Men and loneliness—ending our isolation

By: Rick Olanoff

People who need people are the luckiest people in the worldBarbara Streisand

I’m so lonesome I could cryHank Williams

A recent headline in our sports section brought the tragic news that former New York Yankee star pitcher Hideki Irabu was found dead in his home in Rancho Palos Verdes, a wealthy Los Angeles suburb. A man of fame and wealth both here and in Japan was dead at age 42, having apparently committed suicide. Men commit suicide 4 times as often as women. This happens despite our male privilege, our stronger muscles, our lion’s share of prestigious leadership roles and our larger share of the financial pie. The grisly total of American men choosing to end their lives yearly is about 24,000.

Loneliness has been part of the American male experience for a long, long time. Think about what life was like for the average settler, rancher and cowboy, working long hours mainly by themselves. Yet it is a lot more than the nature of the work we do that leaves men isolated, depressed, and without an outlet for their feelings.

Men need close friendships with other men as well as close, platonic friendships with women: If only so many of us were not afraid to reach out. Past hurts in friendships and intimate relationships leave too many men afraid to risk closeness again.

Men’s isolation is also a result of what we are all taught and expected to do growing up male in America. This includes these edicts of false masculinity:

1. Men should not show vulnerability or any feelings besides anger or confidence.

2. Men are supposed to work out their own problems without asking for help—think of the Marlboro Man, riding off into the vast empty plains on his horse, smoking and looking rugged. Who does he confide in, the cows?

3. Men must conform to heterosexuality, corporate work and dress standards, playing and watching sports, drinking alcohol, competing to win at all costs etc. The millions of men who find that this code just doesn’t fit rarely get the attention, appreciation and affirmation they deserve.

4. Men should no get too close to other men—this would involve being open and vulnerable, and could well lead others to disparage them because they “must be gay”.

5. Men are encouraged to do complex repair and construction projects at home, by themselves: no need for any help, thank you. Think garages, basements and man caves—not too social, eh?

6. Conversely men are not encouraged to take on an equal share of raising children. One more opportunity for emotional closeness is often lost.

7. Men who are gay or bi-sexual are subject to frequent homophobic remarks, to exclusion from social events, and even to violence from other men—for example the awful tragedy of Matthew Shepard’s murder in Wyoming. Therefore many bi and gay men are “in the closet”—that is isolated, not openly proud of themselves and alone quite often.

8. Many men who are “successful” work very long hours—they become workaholics, and don’t find the time to socialize and get close to others. In reality those who die with the most money aren’t necessarily happy or fulfilled.

9. Working class men often have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet. Therefore, they too have insufficient time for friends and family.

10. When some men get courageous or desperate enough to open up to other men, they sometimes are not validated, listened to closely and appreciated for being so vulnerable and real. Another opportunity for a close connection is then lost.

So what can men do to change this? That is the key question. I’m reminded of a scene from Boys in the Band, a 1968 play and 1970 movie about the desperate, lonely, self-deprecating lives of some gay men prior to the liberation that followed the Christopher Street rebellion. Towards the end of Boys in the Band the main character asks each of the men to pick up the phone and tell another man that he loves him. None of the men are able to do this easily. Nor is this simple for most men today, whatever our sexual orientation is.

So I ask you men out there to take this challenge and tell as many intimate and platonic friends as you can, male or female, that you love them. Take a real risk towards emotional closeness. You have nothing to lose but your isolation and despair.

And while you’re at it try to work to end homophobia, racism, sexism and classism: oppressions that keep men apart from each other and from women. Contradict male oppression—false masculinity—wherever and whenever you see it. Lovingly demand to spend more time with your children. Be open and deeply vulnerable with your intimate partner. Join some new groups that will help you get closer with more people.

There are about 2 million men in jails and prisons in the US. Some of them are subject to the cruel punishment of solitary confinement, alone in a dark cell for 23 hours a day. This amounts to inhumane torture. Many other prisoners spend their nights and some of their day alone in a cell. And when prisoners are released to the community they are greatly affected by their having been isolated and often physically and emotionally harmed. They then have problems relating to others. We need to look at all possible ways of greatly reducing our prison population. Prisons today are a way of outcasting, labeling and punishing poor and working class men.

Similarly, men returning from combat feel the affects of war’s trauma and are often unable to easily reintegrate into social relationships. We need to end our wars and allow soldiers to help fix our own country in peaceful ways; in ways where they fit into a community.

And what about the more fortunate majority of men who are not imprisoned or in combat? False masculinity leads too many of us to be like Neil Diamond’s Solitary Man, licking our wounds, avoiding real intimacy with others and hoping that magically a new love interest will appear and meet all of our needs. What we all really need is each other. You can be the one who has the courage to act on this.

Barbara Streisand had the right idea in saying how lucky people who need people are, but I’ll take this thought a lot further: People all need and want other people—We are all brothers and sisters, we are human beings born with a strong inclination and desire to be close to each other, we can and must overcome and discharge past hurts rather than isolate. Decide right now to seize the day and embrace the wonder of human love, closeness, community, and connection.

As Catch-22’s protagonist Yossarian told us, “If everyone is doing this, I’d be crazy not to.” What if everyone started to see each other as close allies and acted to make that a reality! What a wonderful world this would be! Men you have nothing to lose but your isolation and loneliness, and everything to gain.

————————————————– About the Guest Blogger———————————–

Rick Olanoff—Syracuse, NY –August 2011

One of my strongest influences were my parents’ and grandparents’ beliefs in social justice–I come from a long line of Jewish, progressive atheists. I’m sure that’s why diversity work appealed to me so much when I took a class about 14 years ago. I was already in a men’s support group, and naturally found a home with a men’s liberation constituency. The constituency and the diversity training are both through the National Coalition Building Institute–NCBI–NCBI in turn is an offshoot of Re-evaluation Counseling –RC–and I am also active in men’s liberation with RC mostly locally. With NCBI I help to plan and lead our annual retreats and keep everyone in touch during the year. I’m retired now after 35 years of work for the county government as a
“social worker” in the probation department. My last formal education was
a masters in Guidance and Counseling from Syracuse U. in 1974…I’m married
to Sue Wadley who sent you my picture and we have 4 grown daughters and two
lively grandchildren.
I’ve been writing about social justice and politics for 21 years.
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4 thoughts on “Men and loneliness—ending our isolation

  1. I came across this article purely by chance, but ever so glad that I did. The subject of the article resonated with me and got me thinking about my own personal situation, that of being gay, getting older and the isolation that I experience on a daily basis. More how I now appreciate how much I need the people I spent most of my life pushing away. Life is a challenging tutor, the sooner you get to know him the better.

    William

  2. This is an excellent piece, Rick. The article came up, somehow, when I was writing a post on isolation. I wish I could write like you. Your content is really great with men and loneliness. I will actually need to read this a few times, as it applies not only to my work in counseling … but it also connects with my journey, especially this leg of the journey … the dark night of the soul. Thanks for this post.

  3. really sucks so very much for us men looking to meet a good woman today, and we always meet the rotten ones with an attitude problem too. and the Very Fortunate ones that were able to find a good woman to have a life with, be very Thankful that your Not Alone like we are.

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