Please Help the Cause Against (Middle Age Male) Loneliness

The plan was to hit some tennis balls before heading to dinner. Take advantage of […]

David Zahl / 3.29.17

The plan was to hit some tennis balls before heading to dinner. Take advantage of the beautiful weather, maybe grab a drink al fresco on the way to the restaurant. Sounds awesome, I nodded, and I meant it. They always have a blast together, my wife and her friends.

I didn’t feel left out. Nor did I begrudge putting the kids down on my own. I was glad this was happening. So too, I’d wager, were the other dads involved. But that didn’t mean we’d follow suit. Occasionally we talk about organizing a male-only outing, but nothing has ever materialized. Which, again, is fine. We clearly prefer it this way. The timing, however, cracks me up.

First, I’m reminded of the chat Charlotte Donlon and I had (in print) the other day. When she asked me what I’d like more of in my life in the coming year, I blurted out, “I should probably have more male friends my age. My wife seems to have more friends than ever before, and I seem to have less. For whatever reason fatherhood doesn’t seem to be the commiserating bonding thing between men that motherhood is between women.”

Of everything I said in that interview, that got the most response. It prompted emails from people I hadn’t heard from in ages. My phone blew up with texts from guys I figured had long since stopped reading. Friends from college and childhood who find themselves in a similar stage of life. Each message said (basically) the same thing: “Me too”. Huh.

The timing was uncanny for another reason, though. Earlier in the day, an article came across my desk claiming that, “the biggest threat facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness.” Clickbaity perhaps–and we’ll get to the conclusion in a second–but the description that writer Billy Baker gives of how middle-age male friendships fade out hit uncomfortably close to home.

During the week, much of my waking life revolves around work… Much of everything else revolves around my kids… When everything adds up, there is no real “friend time” left. Yes, I have friends at work and at the gym, but those are accidents of proximity. I rarely see those people anywhere outside those environments, because when everything adds up, I have left almost no time for friends. I have structured myself into being a loser…

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…

Again, the description resonates–to an embarrassing extent. But it’s not sufficient. Most of the ladies are dealing with just as much circumstantial insanity and busyness and social media nonsense as the guys, and yet they find time for one another.

To get at the heart of the matter, my hunch is that you have to locate where the law is at work. First and foremost, there’s Tim Kreider’s (brilliant) Referendum, which holds that friendships fall off in middle age primarily because it’s the time of life when you’re most focused on “achieving”, such that everyone is sizing up their peers (and their decisions) constantly. And you can’t really be friends with someone whose life represents a judgment on yours. But again, that’s not really gender-specific.

Baker also mentions the social science research about the different ways men and women interact (side-by-side vs. face-to-face), and there’s probably something to that, i.e., just pick up some golf clubs already, Dave. Course, it’s not as though the golfers I know are exempt from this trend.

The Economist theorized the other day that video games are probably not helping things (*though if you read the article, they may not be hurting that much either). But I’d wager that the discrepancy has more to do with what Baker learns from psychologist and author Richard Schwartz:

“Since my wife and I have written about loneliness and social isolation, we see a fair number of people for whom this is a big problem,” Schwartz continues. But there’s a catch. “Often they don’t come saying they’re lonely… Admitting you’re lonely feels very much like admitting you’re a loser. Psychiatry has worked hard to de-stigmatize things like depression, and to a large part it has been successful. People are comfortable saying they’re depressed. But they’re not comfortable saying they’re lonely, because you’re the kid sitting alone in the cafeteria.”

There it is. Namely, if Brene Brown’s research into shame has any merit, then the aversion to weakness does have a strong gender component. That is, men are socialized–and not just by other men–into avoiding vulnerability at all costs. “Thou shalt be needed, but never needy” is the implicit legislation at work. Thus, all the images of stoic bootstrapping American males, images which have abated in recent decades but whose psycho-sexual appeal remains pretty untarnished from what I can tell.

Whatever the case, men tend to be more conflicted than women when it comes to expressing their needs, especially their emotional ones, and one of those needs would be that for friends, AKA relationships that serve no other function than company/enjoyment.

Baker ends his article with a tribute to a kayak-shop owner named Ozzy, who observes a standing weekly evening with his male friends. What Baker admires is not so much these guys’ commitment but “the acknowledgment from male friends that they needed their male friends, for no other reason than they just did.” He senses something gracious at work among these guys, a whiff of freedom (from the law), and amen to that.

And yet, when I examine my own experience, the diminished friendships of middle age have not translated into anything that could legitimately be termed loneliness. I’m surrounded by people I love and who love me. And not just at home, but at the office, even at–shudder!–church. The relational engagement is pretty much non-stop. If anything’s lacking, it’s “me-time”, not “guy-time”.

So I have to ask, am I lying to myself… or could I be an outlier? Might there be some X factor at work that I’m unaware of? After all, the statistics about middle age loneliness in the developed world are disturbing, and that goes for women just as much as men. Our surgeon general wasn’t joking when he called isolation the number one public health epidemic in America, and likely, the real culprit behind the uptick in our national suicide rate. In other words, W.H. Auden was 100% right when he wrote in his harrowing poem “September 1, 1939” that, “we must love one another or die.”

Which brings me to familiar, if rather upsetting territory. A few months back, for our Mental Health Issue (from which part of this post is drawn), I ended up doing a wearying amount of research into suicide.

Naturally, self-harm is a lot easier to measure than loneliness. Yet the two are closely linked in pretty much all the literature. For example, a survey published by the AARP in 2010 found that more than one out of three adults 45 and over reported being chronically lonely (meaning they’ve been lonely for a long time). A decade earlier, only one out of five said that. Researchers have also found that women are lonelier than men (though unmarried men are lonelier than unmarried women), and the less educated are lonelier than the better educated. Correlation may not imply causality, but still, these are the same demographics for whom the risk of suicide has so dramatically increased. That is, according to the most recent reports from the CDC, the most marked increases in the US suicide rate between 1999 and 2014 occurred in the 45-64 range. For men of those ages, the rate increased by 43 percent, and for women, it grew by a whopping 63 percent. (Men remain four times more likely to kill themselves than women.)

But there was another statistic that stuck out. A massive study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health reported that women who attend religious services once a week are five times less likely to commit suicide than those who don’t. The most common ‘secular’ explanation is that people who go to church have more social ties. They are less lonely.

There was no information for men, but after reading JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, I wouldn’t be surprised if the same finding didn’t bear out, albeit to a slightly lesser degree. Indeed, after reading Baker’s story, I’m fairly certain that churchgoing shields me from quite a bit of the middle-age male loneliness sting. My social world would be a fraction of the size and breadth if I stayed home on Sunday, schedules and demands being what they are. Truth be told, I don’t know how my non-churchgoing friends do it, community-wise. Maybe I should buy them a beer and ask them (or not).

Of course, while church attendance may be part of the truth, it is not the whole truth. To deny that hope—and its regular cultivation—plays a substantial role in mitigating loneliness and self-harm strikes me as willful ignorance, engineered, one presumes, to minimize the faith component (and pacify atheistic doubt) or, more charitably, to avoid galvanizing the ideological divisions that are fostering loneliness in the first place. Hope lies at the center of the communities these ladies are a part of, but it is not hope in community. It is hope in God.

You could say, then, that community (or relationship) itself matters less than the type of community or relationship. Are we talking about a community of competing individuals or a community of forgiven ones? A community that builds hierarchies of performance (consciously or not) or one that breaks them down?

What sounds like a strawman may not be as far-fetched as you might think. To wit, the Federal Reserve bank in San Francisco recently reported that if “you make 10 percent less than your neighbor, you are 4.5 percent more likely to die by suicide.” Needless to say, our neighbors are not outside our communities.

Alas, just as not all communities are created equal, not all religious communities are created equal. A deeper dive into the Harvard research finds that while women who attended religious services weekly were, as a whole, far less likely to take their own lives than those who seldom or never attended services, Protestant women were seven times more likely to die by their own hand than their Catholic sisters.

So, lest we start pitching church as being “good for your mental health” (and once again confuse means with ends), let us remember: while church can indeed be beneficial, its potency depends on a variety of factors—and as much as I hate to say it, churches that explicitly appeal to our desire for happiness and/or personal progress tend not to be the kind that are ultimately helpful. They also tend to be Protestant rather than Catholic. (It could also be that Protestant churches—mainline and evangelical alike—have so embraced positivity as a virtue that death in all its forms simply doesn’t get as much attention as it does in Catholic ones).

You might say that when church becomes yet another venue for comparison and expectation—even the expectation of “radical community”—most of the benefits it might provide by virtue of the relationships one forms there are negated.

Of course, if I’ve suggested that the answer to the epidemic of loneliness (and despair) is a deeper diagnosis of the spiritual dynamics involved, or a bolder preaching of the gospel of grace, or a collective allowance for human weakness, or a fundamentally more welcoming church culture, I have done a disservice. Because while these things wouldn’t hurt, they are not enough.

No, the Gospel is not a weapon against loneliness any more than it is a cure for suicide. As much as I wish it were not the case, the proclamation that God has intervened on behalf of a species hell-bent on isolating itself from love cannot substitute for the presence of a living God. Nothing else will do. I’m not talking about an idea of God, however beautiful or gracious that idea may be.

Our hope, if it is to penetrate the darkest recesses of human exile/seclusion, must rest on God himself. The God who has disarmed the law, who welcomes the friendless and the unfriendly, and all those who cannot heal themselves, whose power operates outside the bounds of human possibility and subjectivity. The God who, we are told, is so for us that he is against himself. This is the God who was forsaken by all, to the end that not even death, whatever the means, can quarantine us from his illogical embrace.