Until recently, I was unaware of a huge crisis facing men today.
What Is This Crisis?
I wrote recently about an interview I listened to with author Stephen Mansfield on the Art of Manliness Podcast.
During the interview, Mansfield said,
“But when we get into our adulthood, that’s when crisis hits. I mean, it can happen for a high school and college kid too, but it tends to happen when a guy gets into his business life, when he marries, when he has children. It starts to isolate him. All those things are wonderful, but he tends to not have meaningful connections to other men. He knows guys maybe from the health club or from the work or whatever religious organization he might be part of, but for the most part, men find themselves, the surveys show this, they find themselves in a sea of casual relationships.“
I connected with Mansfield’s words and I wrote a post about what happens you realize you’re drowning in a sea of casual relationships.
However, in the last six weeks, I’ve continued to run into signs of this crisis and I realized I needed to explore this further. The consequences were deeper and scarier than I realized.
Leaders Who Get Isolated Are Dangerous
Mansfield also appeared this spring on the Building a Story Brand Podcast with Donald Miller. During that interview, Mansfield shared ten warning signs of a leadership crash. Based upon his work with companies who’ve suffered as their senior leader crashed, Mansfield shared the common elements of leaders whose downfalls inevitably take many with them.
According to Mansfield, the second warning sign was choosing isolation.
“Everybody who is in trouble isolates themselves. We hyper isolate and pull away from those who know them best. Most people who crash have distanced themselves from their best friends…Part of the art of leadership is cultivating close friends. Leaders who are damaging normally are competitive, hard-edged and keep people at a distance.”
So far, we have a normal life-stage phenomenon which leads to loneliness. We also have a common thread among leaders who fall – loneliness and isolation.
[NOTE: This is part four of a four-part series of articles about subjects which deserve greater attention in our culture. So far, we’ve explored burnout, anxiety, our struggle to ask for help. And today, we’re talking about loneliness.]
Loneliness is More Dangerous Than Smoking or Obesity
I was scrolling through Twitter recently and found an article from The Boston Globe. The article was entitled, The biggest threat facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness.
In the piece, Globe reporter Billy Baker explored the prevalence of isolation and loneliness among men on both public and personal levels. He started the piece by describing his discomfort with how closely this assigned subject was to his own experience.
“I quickly took stock of my life to try to prove to myself that I was not, in fact, perfect for this story. First of all, there was my buddy Mark. We went to high school together, and I still talk to him all the time, and we hang out all the . . . Wait, how often do we actually hang out? Maybe four or five times a year? And then there was my other best friend from high school, Rory, and . . . I genuinely could not remember the last time I’d seen him. Had it already been a year?…
There were all those other good friends who feel as if they’re still in my lives because we keep tabs on one another via social media, but as I ran down the list of those I’d consider real, true, lifelong friends, I realized that it had been years since I’d seen many of them, even decades for a few.”
The Most Prevalent Health Issue in America is Isolation
Within the piece, Baker quoted Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general of the United States, who “has said many times in recent years that the most prevalent health issue in the country is not cancer or heart disease or obesity. It is isolation.”
He talked to Dr. Richard Schwartz, a Cambridge psychiatrist, who mentioned studies “showing 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.”
After facing all this research, Baker confessed, “I’m hesitant to say I’m lonely, though I’m clearly a textbook case of the silent majority of middle-aged men who won’t admit they’re starved for friendship, even if all signs point to the contrary…When everything adds up, I have left almost no time for friends…I have structured myself into being a loser.”
Gaining the Whole World But Not Any Friends
I originally discovered the Boston Globe article through Ed Batista. Batista is an executive coach and instructor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. After sharing the Baker piece from the Boston Globe, Batista commented, “(This is a) HUGE issue for my clients (mainly 30s-ish male CEOs with young kids). Work + family + a little exercise leaves NO time for friends or self.” He also shared, “(The) impact of gender is worth noting here: In my experience men are less likely to admit loneliness & need for friendship. (I’m guilty, too.)”
Michael Lorsch, a principal consultant for the Table Group, echoes Batista’s words when he describes his interaction with CEOs. “I work with a lot of CEOs and I think these are the loneliest people on earth. It’s a lonely place to be.”
This Loneliness Is Deadly
As I read these papers, I went searching in my Evernote (aka my digital brain) for an article I read when I was still living in Phoenix. I remembered reading some research regarding a disturbing rise in suicide among middle-aged white males. In November 2015, the New York Times published a piece entitled, Death Rising For Middle-Aged White Americans, Study Finds. The article begins in depressing fashion.
“‘Something startling is happening to middle-aged white Americans. Unlike every other age group, unlike every other racial and ethnic group, unlike their counterparts in other rich countries, death rates in this group have been rising, not falling.’ Two Princeton economists (one a recent Nobel Prize winner) were studying national data sets on suicide, happiness and health. ‘They concluded that rising annual death rates among this group are being driven not by the big killers like heart disease and diabetes but by an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse: alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids.’”
The era where men are supposed to be in their prime of success has become a season of despair.
How Did We Get Here?!
I’m not exactly sure.
I wonder if technology is partly to blame. The boundary between work and the rest of our lives has murkier. Many Americans don’t take their vacation time; if they do, they’re still doing work while away. Our apps list people as friends even though we’re not actually sharing our lives with one another. We can endlessly scroll past curated highlight reels and tell ourselves we are connected with others.
Part of me wonders if lifestyle habits are to blame. Many of us don’t live in the places we were born. We moved for jobs, education, and health. The older we get, the harder it seems to make new friends and the easier it is to lose touch with old ones. In large cities, we make long commutes and come home without the energy to connect.
I’ve thought about what role gender plays. I titled this article “The Biggest Threat Facing Men Today” but I know women who struggle with loneliness too. I think the loneliness, isolation, and discouragement mentioned by all those sources above are just as accessible and dangerous for men as they are for women.
We’ve Always Needed A Community Around Us
My wife refers to her closest relationships as her “dead body friends” – as in the people you call to help you clean up a really big mess quietly.
As a pastor, I watch multiple people navigate crisis on a weekly basis. In my experience, thriving in adversity has less to do with the gifts and character of the person struggling and more to do with the connections they have to others.
In the Scriptures, this theme of committed friendships is inescapable.
In the book of Ecclesiastes, the writer notes,
“I observed yet another example of something meaningless under the sun. This is the case of a man who is all alone, without a child or a brother, yet who works hard to gain as much wealth as he can. But then he asks himself, ‘Who am I working for? Why am I giving up so much pleasure now?’ It is all so meaningless and depressing. Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble. Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone? A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken.”
In the Gospels (the biographies of the life and ministry of Jesus), Jesus chooses a small group of men to travel with him daily, while he serves, teaches and heals people. In fact, he seeks these men out before we have any record of a public teaching. It seems Jesus felt identifying his trusted friends had to happen before he got to work.
In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia (northern Greece), he wrote, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
Three years ago this spring, my wife and I watched friends and family rally around us as we worked to carry a pregnancy to term with our twins. We were so grateful for nearly a decade of building roots in our city before a crisis like 2014. When those little Savages were born, we realized an army of people had made that celebration possible!
What Can We Do to Defeat Loneliness?
Despite the data, I don’t think we’re doomed here. While the stakes are high (spiking suicide rates and pervasive loneliness), each of us has the opportunity to make choices which lead us away from isolation and towards connection.
Here’s what we can do.
Define what you mean by “friend”.
It’s super important for us to distinguish between true friends and “rust friends”. This term is one I discovered through Stephen Mansfield.
“A rust friendship is simply an older friendship you’re trying to drag into the future that is not really active. Like I have dear friends from college and I love them dearly and I love talking to them, but if I’m relying on that friendship, a phone call two or three times a year, maybe a vacation together once every five years, these guys aren’t guys who really know me. They only know what I tell them.”
As Mansfield indicates, for many of us – especially men – we only have rust friends and we’re more isolated than we realize. We need to establish who are our true friends.
Honestly evaluate your friendships.
Identify the three to five men or women you would consider your closest friends. Think about the last two or three times you’ve been together. What was the conversation like? Did you really connect or just give status updates on the highs and lows in your life? Could you have learned what they told from social media posts? (And vice versa)
Acknowledge the truth.
Change only begins when we have the courage to face and define reality. Billy Baker from the Boston Globe began exploring what really was happening with friends.
“I’m hesitant to say I’m lonely, though I’m clearly a textbook case of the silent majority of middle-aged men who won’t admit they’re starved for friendship, even if all signs point to the contrary. Now that I’ve been forced to recognize it, the question is what to do about it. Like really do about it. Because the tricks I’ve been using clearly do not work.”
Share this article with a few friends.
Forward this article to some of your friends (true or rust) and invite them to get together to talk about it. Ask them what they thought of Mansfield’s thoughts from the podcast or Baker’s lessons from his article. Discuss any friends you’ve known who’ve crashed or gone to a dark place due to loneliness and depression.
I forwarded Mansfield’s appearance on the Art of Manliness to some guys in my church after I listened to it. One of those guys passed it on to five or seven guys he knows. Last weekend, they took off for a self-proclaimed “man-camp.” They weren’t looking for one weekend to transform their lives, but they decided it was a good place to start.
Do something together.
For some of us, a mentonedtrue connection will happen when we do something side-by-side rather than face-to-face. A heart-to-heart over coffee doesn’t work for everybody. I love sitting down over some serious caffeine and sharing what’s going on inside me with someone I really trust. But I have good friends who only get to that place with me when we’re outside doing something together.
Find what works for you and your friend(s) and do that together!
Build a consistent rhythm.
At the conclusion of his Globe article, Baker describes how he met “Ozz,y” the instructor of his kayaking class. Ozzy has his “Wednesday night” friends, the guys he has been spending Wednesday nights with for many years. If they’re in town, Ozzy and his friends are together and it doesn’t really matter what they’re doing.
One of my mentors has an annual backpacking trip with some friends – they’ve been going for nearly 20 years! I have friends who hunt together several times per year. One of my childhood friends watches Monday Night Football with the same friends every week. Across from my kids’ favorite park, I see a group of mountain bikers gathering every Saturday morning.
It’s less about what you do and more about how often you do it. Just keep showing up. Consistency is the key.
Establish work/life boundaries, not balance
Ed Batista is the CEO mentioned earlier. In 2013, he wrote a piece for the Harvard Business Review where he jumped into the debate around “work/life balance” – a popular subject in business circles.
“Years ago my colleague Michael Gilbert suggested that we substitute
‘boundaries’ for ‘balance.’ While balance requires an unsteady equilibrium among the various demands on our time and energy, boundaries offer a sustainable means of keeping things in their proper place.”
In a world where we are constantly connected via our digital devices and often enslaved to the reminders and notifications they emit, Batista realized how hard this work can be. It will take work/life boundaries for us to create space for these kind of consistent connections with others. These boundaries may feel like we’re giving up success in the short run. Yet, decreasing our loneliness and isolation will ultimately lead to better work and a healthier life.
Build Your Band of Brothers (or Sisters)
I wanted to end with a quote from Stephen Mansfield. He describes the ultimate win as a community of men (or women) who can help us become the people God created us to be. Mansfield calls it a “band of brothers.”
“A band of brothers is a group of men with whom you do life. The thing you’re really going for at the heart of a band of brothers is what I call a ‘free fire zone.’ That means anything can be said that needs to be said to make me a better man and also to make the other guys a better man. So, you’re working towards a situation where you all are pretty much agreed what noble manhood is, what you’re shooting for.
You know each other well and I don’t have to drive across town two Tuesdays from now, tell you that I’m having trouble in my marriage or porn is killing me or I’ve gone beyond the one glass of wine tonight, I’m having five, or whatever. You’re walking closely enough with me to know those things and we have a free fire zone, which means that we’re not going to stay away from any issue in each other’s lives out of manners or some kind of cultural, you know, ‘Hey, we don’t go deep with people’ kind of thing. We’re committed to saying what needs to be said to make each other better.“
I pray this article has helped you take a step forward in your relationships today.
If you have this kind of community in your life, I’d love to hear about them in the comments. And if you don’t, I’d love for you to forward this article to them and begin a conversation about moving in this direction.
We were made for more than loneliness and isolation.