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Male Friendship

By February 28, 20084 Comments

“This particular inexperience often left me puzzled over the habits of my sons and their friends, particularly their methods for satisfying a need for physical contact.  Why, when more than two boys were together in my living room, did they have to spend so much time wrestling and rolling around?” Patricia Stevens

My wife taught junior high for several years. She chose this job, felt called to it. Believe it or not, she even loved it. She especially enjoyed observing these adults in training and had an insightful eye on their wild and weird stage of development.

I found one of her observations about the junior high boys absolutely stunning. “The boys touch each other all the time. I notice how often in the halls they wrestle or give each other head locks or push each other a little. Its like they need all kinds of physical touch with each other.” That fascinated me. And being a man, once a puberty laden young lad myself, I did think back on how often we did the same as guys. In 8th grade, my friend Dan invited a group of us guys to his house for a sleepover dedicated to wrestling. We threw his bed comforter on the floor as the ring and went man on man for hours! I even remember sharing a bed with all the guys at the end of the night. Yeah, six of us guys in one king size bed with no shame whatsoever. And of course! We had just wrestled for hours together.

What is it about us guys that longs to be tested against another man’s strength? Why do we seek out masculine contact like this? We innately love a fight. If there’s a chance we could win, we’d love to jump in the fray!

Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” I think the author of Proverbs is referring to and even affirming this desire to rub with other men. Note that Proverbs was written by a father for his son. It certainly has implications for men and women, but it was originally written as a means for a father to bestow masculine love and wisdom to his son.

God seems to have intended for this competitive deal within the world of men. When we are tested against another man, we get the close male rub we need to become men. As my wife had an eye to see, during all the pushing and wrestling and headlocks, these young men were getting a lot of physical close contact. And we men need that physical and emotional contact. We need other friends, close friends to survive the world and keep heart as men.

I find this at work in my relationships with my friends. We may not wrestle physically a lot (although that does happen and probably needs to happen more), but we do relationally go toe to toe quite a bit. Just today a friend and I had a messy confrontational conversation about our friendship. It was powerful and frustrating all at the same time. I felt the masculine rub, the strength on strength, man to man of it. We could have been two linebackers pushing on each other at the snap.

If my observations are correct, then it seems most guys are also threatened by male intimacy, going deep with other guys. Why is that?

This male contact can obviously go very bad, very fast. As with all things God created, the power something has for our good can be twisted for equally powerful harm. Sex is the climax of marital intimacy, but sexual abuse can devastate someone a whole life long. Masculine testing with other men can give us the rub we need, the closeness we crave with other guys, the development we need. But it can also shut men down, cause them to retreat from any male engagement in order to stay safe, if another man uses his power to try and dominate another man. Strength on strength to a very insecure man may become threatening and turn for him into a chance to take strength over another man.

Fathers and elders make the difference. A den of young wolf pups will wrestle and play and even bite at each other under the supervision of the elder wolves. But the bite is playful, like you get form a young puppy. A pack of wolves without an alpha male will tear at each other, fighting to the death, vying for the top position.

I played soccer as a freshman in high school. My gifts are not in the realm of athletics, but I loved the physical play with other guys, the relationships I made with my friends on the team. One day, a junior named Mike came over to a group of us during practice and commented that next year we better work really hard and pull our weight on the team or the upper classmen would haze us. Later that year, we saw a sophomore get thrown in the swamp behind near our soccer field for this reason. After that season, I quit. I was not about to test my strength against this guy where I was sure to lose.

This upperclassman needed the coach to put him in his place. I needed the coach to put him in his place. He had too much power over the team for his age. If you’ve ever read Lord of the Flies, you will know exactly what I’m talking about. A group of young civilized boys become stranded on an island without any older men around. They soon form factions that war against each other. The weakest boy is killed; anarchy reigns. Sounds like the Middle East – fatherless men scrapping constantly for power. Sounds like most junior highs. We need fathers or elders to help us know how to handle power and male affection.

For male friendship to allow for good masculine rub, iron sharpening iron, each man must have a strong awareness of his continued need for fathering. Unfathered men who do not acknowledge they are unfathered make terrible friends. Avoid them like the plague. You will notice that most arrogant types are lonely men. They may seem powerful and impressive at work or on the basketball court or on stage, but no one really wants to hang out with them for long. You just cannot get close. They are really too threatened by intimacy, not realizing that being vulnerable in male friendships gives us a safe place to discover what we are made of, even discover and connect to our need for more fathering.

Stephen Ambrose, in his book Comrades, notes that Richard Nixon lived with no friends whatsoever. He never trusted another man and thought it was weak even though he could acknowledge how other men found it therapeutic to have close friends. In his own words, “the minute you start getting familiar with people, they start taking advantage… I believe you should keep your troubles to yourself.” Ambrose points out that the biographies of Nixon are filled with the theme of him being an unloved boy in his family and ridiculed by his peers at a young age. He was unwilling to look at this pain and find the freedom to trust other friends. A sad story.

May you find good men to get close to and be tested against. And when you feel threatened, may the love of God your Father help you drop your fists, open your heart, and receive ever more fathering.

4 Comments

  • Levi says:

    Sam – you may not remember me, but I’m Ufer’s roommate. Anyway, I stumbled across your blog as I was looking at your website, and it is nice to know that I’m not alone in my convictions of men desperately needing deep, authentic, “messy” friendships with other men.
    So thanks for sharing your heart. Take care,

    Levi

  • Sam Jolman says:

    Thanks Levi, for the kind words. I bet you make a great friend for other guys. Keep it messy!

  • Gabe Jenkins says:

    These are good thoughts, Sam. Thanks for sharing.

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