I want to start by talking about a friend. His name is Leo, and it’s hard to imagine a person more different from me. I’m a white Evangelical conservative born and raised in the South. He’s a former Mormon, former Catholic, agnostic Mexican-American Democrat. (He says he belongs to the “church of the Hubble Telescope” because he only believes what he can see.)
We served together in Iraq. I was the only reservist (and a lawyer at that!) in an active-duty unit, and Leo picked me as his roommate on our Forward Operating Base. He was my first friend in Iraq. I don’t think I’ve spent more time, under more stress, in a single year with any person alive, including my wife.
We didn’t change each other. He didn’t become like me. I didn’t become like him. We served together during The Surge, and from November 2007 until I deployed back home in September 2008, I heard him talk about Barack Obama almost as much as he talked about his wife (just kidding, Sandra!)
Hours and hours of debate wouldn’t budge him one inch from his wrongness. When he redeployed back home, I used some law school connections to get him prime seats at Obama’s inauguration. How did Leo reward me for this act of generosity? By sending me a video of George W. Bush’s helicopter leaving the White House while he sang the “Goodbye Song.”
I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Why bring up Leo? Because of a disturbing chart and a powerful essay. Here’s the chart. It contains data from the Survey Center on American Life. Close friendships are declining, especially for men. The decline is precipitous:
And here’s the essay. It’s by Damon Linker at The Week, and I’ve been thinking about it for days. It’s called “The politics of loneliness is totalitarian.” Damon looked at the rising rates of friendlessness and came to this conclusion:
[Friendlessness] provides a potent (if probably only partial) sociological explanation for why our politics have become much more polarized in recent decades, with increasing numbers of people attracted to more radical forms of political dissent on both the right and the left. It also suggests that if the loneliness and isolation become worse, so could our political pathologies.
In recent years, we’ve been confronted with a key question. If the United States of America is the most powerful and most prosperous nation in the history of the world (and it is), then why are so many of its people so miserable and angry? Until the pandemic shock and the turmoil of 2020, for example, we were experiencing rising incomes, low crime rates, increased employment, relative global peace, and furious partisan hatred and rage.
Yet as much as we don’t want our nation or our communities to be weak and poor, ultimately we were not created for power and prosperity. We were created for community and fellowship.
Even if we’re wealthy and strong, we still need friendships like we need water and air. As Damon notes, when Americans lose the rich friendships one gains in the real world through shared lives, including shared hardship and shared suffering, we seek to fill the void through affinity (or factional) friendships we often start online.
Damon argues (and I think he’s exactly right) that the prevalence of online relationships rooted in affinity or faction help explain our toxic politics. “A nation of increasingly lonely, friendless citizens given outlets to find collective, communal fulfillment online,” Damon writes, “will be a nation spawning a range of radical political factions, groups, or movements defined by and drawing the bulk of their cohesion from their loathing of other factions, groups, or movements.”
Faction friendships are especially dangerous, I’d add, because they not only provide community, they also provide a sense of purpose, as destructive or as false as it may be. But faction friendships are also fragile. They depend on an extraordinary degree of agreement and conformity. I’ve experienced this myself. Many of us have. Friendships built up through years of engagement in politics and activism vanished in the blink of a tweet.
“You’re not with us? Then we’re not with you.”
And unless you have robust family relationships and deep friendships that aren’t so fragile and aren’t so contingent—unless you have a Leo or four or five in your life—then the sense of loss can be emotionally and spiritually catastrophic. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it a thousand times more. This is a prime reason why you can’t fact-check, plead, or argue a person out of a conspiracy, because you’re trying to fact-check, plead, and argue them out of their community.
Why does all this seem worse for men? I don’t think it’s all that tough to discern. The diminishing number of male spaces means that there are fewer opportunities for rich, lifelong male friendships to form organically. The Cold War-era military was both much larger (in absolute terms and as a percentage of the population) and much more male. The workplace was proportionally more physical and more male. Recreational spaces (including sports leagues) were more male.
Some of the changes are positive. We don’t want to face threats so serious that they require maintaining massed infantry and armor formations in Western Europe. We should be grateful for increased opportunities for women.
Some of the changes, of course, are distressing. Regardless of the gender composition of the workforce, we want decent economic opportunities for less-skilled and less-educated workers. We want people to feel community, and the very nature of modern work—which can so often be conducted just as easily alone in your bedroom as in the sprawling cubicle farms of the modern office—often leaves us isolated and alone.
As organic male spaces have diminished, we’ve struggled to artificially generate the kinds of shared experiences that used to happen so naturally. Just ask any church leader tasked with creating and maintaining a men’s ministry. The challenge is incredible. They’re reaching a cohort of men with careers and often families, for whom time is precious. So there’s pressure to force bonding, and quite a few men (me included!) have an almost allergic reaction to any effort to force intimacy.
But still men seek that bond. They seek that purpose. When you recognize what’s happening, you can’t miss it on social media. You’ll see mostly-male mobs divide into factions and fight like real-world gangs carving up territory in a troubled neighborhood.
Why so much emphasis on deciding who’s “strong” and who’s “weak”? (Which is especially laughable when we’re talking about tweets about law and politics.) Because the online fight is tapping into a sad shadow of the aggression and competition one sees on the gridiron, on a basketball court, or—at the extremes—on the battlefield.
Time and again, as we watch deaths of despair escalate and as our political pressure cooker seems set to explode, I’m reminded of the ancient biblical principle—“It is not good that man should be alone.” It is not good for anyone to be alone, not just men. But look at this data (I’ve shared it before) regarding deaths of despair and single men. It should take your breath away:
Facing such bleak data, many thinkers jump immediately to potential solutions in the realm of the national and political. We think of a host of issues, from globalization to automation to Big Tech. If Big Forces have created Big Changes, then the answer has to lie in opposing and destroying those Big Forces, right?
But I’d suggest something else. Yes, politics matters, but if our prime answer to the loss of healthy friendship is political rather than personal, then the crisis will only deepen. Our fellow citizens will form more factional friendships in fruitless quests to unring the bell of technological advance and global connection—or, much worse, to try to unring the bell of equal opportunity and legal equality. They’ll long for days that were good for some but far from good for all.
Instead, we should remember that while we can have only the tiniest impact on a large number of people, we can have a large impact on a small number of people. You can be a friend. You can extend yourself. You can move out of your comfort zone. One of Leo’s most powerful acts of friendship was going to chapel with me, every week, even though he didn’t believe. I didn’t ask him to go. He just went. He went because friends do stuff together—and the greater the personal challenge, the more the word “together” matters.
Not long ago, I was at a gathering of Christian leaders that was discussing a national strategy for engaging the culture. We went through five-point plans. We discussed ten-point plans. The discussion was fascinating and valuable. My mind was racing with ideas. Then one pastor spoke up with an idea at once more simple and more difficult. “What if our strategy,” he said, “was the fruits of the spirit?”
That’s it. That’s the focus. “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” That’s how we engage. And it made my mind jump tracks entirely, from the political to the personal. How do we repair our politics? The answer is almost impossibly complex, but here’s a powerful start. Friendship. Cultivate and sustain genuine friendship. Why? Because friendships don’t just enrich and restore our lives, they also enrich and restore our land.
One more thing …
Speaking of friendship, the entire idea for this piece comes from a text thread with new friends from church. One of them shared this Kurt Vonnegut quote. It’s amusing, and it speaks in generalities, but it communicates something interesting and true.
OK, now let’s have some fun. Let’s talk about sex. Let’s talk about women. Freud said he didn’t know what women wanted. I know what women want. They want a whole lot of people to talk to. What do they want to talk about? They want to talk about everything.
What do men want? They want a lot of pals, and they wish people wouldn’t get so mad at them.
Why are so many people getting divorced today? It’s because most of us don’t have extended families anymore. It used to be that when a man and a woman got married, the bride got a lot more people to talk to about everything. The groom got a lot more pals to tell dumb jokes to.
A few Americans, but very few, still have extended families. The Navahos. The Kennedys.
But most of us, if we get married nowadays, are just one more person for the other person. The groom gets one more pal, but it’s a woman. The woman gets one more person to talk to about everything, but it’s a man.
When a couple has an argument, they may think it’s about money or power or sex, or how to raise the kids, or whatever. What they’re really saying to each other, though, without realizing it, is this: “You are not enough people!”
I met a man in Nigeria one time, an Ibo who has six hundred relatives he knew quite well. His wife had just had a baby, the best possible news in any extended family.
They were going to take it to meet all its relatives, Ibos of all ages and sizes and shapes. It would even meet other babies, cousins not much older than it was. Everybody who was big enough and steady enough was going to get to hold it, cuddle it, gurgle to it, and say how pretty it was, or handsome.
Wouldn’t you have loved to be that baby?
One last thing …
It’s been some time since I’ve shared music from We The Kingdom. They’re a reader favorite, and this is a great song of life and hope. Enjoy: