“Hey Jon, Why Do You Come To Wolf Pack?”

When I first met Jon, I could tell there was something wrong. You know when you meet someone, and you can tell that they are walking around with a massive weight on them? That was Jon. Everything he did just looked exhausting, like it demanded many times the effort that it should. More on this soon.

Jon is a blue collar Alberta guy: he drives a pickup truck, is a mechanic by trade (thank you for fixing my car so many times), has tattoos of skulls and snakes across his arms, is over six feet tall and over 200 pounds, sports a bald head and goatee. His hobbies include mixed martial arts, hunting, fishing, riding his motorcycle, and shooting at gun ranges. If you saw him, you’d think he’s possibly in a biker gang (he’s not), and it kinda sounds like you wouldn’t want to mess with him, right?

I got to know Jon because we attend the same mixed martial arts gym. He is much more experienced than I am (and than many of us are, to be honest), but always patiently taught others, and was happy to be paired up with anyone. He didn’t talk too much, but seemed to genuinely enjoy the classes (it was hard to tell, he didn’t smile much either). Despite his outward aura of “don’t talk to me”, I had a feeling that if he did speak, he’d have a lot to say.

So I talked to him.

I was right, he had a lot to say, and as I suspected, there was a lot more to him than his objectively tough exterior showed.

Through our classes, and our conversations, I learned that yep, Jon could mess you up, but he wouldn’t. Besides being patient, he is also kind. He’s a total sucker for bad jokes — even really bad puns will still make him laugh. Jon keeps his promises, and helps the people in his life all the time (did I mention how he fixes cars for the people he cares about?). Other fun facts: he’s got a sweet tooth, and can’t say no to a piece of cheesecake, or a scoop of gelato. He’s a creature of habit, so once he finds something he likes, he will go back again and again. Case in point, I’m pretty sure he eats at the same Japanese restaurant at least four times a week. He takes pride in working long hours, and is terrible about not going to the doctor when he gets injured; though after nearly losing an eye in a work accident, he does take safety protocols pretty seriously. Jon is also fiercely loyal, and painfully shy. A fear of his is being asked to speak in front of a crowd.

Like I said, I understood that Jon was in pain early on, and I was curious to know why. Over the nearly two years we have known each other, he’s slowly opened up and shared bits and pieces of his story with me, which he has welcomed me to share with you now, too.

I learned he had recently gone through a separation with his spouse, and was feeling estranged from his daughter. I learned that his daughter is the most important person in his life, and that feeling distant from her has severely affected him. Jon also shared that he had a history of violence at home in his childhood, and he had spent much of his life feeling like he couldn’t measure up to what was expected of him. As a kid, he was labelled a “problem child”, and he has carried that and its resulting shame and alienation for a long time. We’ve talked about this, and more, and I am grateful for his trust.

Back in July 2018 I invited him to the very first Wolf Pack YEG. For anyone unfamiliar with Wolf Pack, it’s a project of Next Gen Men that happens monthly in different Canadian cities (Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Medicine Hat, and Toronto). We bring folks of all genders together to discuss different topics as they relate to gender and masculinities. The goals are to get people to think about the ways gender stereotypes and expectations (but particularly masculinity) have affected their lives, and the lives of others, and what we can do to change this reality. We typically invite one to three storytellers to share their experiences, and have plenty of time for discussion in small groups. In Edmonton, we hold these events in pubs, where we hope that food and a casual atmosphere will help folks open up.

I wasn’t sure he would attend, but I was sure that if he did, he would find something of value there.

And I guess I was right again, because he did take something of value from that first Wolf Pack, and every Wolf Pack since.

I sat down with Jon a couple of weeks ago to ask him why he continues to attend Wolf Pack, and what he likes about it. He explained that when I invited him to the first Wolf Pack, he was curious about it, and simply wanted to see what it would be like. He admitted that it helped that a friend invited him there, as it’s not something he thinks he would have sought out on his own.

The first Wolf Pack YEG was about loneliness and isolation, and Jon explained that at first, he was shocked to hear other men, our storytellers, be so open about something so vulnerable in front of such a large group (we had over 30 people in the room). When the shock wore off, and he reflected on what he had heard, what sunk in for him was how relatable it was. Jon heard himself in the stories shared — stories of feeling helpless, alone, overwhelmed, stagnant, and lost, but also of finding others, opening up, finding guidance, and stable grounding.

I also asked Jon which other previous topics really stood out in his memory, and he mentioned the Wolf Packs on marriage and divorce, male-female friendships, and on intimate-partner violence. Each one has prompted reflection on the ways in which gender constrains our relationships and shapes our lives in ways both large and small — and all have felt personal to him.

His main takeaways, he said, are that gender stereotypes are real, and they get in the way of living fully and freely. “A lot of people have a hard time talking — a lot of men”, because ideas like “men are tough, strong, and don’t feel stuff” affect men, and everyone in relationships with them. He thinks we need exposure to different people’s perspectives, and to be open to new ideas, in order to start seeing how things like gender expectations may be affecting us.

I asked him what he would tell someone who was hearing about Wolf Pack for the first time, and he said that he would encourage them to attend. In his words:

“Get out, meet new people, get a new perspective. It’s just a chance to talk about things we don’t normally talk about. It’s okay that not everyone agrees, that’s not the point”.

Of course, he clarified that it’s easier with friends, so if you can get someone to go with you, do it — and if you have attended Wolf Pack and enjoyed it, share it with your friends.

I asked him, what’s changed in the past 18 months, since he’s attended Wolf Pack monthly, and he said,

“Wolf Pack is a small thing, but it just makes me happier, and since I’ve been happier, I’ve been trying to pay it forward in a few ways”.

He mentioned encouraging other friends to open up, inviting them to Wolf Pack, or to try new things in general, and stepping out of his own comfort zone more often.

I’ve seen him change a lot over this time, especially in listening to experiences so different from his own, and subsequently expressing empathy and care for others, particularly around issues which disproportionately affect women (like street harassment and sexual violence). He recently “Walked a Mile in Her Shoes” for the YWCA and raised over $400.00 to support their domestic violence recovery and support programs (pictured). I’ve been so happy to watch him use his voice to call for positive change. I’ve seen him grow more confident in calling others in, but also in straight up self-confidence: a mark of starting to shed the shame that he has lived with for so long.

It’s wonderful to see him walk a bit lighter, having shared some of his burdens with others. I’m glad Wolf Pack can be a small part of that journey for Jon, and happy that I can be too.