Joy Redoubled: Men, Loneliness, and Friendship

February 23, 2021 Updated: February 23, 2021

In the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” a detachment of American soldiers is sent behind German lines to rescue a Private Ryan, whose three brothers have all died that week in combat. After fighting different skirmishes and suffering casualties, these men finally find the missing private and demand he return home with them to rejoin his bereaved mother.

But Ryan refuses. “Tell her that when you found me, I was here,” he says, “and that I was with the only brothers I have left and there was no way I was going to desert them. I think she’ll understand that.”

Men who have shared the ordeal of combat, high school boys who played sports together, college buddies—some of them become lifelong friends, and if they live near one another, may gather for drinks or supper a few times a year. My 40-year-old son-in-law, for example, still has close friends from high school—their shared experiences of that tough private school helped forge those bonds—and he, my daughter, and their children regularly share time together with these men and their families.

His circumstances, I suspect, are unusual. Once we enter middle age, or even earlier, many men—and women, too, for that matter—find themselves bereft of friendship, isolated, and increasingly lonely.

And that loneliness can have deadly consequences.

Our Invisible Epidemic

In his hit song “Piano Man,” Billy Joel sings of men drinking in a bar, sad and in despair over their broken dreams: “Yes, they’re sharing a drink they call loneliness, but it’s better than drinking alone.”

Lots of men are sharing that drink even as I write these words.

At the Boston Globe, journalist Billy Baker wrote a piece on male loneliness with this dire title: “The biggest threat facing middle-aged men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness.” While writing this article, Baker realizes he himself has lost contact with nearly all of his friends, in part because of inattention, in part because of his work obligations and the time consumed with his family.

He cites various studies of the effects of loneliness on human beings, including one from Brigham Young University, in which researchers who tracked 3.5 million people over a 35-year period found that “loneliness, isolation, or even simply living on their own” see their risk of premature death rise between 26 and 32 percent.”

Baker’s article acted as a mirror for me. In 2016, I moved to Front Royal, Virginia, where I lived with my daughter’s family, helping to homeschool some of the children, driving them to a private school or homeschooling co-ops, and doing some work around the house. In 2019, she and her family moved to Pennsylvania, and I have lived here alone since then. Though I handle isolation better than many people, I admit I’ve hit some rough patches. Going to town and talking with a barista in the coffee shop for five minutes isn’t the same as getting together with a friend.

Some Constructive Advice

To make friends, some psychologists and social critics believe men should aim to develop social skills similar to those of women. In her online article “Life as a Lone Wolf: Why Do So Many Men Feel so Lonely?” Zawn Villines offers a list of suggestions for men desiring deeper relationships, including “Seek friendships with men who value alternative forms of masculinity,” “Identify any harmful beliefs you have about friendship or masculinity. Do you believe that crying indicates weakness or that real men don’t need others?” and “Model vulnerability to other men and boys.”

These suggestions possess some validity, but they are grouped in a section titled “How to Build Bromance.” With all due respect, “bromance” is an immediate turn-off for most men I know. We’d like friends and the ability to share parts of ourselves, but bromance? Please. I’m an old guy, and have one particularly close male friend, but never do we think of ourselves as involved in a “bromance.”

Ugh.

In the musical “My Fair Lady,” professor Henry Higgins, a bachelor who doesn’t understand women, particularly his new “experiment” Eliza Doolittle, sings what would now surely be considered a politically incorrect song, particularly by those without a sense of humor: “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” Today many among us insist on turning that tune on its head, asking, “Why can’t a man be more like a woman?”

The Collapse of Male Institutions

“My Fair Lady” is the spin-off of George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion,” which was written and presented on stage in the early 20th century, an age when American men belonged to clubs and bars exclusively for males, played hometown sports together, attended political events limited to males, and made up the majority of the working force. They joined civic groups such as the Elks Club, attended all-male colleges, and served in a largely male military.

Those days are long gone, and perhaps our emphasis on inclusion is for the best, but that erasure of male enclaves has proven disastrous for men and friendship. Community organizations such as the Lions Club—my dad was a member in the early 1960s—the combat units of the armed services, nearly all colleges and universities, even the Boy Scouts: All these formerly male institutions are now open to women.

For the first time in the history of Western civilization, we have largely erased organizations and gathering places exclusively designated for men and boys. Google “women’s organizations” and then “men’s organizations,” compare them, and see what you think.

Meanwhile, our culture warns against the dangers of “toxic masculinity,” with some urging parents to raise their sons inculcated with feminist values.

Since the beginning of recorded history, men who were celebrated as heroes, from the narcissistic Achilles to Beowulf, from George Washington to a few of our military, political, and cultural heroes today, displayed traditional masculine values. Do we really want to dump those values overboard? And more importantly, can our culture afford to do so?

Building Relationships

Which brings us back to friendship.

In the Boston Globe article mentioned above, Baker concludes with an account of Ozzy, who teaches kayaking classes and who every Wednesday evening gets together with his buddies. What these guys do in their “Wednesday evening” group—go bowling, grill out, share a drink—matters less than the fact that they are together.

Baker writes: “Everything about the idea seemed quaint and profound — the name that was a lack of a name (such a guy move); the placement in the middle of the week; the fact that they’d continued it for so long. But most of all, it was the acknowledgment from male friends that they needed their male friends, for no other reason than they just did.”

In her piece, putting aside her use of “bromance,” Zawn Villines also offers some good ideas about men connecting with men: joining church groups, for example, and participating in volunteer activities.

More Possibilities

A good while ago, my wife helped start a book club for women. Their monthly meetings helped deepen both their appreciation of literature and their friendship.

Men can do the same. We can read authors such as Ernest Hemingway, Mark Helprin, Eugene Sledge, or Michael Walsh, and then come together to discuss the virtues of manhood, and its defects, that we find in such shared literature.

Movie clubs might bring similar bonds and enjoyment. Gather together once a month, watch a movie centered on male values—“Secondhand Lions,” “We Were Soldiers Once … and Young,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “Tender Mercies”—share a few drinks and snacks, and talk over the negatives and positives of the films.

Best of all, we can adjust our schedules and push ourselves harder to meet with male friends more frequently just to shoot the breeze.

Real-Life Conversations

We men need not give up manhood to avoid loneliness, but we might try emulating women in one way: conversation. From childhood on, females demonstrate better social skills than males, by which I mainly mean the ability to connect and converse with others. Among my acquaintances, a chasm in communication skills exists between males and females.

When we become more aware of the thoughts and feelings of others, we are giving friendship a chance to blossom. When a friend’s parent or wife has died, for instance, we need to reach out to him. When we discover he has lost his job, we need to make the call or take him out for a beer, and be there for him. When he wins a promotion at work or buys the house he’s always dreamed of, we need to congratulate him.

These gestures, however small, are the building blocks of friendship. Even if our friend fails on his end to express appreciation or congratulate us in a similar manner, it matters not. We have reached out, we have given our friendship a shot in the arm, and we will feel better for it.

In “De Amicitia,” Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote, “Friendship improves happiness and abates misery, by the doubling of our joy and the dividing of our grief.”

True words then. True words now.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels—“Amanda Bell” and “Dust on Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning as I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.