Expanding the Definition of Masonic Relief
*Disclaimer: The following article cannot be used to diagnose or treat any condition, nor is it intended to imply, impart, or provide a clinical training process or be a substitute for professional care.*
Brethren, when we first kneel at the Altar of Freemasonry, we acknowledge we are in darkness. Ignorant to the teachings of this Gentle Craft, we supplicate the Worshipful Master and Brethren to aid our Psycho-Spiritual development by providing Light in and through Freemasonry. At other times in our journeys, we may know we are in a different kind of darkness, though perhaps uncertain as to how that darkness descended. As the rough ashlar, no person is immune to the ruffians of the mind and spirit, the mental or emotional afflictions of life: anxiety, depression, shame, trauma(s), substance abuse, loss, existential crises or those of faith, financial or relational distress can affect any of us, at any time. Any one of us may be experiencing these presently or know others who are or have.
In Masonry we build, with ancient tools and modes of recognition, a trust and bond sufficiently solid to offer a strong grip to our brothers in distress. We could endeavor to lift (br)others back to the possibility of Light, so they, and we, may enjoy greater ease and efficacy in daily life. In the discharge of our obligation of relief to one another, I think it is essential to develop fluency in this conversation. The more we practice the words and phrases, the easier they become to perform. Consider these starting points toward an expand use of our tools:
First, gather information and have a plan. Notice changes in someone’s behavior and routine. Some changes or states may be obvious, some may be subtle depending on the person. It is more important to notice and respond than to try to figure out the reason someone is in darkness: a diagnosis or label is unnecessary for the provision of relief. In this expanded form of relief, our perception or notice of changes in their mood or behavior is the other’s “application,” to us for relief. Look for any of the following changes in (but not limited to): very high or low mood, sleeping too much or too little, appetite increase or decrease, isolation, irritability, too little or much energy, loss of interest in many or previously cherished things or activities, increased substance use, reckless behavior, statements of hopelessness or giving up.
Second, respond. One of the greatest gifts we can give is to listen deeply and attentively; one of the most valuable resources we provide is our time. Actively listen by making eye contact, emphasize phrases they use, ask for clarification, and paraphrase to confirm understanding. It is better to engage not knowing what to do than to not reach for the person at all. If you worry the person is such distress, they could be having thoughts of suicide, it is probable they already are and therefore essential to ask. Inquiring will not put the idea in their minds. To the contrary, knowing you are willing to say the words and ask the question signals to the person that you care enough to step into darkness with them and seek Light, together. It exemplifies, though word and action, that you have done your work to meet them on the five points: walk to where the person is, emotionally and/or physically. Steady their gait with yours. Stay in contact using beauty of your authentic words and strength of an open Heart. Then…speak the word(s).
It may feel strange or uncomfortable at first, to ask about things more personal and private. Yet, we already have a method for this type of catechism. However, in this conversation, only our part may be practiced, the responses will be as unique and varied as each individual. Practicing with a brother or brothers before the words are needed, trading parts, will help with fluency, authenticity, integration, and ability to stay present when it counts:
“Hey, haven’t seen you in a while…could we get together this week?
“I’ve noticed you’ve seemed down lately…how’s it going?
“I get the sense something is really bothering you…”
“On the third…what’s going on?”
“Sometimes, when people are feeling what you’re describing, they can also feel hopeless, like giving up. Sometimes the idea of dying crosses their minds. Are you having thoughts like that?” If there are clear signs or statements of imminent threat to self or other, calling 911 is appropriate and caring.
Third, stay in contact and begin to seek more help using the following tools and ideas. Connecting with others and/or getting back to Lodge, Lodge of Instruction, other Fraternal events could be a good start. Share a meal, at home or out. Scaffolding the person and sharing the work with other Brothers lightens each individual’s labor. Psychotherapy or counseling are effective ways to address many of life’s challenges—though I think of the two as different, for the present purpose they can be used interchangeably as many people use them that way already. The premise behind this tool is to have a consultant who is practiced in addressing the complexity of how thoughts, emotions, and relationships can become painful or debilitating. With the therapist/counselor, two people pool their life experiences and expertise to consider how to improve things for the one seeking assistance. It’s a protected conversation to allow for more self-exploration and developing more personalized tools to help oneself. For some, clergy trained in a similar manner may be a more comfortable path to find assistance. A useful on-line resource to begin the search for a psychotherapist/counselor is https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists. (Disclosure: I have no financial interest in this resource and am not listed as a provider on the site).
Medicine is a tool to be used in conjunction with psychotherapy or counseling. Many find that a combination of both simultaneously has the best outcomes depending on the presenting problem(s). Unless clearly indicated, I usually start without medicine and encourage people to introduce it when all other avenues are exhausted or if the person makes the request at the start or along the way. Some people prefer to start with medicine rather than talking. Psychiatrists or Nurse practitioners who specialize in mental health issues are the preferred provider. Alternately, many primary care providers now have experience prescribing medicine for anxiety or depression, and the pre-existing relationship may make it easier to start with this person; the primary care physician can also facilitate a referral if needed or recommended. Exercise and mindfulness-meditation are excellent self-interventions with little to no start-up cost and can be especially potent when enjoyed with a family member or Brother. There are numerous on-line or on-phone apps or resources with which to experiment to move towards healing. I’ve known people who have used a variety of alternative or adjunctive methods to help with symptoms or changes in mood—though beyond the scope of this article.
As Masons, we labor to manifest Charity through Brotherly love and affection. Reaching into the darkness to offer companionship and light might be one of the most powerful expressions of Relief we have to offer. Who would not come to the aid of a Brother? Not letting him sit alone at lodge is analogous to not letting him sit in the metaphorical north of his inner lodge or temple. If we suspect or notice distress and know that stepping into darkness is further than our cable tow will allow, we communicate, alert other brothers, family members, and/or professionals who may have resources of time, means, or experience to respond. I encourage commitment to having this conversation with one another in an ongoing way to extend how think of what is Charitable. We can exchange information and experience about the previously secretive topics of emotional and mental health throughout our jurisdictions in the service of greater relief. I have faith that we can work together to build a stronger structure from which to shine The Light for our Brothers and Communities.
Brother Erik A. Marks, 32º, LICSW, is a clinical social worker whose usual vocation has been in the field of human services in a wide range of settings since 1990. He was raised in 2017 by his biologically younger Brother and then Worshipful Master in Alpha Lodge in Framingham, MA. You may contact brother Marks by email: erik@StrongGrip.org