A few weeks ago one of my best friends came to visit me from out of town. We caroused for three days, stayed up late, enjoyed each other’s company and a weekend diversion from our normal lives.
On Sunday morning I dropped him off at the airport and went back to my apartment and got in bed, tears in my eyes. I missed him already. And not just him. I missed having a friend like that where I live.
I’ve been in this city for over a decade. I’ve made friends, good ones, too, people who I feel extremely fortunate to have met. But we’re older now. Many have families, and the time constraints that imposes. Many have moved away, all over the country.
I did not grow up here, did not go to college here, nor did I have any formative experiences with anyone here. The closest friends I do have are ones I made from my previous job.
Now I work from home for an organization based in another state. The opportunities to meet new people are slim. And the time it takes to develop and cultivate friendships is often difficult to find.
Too many nights, too many mornings, too many lazy afternoons have I found ways, good ways, to occupy myself. Reading, writing, exercising, going to the movies. But I need more. For so many reasons.
I am here to declare and speak openly, as a middle-aged man, how badly I need and want friends. The irony, of course, is I am not alone in this.
I was married when I moved from New York to Austin. In New York I had a broad collection of friends from various parts of my life: college, summer camp, even elementary school. So I didn’t need to cultivate friendships at work; I was able to keep the two separate.
But when I moved, I mistakenly kept my reluctance to foster friendships with work colleagues, all the while missing my stable of friends. It’s not the only reason my marriage dissolved, but not having a life outside my relationship was extremely detrimental. I’ve been guilt of the same thing in my current relationship. While I no longer work in an office filled with colleagues and social opportunities, I didn’t do as much as I could to build a social world outside what I had with my girlfriend.
So I started to work on it. And I got even more serious about it when my girlfriend and I separated for a time. I started attending — and taking seriously the connections I could make — men’s events at my local Jewish community center. I started going to MeetUps, trying to make any connection I could. If I struck up a conversation at a bar or concert with someone, I’d ask for their card — and actually contact them afterwards.
The first time I did that I was so nervous my heartbeat was racing. When I heard back it was as if I’d asked a woman out on a date and she said yes. Why was it so nerve-wracking?
I’ve been mildly successful. I’ve hung out a few times with different guys. The good part is that even though we’re new to each other, we’ve been able to talk in a real way about life, career, relationships and the rest.
The bad part is that our times together are far too infrequent and irregular. Unlike the friendships from my youth, which can easily withstand weeks and months without regular contact and then pick up in an instant as if we were neighbors, these friendships don’t have that elasticity. It sometimes feels, as a friendship, that we are repeatedly starting from the beginning.
And while our conversations are good, and I get excited to see these friends whenever we do make plans, I can feel the difference between my bond with them and my older friends. Which is not surprising and perfectly normal. But it makes me sad in a way.
I push myself outside my comfort zone, I reach out, I make a connection, I have a good time. But it’s not the same, it’s not the closeness, it’s not the camaraderie, it’s not the shared experiences I have with my old-time friends. And that has the unfortunate consequence of disincentiving me to keep going, to keep fostering those relationships.
But I’ve had to learn to get past that.
Cultivating friendships, especially with other men, is not an option. Only loneliness and isolation await if I don’t.
I’ve realized, contrary to my initial responses to these get togethers, that they are, in fact, just as meaningful, in a very real way, as conversations with my life-long friends.
I recall two recent conversations I’ve had with new friends. They were both substantial and meaningful and honest in a way beyond what I would have expected from friendships that young.
It was as if our age allowed us to advance to topics and a level of sincerity that made any discomfort about revealing our true thoughts, insecurities and vulnerabilities less important than the need to just talk about them.
And in this I’m very, very fortunate.
(And these problems wind up affecting society as a whole, as men who struggle with loneliness, isolation and depression not only harm themselves, but others.)
I don’t know the answer or know how to solve issues of social isolation at such a great scale. All I can do is work on myself, tend and cultivate a community of my own that prevents me from drifting into that rabbit hole.
Working from home, there are some days when I literally might not interact with another person face to face.
A few weeks ago I sat with one of these guys in his back patio, sharing a bourbon over happy hour. We talked about romantic relationships, the highs and lows of each. We talked about divorces, our fears, our frustrations. There were undertones of anger, but also sympathy and understanding.
At one point this guy said something I disagreed with, and I was reluctant to push him on it. But I thought about it, and did eventually speak up, telling him I thought he was wrong. He thought about it, saw where I was coming from, and I think appreciated if not my point of view, at least my willingness to share it.
At the end of another hang-out with a different friend, he flat out told me how much he appreciated talking to me, that he valued being able to share things he did not feel comfortable sharing with others.
And that he looked forward to talking again.
I think that’s another sign of aging and experiencing and valuing others, being able to articulate to another person how much they are appreciated.
Hearing that made me feel good. Not because he had me feel better about my own issues, but because I was able to be there for him, for someone else, another person I like and respect. He shared stories that he probably wouldn’t tell others. But I didn’t judge or criticize. I just listened, asked questions and told him I appreciated his honesty and willingness and ability to open up.
It’s not easy, and it’s not for too uncommon.
At the same time, I have friendships where I have been guilty of not doing that, of keeping things within, not necessarily of not being honest, but of withholding.
I have felt, in those moments, feelings of shame, embarrassment, maybe even fear of opening up on certain things. Even with my best friends. Things I don’t want them to know about me, or things I don’t feel comfortable talking about. Things I worry could change their perception of me, or things that create a divide between the way I see myself and how I truly am.
But this short-shrifts them. And myself. If pushed, I’d acknowledge that not most but all of my closest friends would stand by me. Would understand, would support me and not only not abandon me or ridicule me, but offer sympathy or comfort or understanding or something to make me feel that it’s alright.
At the same time I’ve had conversations with guy friends when they’ve said things I strongly disagree with, or that turn me off. Sometimes I acknowledge this, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I say, “hey, that’s not appropriate” or “I’m not comfortable with that” — but not nearly as often as I’ve felt that way. Perhaps that’s true of all friendships, not just among men. It can be hard to disagree, or to challenge.
By remaining silent I’m not being honest with myself, or my friends. It’s a disservice to both of us. By not opening up, or by not speaking up, I am not being my authentic self. I don’t want to be too critical of myself, but I realize in order to be a true friend, I must do both.
Friendships serve many functions. They provide companionship, and they provide comfort and togetherness. There is nothing wrong with being alone, but there’s only so much loneliness one person can take. Even casual friends can cure that.
And for the life-long friends, or the deep friendships, there is the sharing of life’s joys, successes, failures, disappointments, and sadnesses that make us feel noticed, loved, seen, appreciated and human.
It’s not always good times and satisfying, fulfilling moments. Like everyone else, I’ve had friends disappoint me. There have been several occasions when friends did or said something to upset or frustrate me, cancel plans at the last moment, bail out of a night together, offer words that make no sense to me. These have reached the point where I’ve questioned, why am I friends with this person?
Why bother with it at all?
But Friends, and social connections in general, are not just good things to have. They are like food, medicine, sleep and physical activity. They are things we need. I referenced earlier the corrosive effects of not having friends, of the compounding damage extended loneliness can have on a person.
Part of the toxic/traditional masculinity that the American Psychological Association recently addressed in new guidelines for treating men is emotional stoicism, the need to be tough and deal with life on our own.
Independence and self-reliance are two of the core values respected and expected in not just men, but all of us.
But clearly some men will go too far with this. And I’d argue for a simple adjustment (simple in prescription, not in action).
Part of taking care of yourself and being a man means having friends, having a and being part of a community, however one defines that. Here, some of my religious background comes to mind. There is a teaching about how Jews should not separate themselves from the community. This, of course, is a two-way street: that the community needs each individual in order to survive and thrive, and that each individual needs to the community.
But there is wisdom here beyond any religious affiliation or association.
Men, women, children, young, old — all of us need community. To be around people. Even introverts and misanthropes need some form of human connection. Even when our friends let us down, even when our loves turn into disappointments.
None of us can do it alone.
#MeToo has shone a light on the lives of women — and forced men to confront how they treat women. It has forced men to ask ourselves how we can be better, and then to be that better person.
My point here is that being better doesn’t just mean the way we interact with women. It means being a better all-around person.
In order to do that, in order to be that person, we need friends and social connections, especially between men.
My goal for today and this week? To reach out to some of my new male friends, and make plans to see them. It’s not a nice or good thing to do. It’s something I, and we all, need to do.
We can’t become better people alone.
Have any feedback? I can be reached at scottmgilman @ gmail.com.