“I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam.” — J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Return of the King”
The news came as a great surprise. My husband’s very dear lifelong friend had been sick with stage 4 lung cancer. He was so close to the next trial, but chemotherapy weakened him too much. And my husband and several friends are left with funny and meaningful memories.
They might not have gone to the edges of the Earth like Sam and Frodo, but they shared some great adventures. We always hear of “girlfriends” and how important they are, but whether Bernie and Mark or Frodo and Sam, we can be certain “brofriends” are important, too.
While it’s true that reflecting on my husband’s sweet long-lasting friendships with several different friends sparked this column, it was a comment from my daughter-in-law recently about my son that convinced me I should give the topic more attention. He has his friends, and they get together for video games, and occasionally, they get together in person, but he was bold enough to address the importance of feeling really connected to each other. We need so much more of that. But how does that happen?
I’m sad to report research shows us that straight white men have the fewest friendships. It can be attributed to many things, but as I always find things relate to fear, I believe this does, as well. Often, men are afraid to be vulnerable, to allow others to see any sign of weakness.
Straight white men have long been in a position of privilege, often a position of power, which might be why those in any other group have already dealt with being vulnerable in plenty of situations. Maybe it’s time for straight white men to widen their circle of friends and learn from those more comfortable with being vulnerable.
Psychologist Thomas Joiner, also an investigator at the Military Suicide Research Consortium, has published a great deal of information focusing often on the problem of men not balancing success at work and success in private life. Helping men survive is a major focus of Joiner’s work after having dealt with his own father’s death by suicide. His research shows that men are four times more likely to die by suicide than women.
The reason is related to a lack of relationships and loneliness. Men might have buddies they get a beer with or play a round of golf with, but they are often missing the relationships most women have — opening up and talking about what’s going on in life. If you are a man, when was the last time you said to a friend, “I really feel _____ about this situation”?
There are many studies that address the lack of meaningful relationships in men’s lives and the problems that come with that. Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary biologist, said of the 150 friends a person has, there are five close friends every guy should have:
• A mentor. This isn’t necessarily someone older, but it is someone who is wise, someone whose advice you appreciate, someone who will hold you accountable if your ego gets out of whack. Interestingly, it seems you might serve this role for them at times, too.
• A wingman or bachelor. The friend who when you’re single stands with you when you’re trying to come up with what to say to a girl or lady, and the one who, once you are married, remains the friend who has avoided a committed relationship and reminds you that your friends still matter.
• A handyman. His is the friend who seems to be the one who knows how to fix pretty much anything. He’s always happy to help you out, but you want to be careful that you don’t call only when you need a hand.
• A fitness buff. He is health conscious and is probably bugging you to go along on an adventure. Dunbar recommends you give in every now and then and enjoy an outing. Why? Not necessarily because you want to enjoy a sweaty afternoon, but because you need to do your part to maintain the friendship.
• A work pal. Let’s face it, a large percentage of your time until you retire is spent at work. You don’t have to be best friends with someone at work, but having someone you can share a laugh or thoughts with makes the job a more pleasant place to be. You might end up getting along so well you do things outside of work, but that isn’t a requirement.
Do you see yourself in any of those categories? Can you pick out friends who are one of the five for you? Chances are, many reading this will recognize they are missing some friendships, and once you are away from school, it gets more difficult to cultivate new friendships.
Look for groups doing things you enjoy. There are forums online for meetups for different activities in your community. From religious to secular, there are gatherings available for you to be with like-minded people. If you want to learn to climb, visit the climbing gym. Maybe you enjoy video games. There’s nothing wrong with building those relationships and in a safe setting meet in real life at some point.
If you enjoy music, go to a venue and you’ll meet people with the same taste. And if you are still being pretty careful about outings, there are lots of groups meeting on Zoom and Meet. There is one way you won’t find friends — isolating because you are afraid to be vulnerable.
There is no time like now to call an old friend to see how they’re doing. With the weather warming up, you can grab a cup of coffee or other beverage outside and enjoy the fresh air or spend a day walking, hiking or catching a movie. Mostly, I hope that you have a friend you can look at as Frodo looked at Sam and exclaim, “I’m glad you are here with me.” I believe that is how my husband and his friend felt. Friendship matters for women and for men.
P.S., it’s never a wrong time to tell your friends you love them. It’s part of being vulnerable.
Susan Black Steen is a writer and photographer, a native Tennessean and a graduate of Austin Peay State University who lives in Murfreesboro. With a firm belief that words matter, she writes and speaks to bring joy, comfort and understanding into each life. Sometimes, she matches her words and pictures. Always, she writes from her heart with the hope of speaking to the hearts of others.