Making friends was never easy for me. In many respects I’m a closet introvert. I can emerge from my cocoon when a job calls for it, presentation, conference, or meet-n-greet. But when no one is looking, I’m that guy holding up the wall waiting for someone to talk to him.
My first friend was Curtis. Twenty-eight days my junior, he was a 15-minute bicycle ride from my front door. He holds an indelible place in my childhood memory. In a shoe box at the back of my mother’s coat closet are pictures of he and I, still in diapers, playing Tonka trucks on a lime green linoleum floor.
Three realities molded me into the shy flower I’ve blossomed. Curtis was loyal to fault, and one true friend is all a young boy really needs. Living in the country, with no others my age for miles, meant few opportunities to strengthen my friendship muscles. But lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I was born a male.
In the latest episode of Fatherhood Wide Open, I talk with author and men’s work expert Tony Rezac. During our discussion we hit upon what Tony considers the most powerful impetus behind men’s work and what I believe the most devastating reality faced by the modern man – an absence of true male friendships.
As Curtis and I entered high school and found new and different interests, we expectantly began to part ways. He learned to frame a house and I went to band competitions. His love of carpentry and metalworking led him towards, last I heard, his own construction company. My desire for a college degree and corner office on Wall Street – that never came to fruition – meant our paths would never cross again. Our friendship became as a wave upon the shore; the memory lingers for a moment then quickly fades into the sand. I haven’t seen him in nearly two decades and likely never will again.
My college friendships were centered on secret handshakes and keg parties. Virtually all of them were shallow and quickly dried up in the excitement of graduation and new careers. I accepted my first job offer 200 miles away from my fraternity brothers but a million from anyone who actually knew me. I was living in a new city without a single friend and had no clue how to go about finding one. Those muscles had atrophied, entirely. So like many others, I took the easy and safe route – I made friends with coworkers. But company bonds are fickle and I transferred often. Besides, it’s difficult to build genuine connections with anyone you want to beat on the regional scorecard.
There’s a sad reality to marriage that is rarely discussed. Most married men are friendless men. When a man finds a woman to spend the rest of his life with, his pool of male friendships evaporates under the heat of that romance. Whether he feels pressure to keep his wife happy thereby making the Thursday boy’s night suddenly faux pas, or his free time becomes filled with furniture shopping and yard work, in short order he finds himself the married loner.
Children merely add to the complexity of building male friendships. Now play dates, along with bunko and birthday parties determine his social life. His wife becomes the friendship gatekeeper controlling what men enter into and out of his life. Finding a babysitter for ‘couples night’ is now his social watermark.
All of this, in my case, made for a bigger problem. I was that twenty something guy who felt an inexplicable urge to compare himself to every other person and that goes especially for my neighbors. Sadly, but no less truly, if I considered you to be higher up the masculine food chain – having a better job, prettier wife, bigger house, or nicer car – you and I could never be more than Saturday afternoon conversations over a shared property line.
I’m convinced men, and particularly most married men, are the loneliest people on the planet, living what Thoreau calls “lives of quiet desperation’ and believing, as I once did, that life is little more than a series of socially predestined hurdles. I remember saying once that I felt like the engineer of a train whose responsibility it is to keep shoveling coal into the engine but having no say on where the train is headed. Living others expectations, only I was on the hook to pay for it.
This preponderance of male loneliness, I’m convinced, emerges from a universal and uncontrollable fear of putting ourselves emotionally ‘out there’. A debilitating dread of being judged and rejected should we share our struggles and hopes with other men. This is so prevalent and even understood we have adapted our vocabulary to account for it. I know few men with ‘friends’, but plenty with ‘acquaintances’. This nuance seems mundane yet it’s not, because it allows us something to do on Saturday afternoons without the need for the emotional heavy lifting. It provides us a false sense of something more. Such relationships feel easy, growing organically from the soil of shared interests. But any relationship centered on so shallow a thing as sports or hobby quickly buckles under the weight of emotional baggage. I’ll be happy to play a round of golf or watch a game; I’m just not interested in hearing about your marital problems or why you have such a fear of failure.
In Tony’s and my conversation, I mentioned that if I could go back and offer my younger self just one piece of advice, it would be to impress the necessity of intentionally and strategically building male friendships – versus hoping they somehow happen, or worse, just living life alone.
Soul-nourishing relationships demand two important but unnatural tendencies – intentionality and transparency. It’s for this that Tony finds such value of men’s work and particularly men’s groups. First, men’s groups are very intentional. They don’t just come about at the bar or neighborhood pool. They are purposefully crafted with an end goal in mind; and that goal is for each member to grow into better men. However to achieve that goal it is important for each man to understand where he must grow from. To know where I want to go, I must first know where I currently am.
This is where the transparency becomes so critical.
The first step in any man’s growth is recognizing and accepting where he’s at. That doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I need a baseline to measure from, a yardstick of sorts, and it’s my belief that is only ascertained in the company of others, and particularly men we allow to peer behind the curtain into our lives. To show us where we stand. Proverbs 27:17 says it best, ‘As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.’ But to be sharpened I first need to know I’m blunted. If there aren’t others to compare and contract, I may never know that. Addictions make for a perfect example. No addiction – drugs, sex, pornography – will be cured alone. We can’t see what’s kept hidden from us.
Because men’s groups comprise of other purpose driven men desiring change, such environments are ideal for the transparency vital for a person to grow and change. So in a way it’s a matter of self-preservation, this guy sitting here isn’t going to judge me because he doesn’t want me doing the same to him.
I’ve been part of numerous men’s groups in the years since my Emotional Winter. Through them I’ve come together with other men who’ve become instrumental in my personal development. These groups often started clunky, routinely felt forced, and the men were always strangers at the onset, but if I hadn’t allowed them to speak into my life and look behind the curtain, I would not be the father, partner, and man I am today. Neither would I have the courage to share my masculine journey on this website nor the assurance, as Tony put it, to know that I am surrounded by others who ‘have my back’.
Today there are countless men leading lives of ‘quiet desperation’. Most are searching, few know what for, and none will find what they seek without the influence and guidance of other men. Their fear of vulnerability and the dread of judgment, ridicule, and rejection prevent them from that hardest and most important step towards renewal and rejuvenation – vulnerability.
Life was never intended to be lived alone. I’m proof that our greatest selves are only to be found in community of other men, in the presence of others, who, with their own struggles, fears, and hopes, will love you like a brother.