Bros Before Woes
In the UK, suicide is now the biggest killer of men under 45. Male suicide rates are three times higher than female. The charity CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) recently published a survey showing that 42% of men have at some point thought about taking their own life. Even more worryingly, half of those men spoke to no-one about those thoughts because ‘they didn’t want to worry anyone.’ A third of those men felt ashamed, 37% didn’t want to make a fuss, and 43% didn’t want to talk about their feelings.
Men in Britain today, and I’m sure in most Western nations, are bombarded with more messages from culture and society than ever before, some of which must be leading to my generation being perhaps the most miserable for centuries. Of course, on the surface we have so much more than our parents and grandparents; most of us are practically and physically more well off. We have iPhones, wardrobes full of clothes, sick trainers and large craft beer selections. We must be better off right?!
Unfortunately, all these things are completely unable to make us happy. And happiness seems to be sorely lacking amongst men these days. I don’t claim to know all the reasons for so many men contemplating suicide in the 21st Century, but one cause that I know is significant is loneliness. Many men, and of course women too, feel lonely, isolated and unable to ask for help when they feel like they can’t cope.
I strongly feel that many messages from culture and society serve to perpetuate this problem, telling men that to be macho and a ‘real man’ they need to be like modern-day cowboys, strong, silent and self-reliant. Another strong message from our popular culture is that we need to be accepting of men pursuing same-sex relationships, which has in turn led to some feeling uncomfortable pursuing close friendships with other men. Unfortunately, the fear of being labelled ‘gay’ (a word that is sadly tossed around as a casual insult) is still strong among many, who instead seek to get all their emotional intimacy from their wife or girlfriend. While it is of course totally appropriate for men to do this, I feel men also need to be vulnerable and open with other men. Men need to be encouraged to ‘make a fuss’ and worry those around them, both male and female, when they are experiencing loneliness and depression. Whether married, single, gay or straight, men need to be open and to be supported as much as women do.
One interesting view of friendship I recently read was that of the well-known writer C. S. Lewis. He spoke of male friendship being two men looking forward, at the same thing, but not at each other. One view he held was that men should discuss ‘issues’ like theology or politics, rather than family or personal life. I feel that this is a rather British view of male friendship that persists unhelpfully amongst men today. Instead, I believe men should look at each other and discuss their lives, as well as discussing politics or sport, lending brotherly support and understanding in times of need. In our busy, stressful and increasingly disconnected lives, this is ever more important. If a man knows he can be open with his friend, who likely understands his thought processes and viewpoint, then he is much more likely to get the support he needs in times of uncertainty.
I have been greatly encouraged and blessed through friendships like these in my own life, though I know that I often default back to the easier, though ultimately less fulfilling, model of friendship which just answers ‘I’m fine’ when asked how I am. That makes small talk about TV shows rather than talking about my own anxieties, and that pushes my own hopes and fears down rather than sharing them. Most likely, openness from one person will lead to openness from both, which can be a scary thing to start, but it is a thing that I believe is vital for the health, both mental and physical, of men in our age.
I love both the book and film of the story of Christopher McCandless, ‘Into the Wild.’ He was a man who shunned his family and society for life in the wild places of North America. Tragically, he ended up dying in Alaska, but he left behind some deeply thoughtful and interesting writing which I was reminded of while writing this post.
“So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more dangerous to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future.”
“Happiness is only real, when shared.”