I recently went away for a weekend together with twenty guys. There was no booze, drugs, porn, hookers, gambling, betting, fine dining, big games to watch, films or entertainment of any kind. The phone reception was terrible. We slept in bunks and had to listen to each other snore.
All we did was hang around the campfire, talk and listen. But it was a profound experience. In the words of my friend Malcolm:
What made it so great for me were the stories. One guy told us how he survived eleven years in a refugee camp. Another man shared his sorrow watching his parents get old. Another told us he'd stayed too long in the wrong job, wasting years at something he didn’t enjoy. Others shared how they felt about long term unemployment, debilitating illness, bereavement, depression, divorce, boredom and bullying at work. It was real and authentic, with nothing held back.
We grappled with the concerns men ponder privately but rarely ever vocalise, like:
• ‘Why do I feel disappointed with life?’
• ‘What is the dark side I am trying to hide from others?’
• ‘Where have I become divided against myself?’
As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke said, finding answers was not the point of the weekend,
The stories were generous and vulnerable. They became an anchor, assuring us we weren’t not crazy. They provided a bridge to hope, wherever that is and whenever (if ever) we get there.
One would think a group of men from the same community would slide easily into these conversations, but we didn’t. Some of us have known each other for over a decade but not exchanged more than ten words. A nodding acquaintance over coffee or a bike ride is an insufficient basis for men to feel comfortable opening up.
Silence helped dispel the initial awkwardness: on arrival after dusk, we were asked to walk without speaking for half an hour along a starlit road, wondering why we’d come. But on our return to camp you couldn’t shut us up.
We discovered how much we need friends. Real friends who will listen without interruption as we reveal our fears, pain, hopes and dreams. And without judgement as we admit to immaturity, selfishness, cruelty or thoughtlessness. And who’ll be generous and vulnerable enough to share their own stories.
We realised how we all find it difficult to maintain meaningful male friendships. You can be surrounded by wife, kids, colleagues and neighbours and still be lonely.
As journalist Billy Baker reports, when life revolves around work, getting to and from work, daddy time, chores and ferrying the kids around the easiest thing to drop is male friendship.
Dr Roger Patulny of the University of Wollongong says,
It’s made more difficult because our entire society is trending towards greater isolation:
• Fly-in Fly-Out rotations are hard on those who work away from home up to six weeks at a time, often eleven to twelve hours per day, seven days a week. The unspoken rule on site is to keep your problems to yourself. People don’t see their families or friends for weeks on end, and have no involvement in the local community.
• Workplaces where everyone wears a white collar aren't much Better. It can be hard to have meaningful friendships at work.
• A quarter of households now are people living on their own, up from eight percent in the 1950s.
• Then there’s isolation of working from home, shift work and all the time we spend in front of screens.
Loneliness can have serious health consequences, on a par with smoking and obesity for older men.
What do we do about it?
• Admit it to yourself when you are lonely
The problem when you are lonely is you don’t know it because you’re not talking to anyone. You just feel like crap, your confidence is low and the last thing you’re going to do is reach out.
That’s where I was sixteen years ago. My father had just died, one of my best friends had been killed in a cycling accident, and my fifteen-year investment banking career had ended. I was depressed and isolated but didn’t know it.
My rescue came from my wife, who had the insight to buy me a new pair of ice skates.
“What are these for?” I asked, ungraciously.
“You need friends. Go out and find some guys to play hockey with.”
“I haven’t played hockey in fifteen years. And there’s no hockey in London.”
“I’m sure there is.”
Eventually I admitted to myself I was lonely. I found a hockey league, joined a team, played twice a week and drank beer afterwards with the guys. We talked a bunch of crap most of the time but it saved my life.
• Remind yourself it won’t last forever
Male loneliness for most of us occurs at specific times of life caused by specific things. Retirement, divorce, illness and redundancy are incredibly isolating. Try and identify what’s happened in life to push you into a shell.
• Tell another guy you’re lonely and ask him out for a coffee or a beer.
If he gets all weird and embarrassed on you he’s the wrong person. Give the poor guy a break and ask someone else.
• Try to learn something from the experience
These times of loneliness and isolation can always teach us something. Where are you suffering in life? What do you need to change? What do you need to stop or start doing?
There are no easy answers but understanding yourself is a good start. We’re going to be putting some useful Learning Tools on our Resources page very soon to help men find out how to help themselves through loneliness.
If you want to find out more about our men’s activities or learn how to host a men’s weekend, please get in touch