Best Friends Forever?

Reading

I would like to offer three quotes from The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love, a book written by bell hooks.

Before I read, I’ll note that in other parts of the book, hooks makes recognition of the ways masculinity is constructed within and beyond the cisnormative and gender binary bias, but it’s not apparent in these particular quotes.

“There seems to be a fear that if men are raised to be people of integrity, people who can love, they will be unable to be forceful and act violently if needed… Yet we see that females that are raised with the traits any person of integrity embodies can act with tenderness, with assertiveness, and with aggression if and when aggression is needed.” 

The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love, by bell hooks.

“The fear of maleness that these acts inspire estranges men from every female in their lives to greater or lesser degrees, and men feel the loss. Ultimately, one of the emotional costs of allegiance to patriarchy is to be seen as unworthy of trust.”

The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love, by bell hooks.

“Usually adult males who are unable to make emotional connections with the women they chose to be intimate with are frozen in time, unable to allow themselves to love for fear that the loved one will abandon them.”

The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love, by bell hooks.

Sermon

“I have a best friend. I love my best friend.”

At the age of 12 boys and girls are almost equally likely to say these two things.

“I have a best friend. I love my best friend.”

Four years later, at the age of 16, the girls haven’t changed, the same number of them still say it.

But 90% of boys now won’t say either of those things.

They won’t say, “I have a best friend.” They won’t say, “I love my best friend.”

Between the ages of 12 and 16, ninety percent. Nine out of ten.


Lives of meaning and purpose are lived in relationship with something beyond ourselves.

No person is an island, as the old saying goes.

I am not, without you.

The philosopher Martin Buber many years ago suggested that the struggle of our modern world is to see other people and life as whole selves, like ourselves, rather than as objects.

That the project of our lives was to come to see more people that way, to treat more people that way.

That we should learn to greet them in our minds with Namaste, the divine in me recognizes the divine in you.

He offered that we work in two kinds of relationships. I and it, wherein we see the other as an object; and I and thou, where we recognize the essential I in the other person, that which makes them thou.

These days it feels to me like headlines are spilling over with stories of people who have come down on the wrong side of Buber’s beloved theory of relationality, of right, reasonable, and respectful relationship.

Women are standing up and naming those who have sexually harassed them in years past, and while we’re mostly hearing about the celebrities on the news, it’s happening out of the limelight as well.

Last month, Facebook felt like a ticker tape for a few days, one of those unending loops of news, with the words “me too” scrolling by every few seconds.

Except it wasn’t the same news on a loop.

Each “me too” was a new, tragic story of covenant broken.

My wife, my friends, my colleagues, my congregants.

Each of them being treated as it, not thou.

On this day, as we remember and mourn fourteen young women, I hope we can start a conversation about how this might end.

Start a conversation about those four years, and how we make boys into men.


From developmental psychologist Niobe Way’s twenty-eleven book, Deep Secrets – Boys Friendships and the Crisis of Connection, these words from Justin, a fourteen year-old boy whom she interviewed:

“[My best friend and I] love each other… that’s it… you have this thing that is deep, so deep, it’s within you, you can’t explain it. It’s just a thing that you know that that person is that person… and that is all that should be important in our friendship… I guess in life, sometimes people can really, really understand each other and really have a trust, respect, and love for each other. It just happens, it’s human nature.”

Sounds like a lot of young boys I’ve known.

Listening to boys, particularly those in early and middle adolescence, speak about their male friendships is a lot like reading an old-fashioned romance novel in which the female protagonist is describing her feelings for her partner.

At the edge of manhood, just before the pressures to conform to gender expectations really intensify, boys speak about their male friends with passionate abandon, referring to them as people whom they love and to their feelings as, to put it in Justin’s words, “this thing that is deep, so deep, it’s within you, you can’t explain it.”

Young boys connected to something so deep within that it can’t be explained.

Young boys connected to something between, who love their friends.

Until they don’t. Until they can’t.


What happens in those four years, those years in which boys become men, has tremendous impact in the times that follow.

In these recent days, we’ve been reminded of what it does to women and trans folks. In violence, harassment, abuse and more.

What it does to all of us, within and beyond this faith. What it does to our society and our hopes for building beloved community.

I’ve been reminded how boys become men who harass and abuse women.

How boys become men who commit suicide in middle age at five times the rate of women.

How boys become men who are absent or abusive fathers.

How boys become men with no close relationships beyond their spouse.

And I’ve talked to men who still long for the intimacy of those friendships, that connection to another, fifty years later.

How that heartbreak has never been healed.

How that grace continues to feel lost in their loneliness.

I find myself hearing this statistic about boys and their friendships, and my heart aches.

I have known too many boys for whom it has been true.

I’ve known too many men who have felt its effects.

I’ve been both of those, myself, and it is painfully hard.

And now with a son who reached twenty months last week, and thinking of all the young boys in my congregation and in my life, my heart aches in anticipation for them.


After sharing Justin’s words, Way’s next four boys all talk about how not having their best friends, the ones to whom they could tell anything, would make them

[quote] “feel lost, make them go wacko, make them go crazy, or be depressed, so lonely and try to kill themselves.” [endquote]

We know this. We know what sadness comes of disconnection and isolation. We talk about it all the time in our churches.

We’ve all known the pain of relationships ending, of friendships collapsed.

Going from being known, seen and heard, to being none of those things.

In this moment of formation, when our society and our communities are making boys from men, we are telling them that they cannot have close, vulnerable, intimate relationships with anyone other than a partner.

And even then we’re not so sure.


Brene Brown, whom many of us know and love as a researcher on shame and the power of vulnerability, in an interview told a story from a signing during her first book tour. She said,

“I was approached by a family of husband and wife and two daughters. The wife and the daughters came up to get their books signed and afterwards the father was lingering, seeming to want to talk to me.

He said to me, “I really appreciate what you’re saying here. And I think you’re absolutely right about vulnerability making better relationships. But I’m wondering how many men you’ve talked to. Because I know my wife and my daughters, and they would never want me to share the vulnerable parts of myself, my fears and uncertainties. They want their white knight safely mounted upon his steed. It would really upset them if I told them the worries in my heart and head.”

She goes on to say “I thanked him for sharing and then I spent days wrestling with what he’d said before accepting that what was true for his experience was true for me too. I didn’t want my husband to share all of his misgivings and uncertainties with me. I would hate that.”

She goes on to share that she didn’t want to share all of hers with him either, but recognized that she has somewhere else to take them and most men don’t.


We know that those close relationships are an essential part of being a healthy human being, an essential part of being whole.

We need to be able to feel fully heard and held, that our failings and our broken places don’t make us unworthy of love.

But men are not allowed to have that essential need met unless they can find this one other person.

We don’t find this in women’s relationships.

In fact, many women share easily that their friendships often have more emotional vulnerability in them than do their relationships with their male partners.

Having learned that it is both okay and expected that they maintain close relationships with people outside their romantic relationships, most women do exactly that.

And those friend relationships often outlast the romantic ones.


It’s not an innate difference.

The introduction of extra testosterone, new fur on the upper lip, and the onset of puberty doesn’t make boys stop wanting intimate friendships. Doesn’t make them stop needing them.

According to Way, at every age they continue to desire them.

But that desire sits in conflict with their formation, and the social script written, shared and enforced.

They’re not allowed to be vulnerable, to share their thoughts, their worries, their hopes, their failures.

The penalties for noncompliance are real.

And those penalties can challenge our faith, and our faith in one another.


The vulnerability and trust so essential to intimate friendships is the same thing we ask of folks who walk in the doors of our congregations.

Be open to another.

Be open to new experiences, open to being broken wide in service of connection and covenant.

This is the work of our congregations and our faith tradition.

Opening us each to another, to the whole self within, and to that which is bigger than any one of us.

Here in this congregation you’re beginning a month focused on the theme of presence, which Shawn will actually kick off next week.

But I’d like to tell you my own little experience with presence, and the healing and hope I think it offers for men.

Last year I had occasion to go to a UU Men’s Retreat for the lower BC mainland, to be their chaplain for the weekend.

A gathering of around eighty men, I stayed to the outside as I tried to get a better handle on the community, and what it might ask of me as a chaplain.

Halfway through the second day, I found a pattern had started to emerge.

With a little observation, I could make a pretty good guess about how long someone had been participating in their men’s group, or how long they had been coming to this retreat.

It was simply a matter of watching the way the men spoke for language around asserting their value.

I’d not really noticed this pattern until I saw it in this fairly stark relief.

In sharing around circles and in small groups were men who had let go of that uncertainty, who knew that they were inherently worthy and that so too was each person around them.

Who didn’t need to assert their value any more, but could simply be present to one another.

Here were men who had found enough confidence in their relationships together that they had dismantled some of the walls they’d erected in those years long ago.

Through relationship. Through trust. Through compassionate listening to one another, and a consistent, loving presence.

Having been offered grace, they now offered it themselves.

And here too were men who hadn’t found that confidence yet, that trust yet, that their vulnerability and need could be held here without judgment. That they were worthy. Inherently.

Their struggle was real, wrestling back and forth like Jacob in the night, struggling to reclaim the divine within themselves, find their wholeness, to find the love in friendship they’d long ago lost.

From their tentative disclosures of drug addiction, of infidelity, of their own abuse, of the failure of their business or their relationship, they would suddenly pull back, back to the safety of distance and sarcasm.

Then with time they’d make another foray, and another retreat.

Parry and thrust, parry and thrust, testing how much they could share, how much they could trust, whether they could indeed be loved, whether this space was safe.

Whether these other men could indeed be present to them, in all their brokenness and their joy.

The weekend was a stunning example of how much the loving friendships that the old-timers had formed with one another let them offer a compassionate presence to new men as they thrashed around, seeking an end to the conflict that’s been raging in them for decades.


As I close, another quote from bell hooks’ The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love

“To create loving men, we must love males. Loving maleness is different from praising and rewarding males for living up to sexist-defined notions of male identity. Caring about men because of what they do for us is not the same as loving males for simply being. When we love maleness, we extend our love whether males are performing or not. Performance is different from simply being. In patriarchal culture males are not allowed simply to be who they are and to glory in their unique identity. Their value is always determined by what they do. In an anti-patriarchal culture males do not have to prove their value and worth. They know from birth that simply being gives them value, the right to be cherished and loved.” 


Some of the men from that retreat will return this year, or continue with their own men’s group, having found what they needed. Some will not.

Some have found a new way, some are on a different path, some are not yet ready.

Our communities, our congregations, can hold this space, can make this space. This one does.

I know that this isn’t the only answer.

It isn’t the only answer to why sexual abuse and harassment continue, and it isn’t the only answer to how it will end.

It is only a partial truth, like so many others, but it is one that resonates for me as I work with men in our congregations and boys in our coming of age programs.

Men who long to heal their own wounds and the wounds that a toxic masculinity and patriarchy cause in the world.

What are your thoughts? Where do you find hope in this world, where so many say me too?


For those who are ready, here in this religious community we offer a path back to a full I, the one that makes possible meeting another as thou.

We are here to walk with you. We are here to sing your spirit home.

For our boys and young men we can interrupt the pattern; for the older ones we can share another way.

We can heal relationships between men, relationships between men and women, between men and their own hearts.

We can be our best selves, share the hardest things.

We can make best friends, and tell them we love them.

And know that we will be loved in return.

Blessed be. Amen.