When I was 13 years old, I thought my best friend had been killed. Tim was crossing the street when he was hit by a double-decker bus (a detail that American readers will find simultaneously tragic and quaint).
I heard the sirens from the school yard on the other side of that street, and in the flurry of panic and rumor that followed, I was variously informed that Tim had been wounded, killed, and spared serious injury. I didn’t know the truth until much later that day. So, as I sat in my lessons that morning with an ominous empty chair beside me, I was left to reflect on our friendship alone and to wonder if it had been brought to a premature end.
It was a long time ago, but I still remember the intense feeling of regret. Tim was my best friend; we’d gone through eight years of school together, and we were usually inseparable during the holidays, too. And what went through my head was this—if Tim is dead, he’ll never know what a great guy I thought he was.
Relax, Tim wasn’t dead. He'd broken a couple of bones and was back in school the following week. When he did return, however, I made sure to sit him down, look him in the eyes, and tell him how much he meant to me. I told him he was my best friend and that I wouldn’t have known what to do if he’d been hurt more seriously. It was, from memory, an excruciating exchange. We’d never talked like this before (and come to think of it, we never talked like this again); it just didn’t make any sense in the context of our friendship. But in that moment I needed him to know—I loved him, and I was so desperately glad that he was still alive.
I know that the British and American experiences of male friendship are different, but stereotypically they share some degree of dysfunction. In the UK, male friendship is characterized by what we call “banter”—the continuous exchange of comic insults which somehow communicate a sense of affection. In the US, I’m told that men are a little more affirming of each other, but generally still have a hard time sharing their feelings together. On both sides of the Atlantic, male friendship tends to involve a lot of jokes, a lot of doing stuff together, and in many cases, a lot of sport and beer. I am aware of the many exceptions to the rule, but in most cases, we’re not great at talking about our emotions—how we’re really doing, deep down.
That’s significant because of the related phenomenon in mental health, where men are just as likely as women to suffer from illness and issues, but much less likely to talk about it. The most devastating statistic around that: young men are three times more likely to die by suicide than young women, making it the leading cause of death of men aged 20–49 in the UK, and the second largest after firearm death in the US. Men are much more likely than women to feel so unable to deal with their emotions that they choose not to live any more. Surely it’s not a leap to suggest that the quality and safety of their relationships—and the lack of a safe space to process those feelings—is a major part of that devastating picture?
The cultural pressure on men that “boys don’t cry” is certainly key to any emotional repression, but this norm is sustained and enabled by the relationships that we men have with each other. Here in the UK, if a man talks about feeling sad, he’ll probably be dubbed “Eeyore” (after the A.A. Milne character) by his friends and will learn never to speak of his feelings again. The metaphorical or literal locker room of male friendship is often the last hiding place for old prejudices and out-of-date attitudes like racism and sexism, and just as much so these old ideas of what a man should be, and what he should and shouldn’t emote. We have to do better.
I wrote a book for young men recently. It started off being aimed at teenagers, but the more I read, thought, and wrote around the topic of masculinity, the more I realized that the audience needed to be broader. As I approached the chapter on friendship (called “Banter,” of course), I found myself drawn to an unlikely passage of Scripture for inspiration. You might imagine that I went straight to David and Jonathan, but in fact, I found myself in a section usually reserved for wedding services: 1 Corinthians 13.
As you know, this is St. Paul’s spectacular ode to love. It’s often used in the matrimonial context as if stripped of its original intention, but of course, this is really about the love of God for his people. As I read it again though, I couldn’t help thinking about how these verses could set quite an incredible vision for male friendship, if we could only deal with the head-scratch of repurposing them that way.
“Love is patient…” Imagine if guys stuck by each other; stood by and allowed those necessary releases of emotion occasionally.
“Love is kind…” What if we were given permission to be nice to each other; to encourage, build up and affirm?
“Love is not jealous…” Imagine if we didn’t always give in to the competitive instinct, and shared in each others’ victories.
“Love always perseveres…” What if we knew that our friends would stick by us, through the hard times and the good, because they were committed to us for the long-term?
Doesn’t that feel like a bigger, better, more revolutionary vision for friendship? Instead of basing our relationships in banter, wouldn’t they feel so much more secure on this kind of footing? And think even bigger: What if whole friendship groups—or even whole communities of men—started to treat each other on the basis of this set of principles? How different would the world start to feel?
I believe that this is the kind of friendship that we were made for. Not for teasing and insecurity, but for deep, lifelong, loving relationships. So in my youth ministry, I’m committing to modeling this and calling men to counter-cultural, 1 Corinthians 13 friendship; to a better and more honest way of treating each other, where emotions are allowed and real talk is welcomed. Friendship like this could not only be prophetic to a generation, but it could also, seriously, save lives. Now that’s got to be worth a little bit of vulnerability.
1. Source: UK Office of National Statistics, https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/bulletins/suicidesintheunitedkingdom/2018registrations