another. The Boston Globe’s Billy Baker has written a memoir about the friendship between men titled “We Have to Hang Out.” Baker observed that women are more likely to speak face-to-face while men tend to talk while simultaneously engaged in an activity that requires their immediate focus such as golf or car repair. Like my farming relatives, the conversation happens while they are looking at something else and not at each other.

Baker’s distinction can be overstated. In my church, women’s groups meet for card games, knitting and exercise classes. These are types of shoulder-to-shoulder connections. I have also known men to sit across from my desk and look me straight in the eye as they trusted me with details of family crises. People of all genders communicate in different ways at different times.

My point is that one part of how I understand caregiving in ministry is to encourage men to communicate their hopes and laments, their feelings and faith.

Many meaningful conversations with other men have begun by doing things like mulching the playground, weeding the prayer garden or driving to the presbytery meeting. I did not start this activity with the intent to host a holy conversation about family and faith. We eased into the weighty topics, slantwise, like Emily Dickinson’s lines: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant … The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind.” During such slanted truth-telling, these men and I have fixed the church’s leaky faucet. But when I snuck a look out of the corner of my eye, there have been tears rolling down cheeks.

As a boy, I would wonder what in the world my older relatives were watching in the fields before them. Now that I am a man, I realize what they saw didn’t matter nearly as much as what they heard. This way of talking was their way of caregiving. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder, those men leaned on one another in more ways than one.