The German philosopher Immanuel Kant once commented that “three things tell a man: his eyes, his friends and his favorite quotes.” Well, I wear glasses and call them quotations instead of quotes (a misnomer in my opinion), so if my leftover tell revolves around friends, trouble will surely find me throughout my life.
I don’t fare any better with Aristotle’s words of wisdom: “In poverty and other misfortunes of life, true friends are a sure refuge. The young they keep out of mischief; to the old they are a comfort and aid in their weakness, and those in the prime of life they incite to noble deeds.”
I often find myself in dangerous situations, shy away from any comfort that could grant strength, and have no real noble deeds to my name. But through all of my failings, I still wonder about forming and maintaining real male friendship.
Does the lack of a real friend prevent me from a stronger life as a confident man? Most likely. But discovering the fact of having no real male friends late in life will surely damage our youth as they grow older. Excuse the cliché, but I wish I knew then what I know now.
When I first moved out on my own, I decided to stay with my aunt and uncle in Corpus Christi. I told myself (foolishly) that I would distance myself from my immediate family and any friends I thought I had.
One night, I found myself at the waterfront and concocted a parable while staring out at the ocean. The story featured a wave that wanted to break free from the confines of “wavehood.” The wave finds itself lost in the middle of the ocean and eventually falls asleep. Upon waking up, the wave discovers a man floating on a raft to nowhere. After waking up the man, the wave begins to explain his current situation and pleads to the man for help on figuring out what to do next. The man, equally in peril, guides the wave to fulfill his purpose and they both make their way home.
The story of these two unlikely friends, along with the Greek tale of Damon and Phintias, came to my mind as I considered writing an article on the importance of male friendship. In fact, I considered opening this piece with my confession of having no real male friends. The closest I had to the possibility of a genuine male friend passed away two years ago, and I have yet to recover from the blow of this loss. Even writing about my brother in this way shakes the very thin tightrope I stumble on each day. And while most of the research I have read about male friendships distinguishes between family and friendship, I consider such labels or separation relating to Aaron as unnecessary.
One thing resonates throughout the research: males need male friends, and they need them to last. They need to form on more than shared activities. Specifically, young males need to see older males interacting with other male friends, willing to share what’s on their minds and in their hearts.
If our young boys growing up to become men do not have strong male friends, there will be health risks inherent with isolation and loneliness, but there will be an even bigger problem of loss. These future men will have a loss in their heart that cannot be remedied with any variation of imitation. As male educators, we have a responsibility to allow ourselves to discuss and live this issue with our male students.
To arm myself to take on this responsibility, I might pay close attention to what Billy Baker notes in his article “The biggest threat facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness.” Baker quotes the now former Surgeon General of the United States, reiterating that “the most prevalent health issue in the country is not cancer or heart disease or obesity. It is isolation.” He goes on to present research on the fact that “those who were more socially isolated were much more likely to die during a given period than their socially connected neighbors, even after you corrected for age, gender, and lifestyle choices like exercising and eating right.”
Baker includes two observations: (1) many men are comfortable making other male friendships through shared activities (school, military, sports, etc.) and (2) many men avoid looking at each other when sharing a conversation. Both of these points illustrate the importance of teaching our young men to broaden their horizons when making new male friends and to look at each other when taking on serious conversations. And yes, these conversations should at times consist of more than just the typical banter between the guys.
I could further prepare myself for the responsibility of teaching young men about a key component to male friendship by accepting Lisa Wade’s presentation of male friendship in her article “American men’s hidden crisis: They need more friends!” Wade notes that “men are just as likely as women to say that they want intimacy” in a friendship. And for many of our young men, intimacy equals vulnerability and weakness. Our young men may even learn (directly or indirectly) that desiring intimacy between their male friends makes them like women.
Wade notes that “a surprising number of insults that we fling at men are actually synonyms for or references to femininity. Calling male athletes ‘girls,’ ‘women’ and ‘ladies’ is a central part of motivation in sports.” She comments that this sort of degradation of a male’s desire to maintain intimacy presents itself as “restrictive and dehumanizing. It’s oppression all dressed up as awesomeness. And it is part of why men have a hard time being friends.”
As male educators, we can help our male students realize that they must go above and avoid that oppressive condemnation. Intimacy and passion for those things we care about only make us better men in the long run.
Ultimately, my biggest challenge in taking on this responsibility is forming a real male friendship. I must take on the role of that wave from my story: Find the lost version of myself on that raft and help him reach the shore.
And when he gets there, he might better understand his purpose.
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