Thou Shalt Be Needed but Never Needy: Sad Clowns, Lonely Husbands, and COVID Friendships

Middle Age is Not the Time of Maximum Mastery. It is the Time of Maximum Need.

David Zahl / 12.2.20

Sad clowns. That’s the term used to describe me and my peers. It’s not flattering.

As far as I know, it was coined in a Boston Globe article a few years ago about middle-aged male loneliness. A sad clown is a man of a certain age whose default agreeableness and readymade dad jokes mask his emotional isolation. A sad clown may be surrounded by small children and co-workers and even a kindhearted spouse, but inside he’s pretty much alone — and not talking about it. The world is full of us them.

These are the guys that John Mulaney was referring to in his classic bit, “My dad has no friends. And your dad has no friends. And if you think your dad has friends, you’re wrong. Your mom has friends, and they have husbands. Those are not your dad’s friends.”

You don’t have to be a father though. It’s an increasingly accepted fact that men don’t cultivate midlife friendships in the way that women do. Visit any restaurant with decent ambiance on a pre-COVID weeknight and you will find couples, a few families, and several ladies-night-out gatherings. You may find an occasional solo diner. What you won’t find is any gents-night-out groups. Chiefly because they do not exist.

Sure, there are the shoulder-to-shoulder outings of which we’re all aware: to the golf course and the football stadium and maybe the occasional rock club. But nothing where we’re looking at each other.

Earlier this week, the Washington Post interviewed a professor at the University of Maryland who has surveyed hundreds of men about how they commonly socialize with friends. 80 percent of them said “sports” — either watching or participating in them together. 80 percent! (Maybe our timing wasn’t so bad after all.)

Which begs the question: In a period of limited sports — both the spectating and the playing — how are the vast majority of male friendships transpiring? Or are my peers simply lonelier than ever? Has the population of sad clowns exploded? The Post found some encouraging news, believe it or not:

In this time of unprecedented isolation, [NYU psychologist Niobe Way] said, many men may be forced to change the way they think about their friendships and to connect in new, deeper ways. “I think they’re being forced to for survival.”

[For example] in normal times, it never dawned on [one of the men interviewed] to ask one of his friends to go for a walk, just to chat, something his wife has been doing with her female friends for her entire adult life. In the past month, he has gone on three walks with male friends, and he plans on continuing to make it a regular thing, at lunchtime in Rock Creek Park. “It’s totally logical,” [he said]. “Why wouldn’t we do this?”

Why indeed.

The traditional explanation for middle-aged male loneliness — one that we’ve explored at some length — has to do with dueling forces of career competition, child-raising duties, and socialized pressures to avoid neediness. As another one of the experts in the article admits, “The rules for guys pursuing other guys for friendships are not clear. Guys don’t want to seem too needy.”

The law operating on middle-aged men — from one another and society more generally but also, as Brené Brown has observed, from the women in their lives — is Thou Shalt Be Needed But Never Needy. This, it would appear, is the root of vulnerability avoidance, stiff upper lip, and all that.

Put another way, however much we may outwardly encourage men to be open and honest about their feelings, ask any middle-aged man what happens when he risks as much, and he’ll describe the reflexive revulsion (or downright panic) that results. Our gut reactions don’t always agree with our convictions.

And yet, even as society has begun to tolerate male weakness, it’s still much more acceptable to admit that you’re anxious or depressed than lonely. You’ll notice that when it comes to our ideals of (masculine) success or maturity, there’s no mention of friendships. Thus, a great many sad clowns are driving fancy cars. Teslas even.

One thing that’s seldom mentioned in these reports is the Law of Middle Age itself. In Jonathan Rauch’s book The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50 he articulates the following unspoken imperative:

We tend to assume, as a society, that midlife is when our coping resources are at their peak, or at least should be. At midlife, we command the health of youth and the experience of age; we are strong and competent and at the top of our game! In any case, we are expected to be strong and competent and at the top of our game. Yet the truth, very commonly, is that we feel unmoored emotionally but dare not give voice to our doubts. And so we bull through in isolation and shame, thereby, of course, deepening the misery.

The sooner we can relinquish the myth that middle age is a time of maximum mastery, and that showing vulnerability or discontent indicates some sort of abnormal and alarming “crisis,” the more support, for ourselves and each other, we will be able to provide. As the suicide statistics suggest, lives depend on it.

The statistics to which Rauch is referring are the same ones mentioned in the Washington Post article, namely, the suicide rate in 2018 was 3.7 times higher among men than women, the highest at-risk group being middle-aged white men. (It’s probably no coincidence that this also tends to be the most unsympathetic demographic, culturally speaking, or at least the one whose complaints it’s most excusable to meet with indifference or disdain. #crymeariver) I shudder to think what the 2020 stats will look like.

I’m not proud.

A few months ago I noted that, when my kids ask me in years to come how I survived the, er, growth experience known as 2020, I’ll be faced with a dilemma. Will I give them the proper answer, which is “by the grace of God and the kindness of your mother”? Or the honest answer of “by means of a near-lethal combination of outdoor exercise and extreme nostalgia”? Because that’s how I’ve muddled through. That and listening to the new Killers record on repeat.

At least that would’ve been the answer until a couple months ago, when the nostalgia trip started heading down some treacherous paths. It turns out there are only so many wax packs of Goonies trading cards a grown man can purchase before his kids start getting their feelings hurt.

So what about the other factor? Is outdoor high-intensity-interval-training really that potent a coping mechanism? The answer is no. I would’ve long since bailed had I been trying to do any of these workouts on my own, endorphins or not. The exercise is helpful and even fun, but it’s largely a pretense for the fellowship #mynameissoapbox.

Of course, fellowship is just a fancy word for friendship with the other guys holding plank position next to you. Guys who need nothing from you except the occasional “spot” while doing pull-ups (oy vey the pull-ups …). Guys going through similar things, to whom you can relate on a non-professional level — erstwhile sad clowns every single one of them, just like me.

Call it a support group if you like but a shared experience of hardship, however contrived, still does the trick of bonding us one to another in a non-superficial way. The physical component grounds you in the present and forces you out of your head for 45 minutes, clearing the decks for genuine (non-contrived) conversation and connection in the parking lot and beyond.

Such is the nature of true male weakness perhaps, that we need something to “do” in order to “be.” You can either fight or judge that tendency — in yourself and other men — or accept/forgive it and reap the benefits. I no longer care if this dynamic is socialized or essential; I only care that it is.

Clearly there’s a #seculosity aspect at work when an exercise group provides what some would say the church used to (and could still, were we actually allowed to meet in person — zing!). But there’s something encouraging about that: the human need for connection is so strong that it will “find a way” when other avenues are closed down. The question is always whether or not the new avenue allows for grace of any kind or if it’s just sweat, sweat, and more sweat, moral or otherwise. And where do we experience grace more reliably than among and through friends?

Because that’s the actual tragedy of middle-aged loneliness: Life without friends starts to feel like one huge obligation. All law — noble and good and in many cases a privilege, sure — but no freedom.

Middle age, truth be told, is not the time of maximum mastery. It is the time of maximum need — for friends, for help, for clarity, for forgiveness, and yes, for God.

Maybe that’s why I find it so comforting that Jesus wasn’t crucified as an old or a young man. Maybe he wasn’t so much at the height of his potency as down in the ditch of mid-life, identifying with the alienated and confused, sweating blood and hemorrhaging friends with the rest of us.

I can only assume that’s why Brandon Flowers’s 40-something paraphrasing of the Prodigal Son in “Fire and Bone” has been such an anthem for me this year. So much so that I’ll give him the final word here. Lord knows he feels like a friend at this point:

They say no one’s gonna save you
You’ve gotta make it on your own
But I called from the dark
And you picked up the phone
On my back in the raging blue
I looked up, and you cut right through

And when I came back empty-handed
You met me in the road
And you fell on my neck
And you took me back home
After all that I took from you
After all that I put you through
Here I am

subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter


14 responses to “Thou Shalt Be Needed but Never Needy: Sad Clowns, Lonely Husbands, and COVID Friendships”

  1. King Billy Drake says:

    Zing! This is fantastic and absolutely true.

  2. David Zahl says:

    It’s since come to my attention that *multiple* members of Mbird staff (as in, 4 of us!) have a nearly identical Spotify Top Songs listing, each completely unbeknownst to the others. PTL.

    And yet… still no one caught the uncredited Killers reference in the first Advent in a Time of Corona entry.

    Clue: “Give me a song that I may sing / That cuts like a canyon and rides on a wing”.

  3. Ken says:

    Wooden Figure of a Hunchbacked Dignitary
    —Krystyna Dabrowska

    All his life he tried to hide the dromedary
    ridge within the splendor of distinctions and accolades.

    He obtained all possible honors,
    among them the love of a beautiful woman.

    At last he climbed so high
    he had the right, like a king,
    to disguise himself after death in a perfect body
    chiseled by a famous hand.

    He could have gone on for ages,
    straight pillar of strength.

    But he asked to be carved this way.

  4. Pierre says:

    Thank you for this, Dave. I find myself fearing middle age (I’m in my early 30s now) for precisely these reasons – the loneliness that you can’t express, the sense of missing out on opportunities, the “is this all?” existential crises. I’m in a little bit of an inverse position, where I have a lot of friends but I’m single and really struggling to find companionship, but the forces you named are all still operative. All the usual ways I would socialize with my male friends are unavailable in the pandemic times, especially now that winter is coming.

    I also appreciate that you named that the suffering experienced by men, including the disproportionate suicide rate among white men, is most culturally “excusable to meet with indifference or disdain.” In the cultural Olympics of suffering, there’s not a lot of space allowed to observe that *everyone* is suffering, just in different ways. Being a white guy is not a magic bullet in that regard, and no, it does not make my suffering easier or more bearable. I hear my colleagues and friends roll their eyes at the latest way “old white guys” are blocking progress to this or that end… it’s not untrue, and yet I can’t help but think, God willing, someday I’ll be an old white guy. Will I finally have nothing left that the world wants? I can see why white men with limited educational “credentialing” are driven toward deaths of despair amid an emergent cultural calculus that might appear to factor them out. I think a lot of the sympathy that some of them evince for racist demagoguery is actually a symptom, not a cause, of this feeling of alienation. I don’t excuse it, but I can understand it, and that’s the first step we need to take societally to draw people away from a politics built on grievance and resentment. Dismissing them as irredeemably racist and/or telling them their suffering doesn’t matter will only drive the wedge deeper.

    • David Zahl says:

      That’s a really piercing comment, Pierre – and I couldn’t agree more. Thank you for it.

  5. Stuart Shelby says:

    *Raises hand* Looking for friends here. – Stu

    Seriously, thanks for this post DZ!

  6. Caleb says:

    Thanks for this, somehow I missed it! My wife Jenny Anne has been saying I should read read it, perhaps noticing me sad clowning in my office, manically painting on children’s art paper, writing humorous novels on world ending pandemics, or leafing through my old Gold Key/Whitman/Dell comic book collection(s) until my kids get their feelings hurt. And here’s the thing – I have three blood brothers, a men’s meeting cadre, and more male text thread friends than I can count! But it seems this article and my wife know something I don’t know. And I don’t know what it is, but I feel it in my bones, and I have the antique Christmas ornament collection to prove it????. A few years ago, my best friend Kev and I realized we never saw each other, even though we live in the same town and often texted back and forth. So we started ‘Mandates’ – man date because it’s two middle aged heterosexual white dads going on a date, of course, and mandate because it is a must. We’ve been friends since jr high, and have things like art and music in common, so there’s no shortage of mandate things to do – going to comic book stores, checking out greasy spoon diners, art stores, vintage board game nights at my house, painting together, playing ridiculous songs on the guitar, or just having a drink on the porch. The Covid lockdowns have been difficult for mandates, but we’ve tried to make it work because we’ve both realized they are, well, ahem, Mandatory. I inherited a verbose, colorful personality, from my maternal grandpa, and a confessional nature due to the gospel. I have no issue ‘getting real’ within minutes of meeting you. I have found this ‘blows out the brains’ of many men I meet, even Christian men in my same stage. I can’t help but feel that a lack of being ‘real’ with each other definitely affects us all, but I am not sure what the answer is, other than talking about it, as you are here. All I know is that I’d love to talk Goonie cards or Al Hartley comics or the new Killers album (our summer camping jam) with you. In other words, MANDATE.

  7. CCRR says:

    I forwarded this article to a Pastor and he had a feedback question. Id love for you to respond if you have the research behind his question:

    I’d be interested to see where middle-age men who claim to find community and friendship through an online community (i.e. gaming, etc) fit within the framework of this article. I know a lot of guys that meet up with the same 4-5 guys, every night, to play ______ game. Or they are part of a niche community on a forum that they interact with. I know this is probably not what the author meant by “friendship,” but it is an increasing reality in our world… and I don’t see that stalling out any time soon.

    • David Zahl says:

      Hi CCRR- my sense is that online communities are better than nothing but still no match, remotely, for an in-person situation.

  8. Ricky says:

    Really interesting article David. I’m 43 and can absolutely relate.

    We are looking at buying a home right now, and we live in SoCal, where real estate is very expensive. So instead of this being a blissful, exciting purchase, it’s the opposite. It’s the looming dread of feeling like I’m about to saddle myself with a very high mortgage payment that will lock me in to many years of potentially working at a job I’m not excited about just to make sure everyone is taken care of.

    I have methodically sought ways to keep it interesting. I’ve tinkered on my guitar, I’ve put notes together for sketches and a novel, I even spent a decent amount of time researching a video game I might enjoy. I put a business idea together and thought about putting a huge amount of energy into a business plan. I even considered investing in a VR headset (which also would work with the business idea). That one got nixed, b/c I’ve also had a decades long struggle with porn so I figured that would be throwing gas on a fire. Speaking of porn, I would argue porn is the very poorly chosen (but temporarily relieving) medication a lot of us are taking for this pain you are describing David.

    So that’s the bad. The good is that when all that pressure is applied, I have to turn to God. There simply is no other choice. I have to have faith that this reality that seems to be breaking at the seams is INDEED breaking at the seams – because there is another reality seeking to break through. So for every day that seems to pull me apart, there is a peace that comes where I am enfolded more deeply into the revelation that God is doing something with this. Creation is groaning, waiting for the sons of God to be revealed. We want a beautiful home, perfectly fitted for our lifestyle. But the problem is it’s a womb, not a home. And we keep getting frustrated when the womb keeps changing us, working us, and forcing us to grow. It is meant to be dynamic. It is a home of sorts, but it is a temporary home with a very specific purpose that will only be realized when we leave it.

    So I’m not saying I’m not lonely, or I don’t wish sometimes that I wasn’t part of some really fun reality. Maybe part of a start up company or a “band of brothers” accomplishing some super cool project. However, even this article itself shows that God understands where I am down to the last iota. This came along at the perfect time. It is just one more stone shattering the reality of the gates of Hell that are woven around me.

    Thanks for writing this David!

  9. […] gone on record about the importance of that group in my own life, as well as the wider crisis the movement seeks […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *