Sociocultural nomad. I still recall the day one of my consultant buddies shared those words with me in observation of my lifestyle. Their take was that I had successfully set myself up on a path in which I would have no deep or true connections in my current social circle and had lost contact and full ability to successfully attach with the circles from my past. To say I was puzzled and deeply offended would be an understatement; but, as they say, the truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off. Sure, I could successfully attend professional and social events, facilitate meetings and host business dinners and even throw a pretty good holiday party, but my desire to insulate myself from the ills of the world or share my intimate emotions with anyone outside of my immediate family had allowed me to successfully become the as insulated as I wanted with consequences I never imagined nor desired.
Have you ever been in a sea of people and yet felt totally isolated from the world? This describes the world that I’ve unfortunately allowed myself to drift into and being that this has become a social phenomenon for so many men, since this its the start of Men’s Health Awareness Month, I thought it was a topic worth talking about. For over 25 years I poured myself into coaching youth sports and finding ways to engage in my community however as the kids started to age, I found that my circle of connections becoming smaller at an alarming rate. I relish the days when living in Pennsylvania when we would participate in Family Fun Night, where a group of 5-7 couples would get our families together to allow the kids to bond, the women to share in conversation and the guys to tell a bunch of lies and bond on a level that we didn’t realize at the time how important it was for our well-being and soul. Unfortunately, after moving to Illinois, I developed some really unhealthy habits. No, I didn’t turn to drugs or alcohol but found something even more addictive, social media.
Years ago, I would secretly laugh about individuals who would check their Facebook timeline more than twice a day, but I soon fell into the habit of checking my updates more than I checked the time on my watch. Facebook became my friend, community and a major part in validating my self worth. It gave me a sincere feeling of connection and it allowed me to script the story in a manner that said to the world, this dude has it all together. The problem was, I didn’t have it all together and the more I practiced this form of connecting, the more I feared anyone peaking behind the curtain. I’d become lonely and didn’t know how to overcome it on my own but more importantly, the thought of someone finding out scared me senseless. You see, I was the one who was the coach, motivator, inspiration for others. I was the person others turned to when life became overwhelming all along, I was playing the role of Richard Pryor in the Wiz and I fought like crazy to protect this secret. I had perfected my ability to further withdraw from most social circles with still maintaining the image of being engaged at the highest level of life.
On this journey, I became not only dependent on my wife and kids, but I continued to apply excessive pressure on them to fill my social voids. You see, my outlook is that weekends and life for that matter is about “living,” and if the suns out, we should be constantly doing something to maximize every moment and creating as many experiences and memories possible, without a full appreciation that they were tired and wanted me to be simply dad and husband instead of this maniacal extrovert desperately seeking social connections in a safe and controlled manner. We’ve always had fun together as a family, but I realize my desire to overcome loneliness was placing them in an unsustainable position, one they didn’t ask for nor deserved the burden of having to fulfill.
To some, this reality I’m sharing is unimaginable. Being the social animal I am, most would assume that my social calendar is filled with all sorts of interesting and exciting events, and why wouldn’t they because one glimpse at my Facebook or Instagram pages would leave you with the impression that this guy was living his best life. Like I said, I became a master of “framing the story.” It wasn’t until one of my college friends who I hadn’t spoken with in over a decade reached out and simply wanted to know, “Soul, I need some insight on how you do it because your life seems to always be together.” While the real question being asked was more about his need to simply talk through some of his life’s challenges, it was a major opportunity for reflection for me. I realized that while God has blessed me with an awesome family and superb support network filled with college high school and college friends from over 40 years ago and thousands of fraternity brothers, I had successfully became the sociocultural nomad that I was so destined not to become 20 years ago.
Warm and close relationships. Do you have them your life? Who would you call in the middle of the night if you were sick or afraid? Studies show that men who have someone to turn to are happier with their lives and their marriages. What’s even more impactful is, there is a direct correlation between the answer to this question and the long-term health of men. Data is pointing to the fact that men with warm and close relationships tend to live longer and developed middle age diseases less soon and had better health longer than others without these relationships. Yes, our social ties have a correlation to heart disease. When we’re thinking about how to keep ourselves healthy, we may think about eating right and exercise but it’s rare to ask if we’ve set aside time for social connections.
We all know the feeling of entering into a room or work location and seeing someone that makes us happy to be around or the feeling we get when we’re able to have an in-depth conversation with a friend or family member who cares and is a good listener. These micro experiences have a profound effect on our ability to deal with stress, but they also have an additional benefit. It turns out positive relationships buffer us from the physical damage done by negative relationships.
Many men are opting to spend less time with one another. The ties that used to bind us together have seemed to fray. As a result, we spend far more time hunched over our phone instead of engaging in conversation or in bonding experiences with civic or community organizations we grew up watching our parents participate in. I’m sure many of you remember when we were kids and our parents told us to “go outside and play.” Social connections were easier and readily available. Unfortunately for many men, family, life, work and other responsibilities begins to shrink their social connections. And the fact that society frowns on men sharing emotions and feelings openly, many men place enormous pressure on their spouses or significant others to become their partner, lover and best friends instead of turning to a close friend to share in healthy coping options or they opt to never share their intimate thoughts and challenges outwardly. Unfortunately, with this trend there’s a growing increase in divorce and suicide rates among middle aged men (50 – 54). There has been more than a 50% increase in these statistics since 1999.
The wake-up call for me was learning that men with weaker social relationships have a 50% higher mortality rate than those with strong social connections. Think about this, men who are socially isolated are dying at a faster rate and younger than men who are physically inactive or obese. The good news is that it’s never too late and yes, you can help. What’s the message for family and friends to help you through this rough spot?
- First, as significant others or spouses, your encouragement in getting the men in your lives engaged goes a long way. Not that permission is needed, but helping redirect their mindset that they’re worthy of connection from other groups beyond you and the family helps tremendously.
- Next, set up social events outside of the house that will allow them to interact with other guys in a group setting. Whether it’s a night out for dinner, bowling or a night at Dave and Busters, men collaborate better in group settings so call up a couple of friends and pick a setting that will encourage group participation. Yes, he will hate the thought of it and try everything in his power to get out of it, but it will change the narrative in his head and allow him to start to see what’s missing in his world.
- Set up a game night with other friends. That can be a card game, board game or even an opportunity to watch a sporting event. Every weekend we see the number of guys walking out of the local Sam’s or Costcos with supersized TVs, so give him a reason to show off his widescreen while reconnect with others.
- Coordinate a weekend getaway for him and some of his old buddies. Chances are they need the social connection as well and giving them time together just might grow into a tradition they can continue into the future.
For me, I’ve committed to reaching out to at least one friend each month that I haven’t spoken with in the past year. I’ve also re-joined the Saturday morning “Old Men” basketball group. I know thees aren’t major steps, but for me, it feels good to give myself permission to reengage. I realize just how many opportunities I’ve missed in life due to my fear of intruding on other’s personal time and my self-inflicted isolation but I’m determined to find my way back to a healthier state. Now, if I can just find someone to watch Monday night football with. I’ll provide the TV and beer.