So, I forgot to post this article a couple of weeks ago. On the other hand the day after Mother's Day is perfect for a column that talks about the plight of the suburban male. Okay "plight" might not be the right word but I have a theory that men are lousy at maintaining friendships and are the poorer and lonelier for it.
Theology on Tap
Men are lonely creatures. At least suburban men who work, commute, and have families. No self-respecting man would articulate this publicly since it sounds either whiny or weak but it’s true. We used to pride ourselves on our close friendships be it the “glory days” of high school or the keg-stand fraternity days of yore.
But that was before the big “R” of responsibility took over our lives. Work, marriage, children, pets, the yard. They’re all wonderful things -- mostly. Over time, almost imperceptibly, however, they crowd out our male friendships and suddenly many of us find ourselves left with a bunch of acquaintances but little depth in our relationships.
From the male perspective, women just seem to be better at nurturing adult friendships. They meet friends for coffee, they volunteer together, they have work friends, they join book groups (or as I like to call them, wine drinking parties). My own wife certainly checks all these boxes and she’s happier for it.
Yes, this is a gross generalization but there does seem to be some truth here. A lot of men simply don’t have close friendships. Sure, we have buddies from our college days with whom we share fond memories, some printable, some not. But they generally live all over the country and, while there might be an annual golf outing or fishing trip, that’s hardly sustainable for the other 362 days of the year.
We nod to people on the commuter train and we’re on a first name basis with Jeff from Accounting. But the guard’s always up, the protective emotional armor is always donned. We work hard not to show weakness or vulnerability which is why we wear power suits and deflect intimacy with a quip or by sticking to safe topics like sports or carburetors.
But what about our humanity? Where do men go to talk about the things at the depths of our souls? Events like the bombing at the Boston Marathon bring our vulnerability to the fore and yet we have few outlets to process our emotions. So they get buried and fester until our hearts become fossilized or unhealthy behaviors emerge.
At my parish on the South Shore of Boston, we’re trying to remedy this by introducing a men’s group. Now, this won’t be your typical church men’s group where a bunch of guys get together in the nether regions of the church to gorge themselves on pancakes, give each other hugs, and tell themselves that Jesus was really a man’s man -- someone to shoot pool with or hang out in the bleachers at Fenway.
We’re calling this venture Theology on Tap. We won’t meet at church but in the upstairs room at the Liberty Grille. We’ll grab a pint, listen to one another’s stories, and talk about a topic of interest. God’s just as present when a bunch of people gather in his name at a bar as at church on a Sunday morning (just don’t tell anyone).
This won’t solve all the problems of the world but hopefully it will chip away at the hardness of our hearts that has built up through the years. Hopefully, over time, it will provide an outlet for friendship and some conversations that get below the surface of everyday life. I encourage all of my fellow men to be intentional about seeking friendships that move beyond safe topics. You may feel vulnerable at first but it sure beats the usual hunting and gathering.
By going the "theology on tap" route, Is this really "purpose-driven bonding." It is as if a bunch of guys just getting together over a drink to be friends isn't enough? You would think that a rector in the metro area that gave us Cheers would understand that.
What is it about guys that they need a purpose to do something? Really. Isn't this what you are trying to get beyond?
Thanks, Bob. I disagree, of course. I think building intentional community is important, especially if you can gather people (in this case men) together for conversation on a particular topic followed by informal social time. Is it a solution? No. But I think it's a good, non-threatening first step.
My working theory is that relationships are based on shared experiences. The intensity of the experiences and the nearness in time affect the depth of the relationship formed by those experiences. My father, for example, forged lifelong friendships on the battlefield in Vietnam. He did not have to see these people even once a year to know that when he needed something, they would give it to him - such was the power of those experiences. I think, as you describe, most of the relationships that men have today are superficial - as such, the relationships they foster are superficial as well.
It is also my impression that women tend to have a cluster of close friendships - but that each of those friendships have a very specific theme. I've heard several women talk about their "wine buddies" or their "walking buddies" or their "playgroup moms". Often, it seems to me, that these groups are separated. Men, I believe, have fewer friends, but those friends tend to be the complete package. I find that if I end up calling someone my drinking buddy or one of my lunch buddies that he's just really an acquaintance. But those few friends that I do have, I know that I can talk to them about anything and that they will support me when I need it.
While I applaud you for trying to get something like this started, my belief is that if you want this group to form deep, lasting relationships, you need to introduce some emotionally intense experiences. A Habitat for Humanity project, for example. Something significant and rewarding accomplished together.
Our Curate already has a group with the same name and they meet at a nearby pub but it's mixed. not just for men. I'm still forwarding this to him as he might think about one similar to yours that's for men only and that focusses on mens' issues.
Eric, thanks for this perspective. I find that we do have those relationships -- often forged in a different time in our lives be it the military or college or boarding school. The problem is that, at least in my experience, these friends are scattered throughout the country and are not people I see on a regular basis. When I do, they are life affirming times even as things have changed around us. Indeed this coming weekend a college friend and his family are coming in from out of town -- it's just 24 hours but I can't wait. Is there some regression? Sometimes. But it's a reminder that there's nothing better than those deep relationships that have been fostered over an extended period of time. In many ways, these are what life is all about.
When I taught about abuse prevention in church settings years ago, people would commonly say one should avoid being a "Lone Ranger" in ministry.
However, as a longtime listener to old-time radio programs, I know that the Lone Ranger was never actually alone. He always had Tonto right by his side, and in many episodes he was also assisted by his nephew Dan Reid.
So really it takes three people to do the work of a Lone Ranger -- not such a bad model, after all!
I think that in this present chapter of male relationships, it is a lost cause - mostly. And that's me talking. That same "me" who thinks that all three letter professional "sports" venues are boring. But then I think, if all that pent up testosterone were loosed in other outlets there would be blood running in the streets of America.
Sensitivity training, EST, group back rubs, sexual desensitization workshops: I was a part of all that back in the loose and wild 70's - which were a kind of controlled and organized 60's experience for adults who didn't march to Selma or fight at Da Nang, it seemed to me. None - or at least little of that produced lasting relationships that I am aware of, or whole people. I never knew that many people then who could handle such liberty, myself included.
But I digress, which is another ploy I use to avoid the issues. (Intimacy?)
All my very best friends over the years have been women. I simply don't "get" men most of the time, or feel that I click with other men. I have come to believe with some conviction that I have an attitude, a signal, that holds off at arms length close relationships with anyone and especially men.
So I come full circle: how many intimate friends does one need? Or can handle? I am left with the realization that if you have two or possibly three friends who actually "know" you (and that's the key) then it's enough. To be known - that's the ultimate gift, blessing. To be known and loved anyway. To be completely accepted as is. There is no greater love, if that's the word. It scares the wind out of me.
Good luck with your group. And I know this is way out of sync, but I thought I'd give it a try,
Jerry Henderson / Pownal, Maine
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