I hadn’t seen this particular friend of mine for about 2 years. We’d been friends as kids and lost touch, but reconnected when I ended up at his school in year 11. We helped each other through some significant moments in life. We were groomsman at each others weddings. But some changes in our lives across the years meant our paths didn’t cross much anymore.
We met at the pub to catch up. It had been two years but we talked about marriage and parenthood, work and family; about the real things happening in our lives. Because that’s what friends do, especially old ones.
That night my friend commented how refreshing it was to talk openly and honestly. He noted that he and his best mate from high school see each other all the time, but they don’t talk. Sure, they talk about work and family, but it all stays pretty superficial. They’re the best of mates, and friends in the sense that they would do anything to help each other, but this friendship can be lonely. Blocked by the inability to speak about the deep issues and challenges of life. It’s the classic Australian male to male relationship. Mates, but with a side of loneliness.
I’ve seen the breeding ground of this kind of relationship in teenagers. The boys have a culture that stunts the growth of deep and abiding friendship. The relationships are marked by banter and insults, a giant spitting contest in a never-ending game of one-upmanship.
These guys laugh and joke, they play sport, they muck around. They occasionally change who the whipping boy is this month and maintain a constant verbal stacks-on on the poor guy who is just too easy to denigrate.
And then something happens. One of the boys gets interested in a girl. And for the first time in his life, he discovers friendship. Sure, she’s beautiful and she likes him and that is in and of itself alluring. But he discovers that he can bare his soul to another human and experience acceptance. He’s vulnerable, but safe. And so what does he do? He dogs the boys. He abandons them. He realises that this relationship is so much richer and deeper and better than any he has had before...so why go back?
In no time the relationship deepens to the point that the girl becomes his world. His only friend. And although some can make that situation work, for most, it ends in disaster. He smothers the girl. Or she’s not as invested as him and things get out of balance. The relationship ends and he is crushed. He knows he wants the relationship, the friendship, but he doesn’t know how to make it work; this is his first attempt at deep friendship. But the worst is yet to come.
With his only friendship gone, this boy heads back, tail between his legs, to the boys. He feels like the lotto winner who squandered it. He’s heading back to the place that never produced the friendship he enjoyed, because, where else can he go?
And so he returns to this large group of very lonely boys. To the soundtrack of so much laughter; pretend joy that masks the emptiness. And the banter doesn’t just happen at school, it’s online. There’s no break. Which only serves to make the loneliness more acute.
There’s something scary about a group of 17 year old boys trying to solve the problems of 17 year old boys. But the idea of a 17 year old boy trying to navigate the world alone is far, far worse.
And this trend of friendlessness only worsens over time. In fact, loneliness among middle-aged men has been a focus of articles in the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The Atlantic.
In Australia, we live in a time where the leading cause of death for people from 2014-1016 between the ages of 15-44 was suicide, accounting for 21% of deaths. And the rates of suicide are higher among men than women. It seems to me that there are many men who could do with friends.
But it’s not simply suicide. It’s overall health and wellbeing that is affected.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development has been running for nearly 80 years. The leader of the study, Robert Waldinger, pointed out in the study that loneliness has the equivalent impact on a person as alcoholism and smoking. Healthy relationships led to better outcomes in mental health and brain health.
So here’s the issue. Deep and healthy relationships are significant factors in overall health. And many of the young men in our country lack those deep and important friendships. So what do we do?
Well, let me have a stab at some things that could help.
The first is education. We need our young people to value relationships over things, and people over stuff. We need to impress upon young people the value of thinking ahead in terms of relationships, and not just in terms of academic achievement or career. We need to redefine success. We need to recapture the reality that we are relational beings; without them we wither. There are no guarantees that we will be heard, but we have to start somewhere.
And perhaps one of the biggest points of danger is the potential dangers of the smartphone. Don’t get me wrong - technology can be an incredible tool for building and sustaining friendship. They’ve made us safer and also more lonely. So often I see young people sitting with each other, all on their phones. Friendships are forged in face to face conversation. They take time and commitment. We need to switch off a little more and put our phones and screens away if we want deeper and richer friendships.
We also need to model healthy friendships. Young men need to see what male friendship looks like - especially heterosexual young men. Older men need to show younger men the value of their friendships, to share how they were created and how they’ve helped. We live in a world that can’t imagine a deep and intimate friendship that isn’t sexual. And this reality is a key reason as to why men don’t have this type of relationship.
Lastly, we need to embrace and champion courage. Courage to be vulnerable and open. Courage to reach out to people in friendship. Courage to admit we’re lonely. No relationship is completely safe. They all carry risk. And as our society becomes increasingly focused on the individual, a friendship that looks to the needs of others will become increasingly counter-cultural.
There’s no shortage of spaces in our young people’s’ lives for these relationships to build. If we teach them about healthy relationships, model them and put our screens down for a moment, we may be able to help some young men.
Surely it can’t hurt.