Belonging in the Middle Age

I’m skeptical anyone over age 35 has close friends. That’s an exaggeration, but I’m certainly convinced there’s a dead zone for friendship between ages 35 and 50. It’s difficult to have good friends in middle age. Far more difficult than it should be, especially for men.

A recent Saturday Night Live skit called “Man Park” satirized this phenomenon. Just like the domesticated dog in the city needs a “dog park” to socialize with other dogs, the skit suggests men also need a dedicated space to be with men.

While the skit implies that “masculinity” is the main reason modern men struggle to bond, the center of the joke—“a park for men”—points to something structural, not ideological. Middle-aged men just aren’t living in spaces and ways that are conducive to friendships. And I suspect the same is basically true for women.

Our Structural Struggle for Friendship

You can blame the middle-age struggle for friendship on a “season of life,” like raising children or an intense career phase, but I’m not satisfied with these answers. Friendship is too important and too basic to human life to be something you put on the back burner for a season. Whenever we must suspend an essential part of being human, something deeper is broken.

The way our lives are set up is broken. The structures, habits, practices, and values. Our city planning, markets, careers, laws, and entertainment—all have been designed with a false idea of what a human being is. Collectively we assume that to be a human is to belong only and ever to yourself. Thus, friendships can be a nice perk of a successful life, but friends can’t demand anything of you that you don’t choose to give. At any point, if a friendship is holding you back or bringing you down, you can bail. Because the only person you owe happiness to is yourself.

We assume that to be a human is to belong only and ever to yourself. Thus, friends can’t demand anything of you that you don’t choose to give.

Because our world is highly competitive, anything or anyone who is a drag on your personal growth and achievements puts the “purpose of your life” at risk. So you must cut them out. Ultimately this leads to a culture and society that work against us having friends. We lack the essential conditions for meaningful friendships: time, proximity, and priority.

1. Time

To have good friends, you need time. Not scheduled time built into your week, although that’s okay too. You need unstructured time that allows conversations to happen, leisure time with no agenda or goal except to be present with someone. I don’t think you can really love someone unless you practice just being with them.

You need history, life together over long periods of time. I suppose it’s possible to have a close friend before you experience joy, suffering, crises, and grace with them, but it’s unlikely. The experience of being together through life forms the kind of relationship Solomon spoke of when he said, “There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24).

But who has time? Advancements in technology and methods allow us to accomplish more in less time. Where does that liberated time go? Not to leisure. Not to unstructured, agenda-free dwelling with friends. Instead, we discover new obligations: new problems to address, new ways to improve ourselves, new standards, and new goals we mistakenly believe will set us apart from others. If we’re not chasing something new, we’re so exhausted from the drive to self-optimize that we give up and numb ourselves with TV or whatever.

This doesn’t describe everyone. But I promise you, it’s common. Just ask around.

2. Proximity

Despite the connectivity the internet affords—I’ve found many close friends online—it’s not the same as dwelling physically near someone. I’ve shared unstructured time with friends while playing online multiplayer games and chatting. Like FaceTime, emails, letters, texts, and phone calls, chatting online in a game was an acceptable alternative for embodied fellowship, but only acceptable. There are ways of being with someone you can only experience through physical presence.

It’s good to be able to hug a friend, to watch a friend laugh, to be present with a friend who is breaking down. It’s good to be able to bring food to a friend or to spontaneously invite them out to dinner or over to watch a game.

All that is hard to do when we live so far from each other. Our walled-off homes and the sprawl of our cities are a barrier to friendship. You can’t drop by a friend’s house if it takes 20 minutes to drive there, especially if you arrive and are greeted with a fence and locked door that remind you you’re intruding.

I’ve felt the importance of proximity most acutely when staying home with my young children. I love my kids, but watching them for hours, isolated from other adults, tends to drive me nuts. I want to spontaneously invite a friend and their children over for company. But despite the ease of modern communication, it’s hard to coordinate. When our cities are designed for people who live individual lives, we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s work to get together for a playdate.

3. Priorities

Even if you’re blessed with plenty of leisure time and proximity to friends who could develop into good friends, there’s still the problem of priorities. Deep friendships require great sacrifice. They demand you set aside your preferences, goals, and hopes (at times) for the good of someone else.

If that sounds like too much work, you’ll live a sad and lonely life. But in your defense, you’ve been taught to think it’s too much work. In fact, you’ve probably been taught that prioritizing your life goals is a moral obligation.

Our economy pressures us to look for the optimal career or lifestyle regardless of who we cut out or what we leave behind. Our jobs are supposed to be fluid; fluidity allows us to follow our aspirations. We want to be agile with our career goals, envisioning a career as a progressive movement of growth, multiplication, and change. We want to chase the best education for our kids or the ideal city that’s prosperous and safe and shares our political views. That’s why it’s less common for someone to stay with the same company in the same town their whole life. This kind of life doesn’t seem meaningful anymore. To be static is to be stagnant.

Almost inevitably, when we pursue our life goals, we end up leaving people and places behind. And once one person, family, or institution decides to de-commit from a place, everyone else has less reason to stay. When we hold loosely to the people, places, and institutions we belong to, we invite others to loosen their commitments as well.

The agility society demands is in direct conflict with the kind of sacrifice and commitment friendship requires. Communities demand commitment. It’s how they work. When everyone on your street commits to maintaining their lawn, you’re more likely to mow every weekend. When no one greets you warmly at church, invites you over for a meal, or asks your name, it’s easy to give up on the idea of friendship entirely.

And when institutions and members of a community defect, everyone else is incentivized to defect. Soon you’re left with a profoundly detached and uncommitted city.

We Need Friends (at Least, I Do)

None of these dynamics are new. What I do think is new is the looseness of all the ties that used to bind us. It’s easier now to be uncommitted to people, places, and institutions.

This is no way to live, and I think most people know it. Belonging only to yourself may be seen as a feature of the modern world (not a bug), but it’s alienating by design. We intuitively sense the dysfunction and the need for an alternative. Harried lives leave little time for meeting people, and competitive, meaningless jobs (which are too common) aren’t the best environment for meeting friends.

But we need friends. And despite the challenges, we can have deep, meaningful friendships. We just need to accept that although they’ll be difficult to cultivate and maintain, they’re worth every bit of work.

There are no adequate substitutes for a kind look from a friend, or a sympathetic word, or the hard advice you need, or a reminder of Christ’s love.

To be able to call a friend up, without warning, and ask their family over for a meal, to know someone long enough and trust them well enough that you can confide your deepest fears and sins—this sweetness of true friendship is one of life’s few great joys. There are no adequate substitutes for a kind look from a friend, or a sympathetic word, or the hard advice you need, or a reminder of Christ’s love. We need to give and receive all these gestures of love because this is what we were fundamentally made for.

As the first question and answer in the Heidelberg Catechism reminds us, our only comfort in life and death is that we belong to Christ. And belonging to Christ means belonging to his church, our neighbors, our family, creation, and our friends.

I said I’m skeptical anyone over 35 has close friends, but every single one of us needs them. Our world does us no favors, but that’s no excuse. We must be willing to fight for what we know is good, true, and beautiful.

Inasmuch as it’s in our power to pursue committed friendships, we should—just be ready to die to yourself. Be willing to sacrifice things you really want to do and things that will make you more successful or wealthy or give you pleasure. Instead, commit to a church and a place, help a friend repair their home or car, and sit with someone who is suffering. Choose not to be a superstar parent or employee of the month. Choose to love activities you don’t naturally love.

You can only have close friends if you accept that you are not your own but belong to Christ. And in a lesser but still significant way, you belong to your friends. That belonging will cost you. But that belonging is also the sweet mercy of God embodied before you.

A. Noble

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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