“Friends come and friends go, but a true friend sticks by you like family.” (Proverbs 18:24)
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:24-25)
“MARLEY was dead, to begin with.” So goes the opening line of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – a wonderful tale of redemption and transformation of the human soul. As most of us know, this is the story of the reclamation of Ebenezer Scrooge, the protagonist, who when we first meet him is emotionally, spiritually, and relationally dead. Scrooge, described at the outset as, “A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.” To say that Scrooge had no friends would be an understatement. Indeed, he was a man to be avoided. So much so that, “Even the blind men’s dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, ‘No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!’”
Marley, as we discover, is Scrooge’s deceased partner who is condemned to roam the earth in penance for his sins; and who returns on Christmas Eve to prophetically warn Scrooge that he will be visited by three other spirits that very night. As the story unfolds we find the spirits revealing to Scrooge various scenes from his past, present, and future life. Much is made of Scrooge’s presenting sin of greed; indeed, his name is synonymous with the sin of avarice. Perhaps, though, the most poignant aspect of the tale is how lonely Scrooge is. As the First spirit reveals Scrooge’s backstory, we discover that as a child he was spurned by his father – a father who sent him to a boarding school where he languished even over Christmas holidays when other students went home. Sometime later in his life Scrooge is pitifully observed as being “Alone. Quite alone in the world.”
Is there anything more hopeless than being described as “quite alone in the world?” I have gone through times in my life when I felt alone. And I have known other men, particularly in their later years, who seem almost desperately alone. The consequences of being alone are becoming a serious problem for older people. According to the U.S. Census Bureau over ten million, or about 30% of people aged sixty-five and older, lived alone in 2010 – a number that will only increase as people get older. Additionally, more and more older adults do not have children, which increases the likelihood of being alone. While there are no easy or quick fixes, I believe it is possible to develop and nurture friendships – an activity that I believe is not only important to mental health, but an essential aspect of our spiritual journey as I will explain.
Building relationships with other men is something that I have become more intentional about in recent years. In fact, I have asked and met one-on-one with about a hundred men over the past eight years. I have had no agenda other than getting to know and be known by few men. I never expected the number to grow as it has, but my curiosity in meeting other men and hearing their stories has become a most natural thing to do. From these connections I have three observations about developing friendships with other men. While I certainly don’t present these as universal truths, I have some confidence in their validity at least to men in my generation – baby boomers. And although I suspect these principles apply to women as well, I would not overgeneralize.
First is having a vision for developing friendships. As with all Christian virtues, progress will be difficult unless there is an underlying belief in its importance to life in the kingdom of God. I don’t know how one comes to believe this should be a priority. For Scrooge it was a Christmas Eve reverie in which he observed and felt the pain and consequences of his isolation. For me, it was a sermon by Pastor Pete many years ago where he commented, “Did you know that there are some men who have no friends!” I was startled as much by the incredulity in his voice as I was with his point. At the time I had no friends (wife and family aside), and I don’t recall thinking it was at all strange. I thought that my business contacts at work were sufficient, although in retrospect these were limited to the workplace and there was none I counted as a close friend.
It turns out that my experience was not uncommon. In her book You Just Don’t Understand, Deborah Tannen states, “When asked who their best friends are, most women name other women they talk to regularly. When asked the same question, most men will say it’s their wives. After that, many men name other men with whom they do things (but never just sit and talk) or a friend from high school whom they haven’t spoken to in a year.” While there is nothing wrong with a spouse who is a best friend, it can place a lot of pressure on the marriage dynamic. In which case, having other friends can help us process some of the ebbs and flows of a marriage. Pat and I have each found the other to be a better companion as a result of us having our own circle of friends we meet with regularly.
Life in the kingdom of God is about doing the will of the Father. His will in regard to our relationships is not subtle or hidden – it is a clarion call to live selfless lives in community with others. For example, the many “one another” commands in Scripture presuppose that we are intentional about developing friendships. From love one another and encourage one another to bear with one another and forgive each other, I submit that it is impossible to live these out unless we are living in close association with others we call friends. But this is not about clenched teeth obedience to God’s word; rather, it is a path to the good life. No truer words are written than “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” (Prov. 27:17)
Second is to take the initiative. In my experience it is rare for a man to initiate a meeting with another man to simply sit and talk. Over the past eight years, I honestly can’t remember a single time another man has asked me to meet for the sole purpose of getting acquainted (the notable exception being men that I have previously met with). On the other hand, I cannot recall a single man whom I have asked who hasn’t agreed to meet, and generally quite readily. I think this is an amazing empirical data point: Over the past eight years, I have asked about a hundred men to meet for breakfast or lunch – and everyone has agreed. Yet, over that same period, I have not received a single ab initio request to meet. The takeaway for me is that if developing friendships is important, then one must take the initiative. Carpe diem!
As an aside, if meeting around a meal, go Dutch. While this is a pathetically prosaic thing to mention, I have found that this is a surprisingly important detail that holds some men back from taking the initiative. (It is also highly revealing as to our desire to avoid indebtedness towards others.) I find that I position this when I approach another man by simply asking, “do you want to meet sometime for breakfast? ” And when we meet, I ask the server for separate checks. In this way a potentially awkward social situation is avoided when the time comes to pay. The only exception I make is when the social imbalance is too great. For example, if I ask a college student to meet, I make it clear that I will be paying.
Third is to show interest in the other person – finding out about their job, their family, their interests, etc. Be curious. This after all is the purpose for meeting – to get to know another person. It is amazing to me how shallow many men can be in a social setting. I was in a men’s small group for the better part of a decade and yet we scarcely knew the backstories of one another’s lives. It was not anyone’s fault, but rather an unfortunate pattern that we drifted into until it became part of our group culture. That said, when meeting, it is important to make time for small talk – it is hard to get to deeper matters before some preliminaries. The question isn’t whether all talk is going to be “deep” but whether any talk is going to be deep?
As a final comment, I have found it best to keep expectations low regarding follow-up meetings. Asking someone to meet is no guarantee that a friendship will form. There are simply too many factors in building a relationship to expect too much. Gratefully, I have developed three close friendships – men that I meet with regularly one-on-one; and I have a couple other relationships that are trending in that direction. Each one of these is unique, but all are based on mutual respect and a real interest in the life of the other.
At the end of A Christmas Carol, we see a new Ebenezer Scrooge – one who is deeply concerned about other people and who builds community with them. We may wonder about how Scrooge developed new friendships but we know that he did. We are told, “Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.”
May the Lord strengthen you in the New Year with the courage to reach out to others. And may He richly reward your efforts to push back the darkness of loneliness with the comforting light of friendship.