The friend you’re made to be
One morning when I was on my way to school, I got the news that my friend Tim had been hit by a bus. We usually travelled in together and I instinctively ran to the stop where we normally got off the bus. I arrived just as the ambulance sped him away to hospital. There was nothing I could do.
It was many years ago, but I still remember the pain in my chest (not from the running, cheeky), the sense of panic over what had happened and the regret that I had not been there with him. Tim was my best friend. We’d been through nine years of school together and were usually inseparable, even in the holidays. As I watched the blue lights flicker off into the distance, I remember thinking: “If Tim is dead, he’ll never know how great I thought he was.”
Relax, Tim lived to tell the tale and returned to school the following week with a few broken bones. However, when he did return, I made sure to sit him down, look him in the eyes and tell him how important he was to me. I told him that he was my best friend and I wouldn’t have known what to do with myself if he’d been more seriously injured. It was, from memory, an excruciatingly awkward exchange. We’d never spoken to each other like this before (and come to think of it, I don’t believe we ever did again). It just didn’t make any sense in the context of our friendship.
There have been a few more occasions in my life when friends have been very sick or in danger, and I’ve gone through a similar chain of events with them. I’ve felt great regret in the moment of realisation that I may lose them, so I’ve taken the opportunity afterwards to tell whoever it is that I care deeply about them. I’ve pushed through the exchange, in most cases, despite knowing it feels strange for us both because it isn’t ‘what young men do’.
From my experience, not just living my own life but having observed many children and young people over the years, boys are fairly bad at encouraging each other and showing love. Young men don’t go about saying complimentary things about each other’s clothing or hair, or congratulate each other on their achievements.
Addressing the ‘lad banter’
Friendships between boys seem to be centred on ‘banter’ – an interesting word that may seem friendly, but can, in fact, be a cover word for mutual unkindness between the best of friends. Instead of making actual jokes, boys banter with their friends as a way of avoiding any more serious interaction – trading funny insults as a way of engaging in a never-ending game of passive one-upmanship. Often, the closer the friendship, the edgier and more outrageous the jokes, as if you can only say truly horrible things to the people you know won’t punch you.
When you add this to the ‘Tim’ problem – being unable to share your true feelings about your friends – you can see quite a large issue starting to emerge. Young boys are making fun of their friends but are never encouraging each other. They make sure they are aware of each other’s weak points and insecurities, but seldom take the time to say they are valued – instead assuming that is implied by being present in each other’s lives. In essence, and adults are more than guilty of this too, we never tell our male friends: “I like you.”
I recently sat down with two 12-year-old boys who– as far as I know – are fantastic friends. Yet during a series of conversations that were actually about friendship, all the pair did was say horrible things about each other. They smiled throughout the whole exchange and laughed as they tried to outdo each other. They were having fun, but I couldn’t help but wonder: how do either of them know that the other doesn’t secretly hate his guts?
Here’s a stark contrast: a girl recently told me that she knew she was loved by her friends and that this had become a great source of security for her when someone else let her down. She knew instantly who she could call on in a crisis and who would have her back. This felt really positive and healthy. My fear is that the reality is very different for males. We think our friends like us, but that’s based on assumption rather than evidence.
Building a healthy friendship
I want to suggest that this banter-based friendship is not healthy – in men or women, or even between the sexes. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t banter and joke, but that shouldn’t be the dominant principle in friendship.
My friend Robert is quite good at the kind of male friendships I want to see more of. It may help that he’s American and therefore much less cynical and awkward than myself and my British mates. Robert is not afraid to delve into ‘banter’ – he’ll make jokes when my football team loses and may even comment on how unfashionable my clothes are, but largely he chooses to say nice things like “well done”, “I loved what you said there” or even “I really appreciate our friendship”. While to me it felt strange at first, Robert has normalised male-to-male encouragement in our friendship group and made it OK for us to say nice things about each other.
In some senses, this (slightly generalised) problem with male friendship is easy to diagnose and fairly straightforward to treat. There just needs to be a shift in the balance so that boys can feel confident about their friendships – that they feel open to support and encourage one another. Though it’s not as simple as just changing the behaviour, it’s best to start by looking at why young men feel the need to act this way.
Why do we feel this way?
Most of the issue is cultural. We live in a world where it’s ingrained in most of the media we consume, where it’s good to compete for the best wisecracks and one-liners. Take the scene in Avengers: Infinity War where Tony Stark and Dr Strange meet for the first time. Despite the fact they’re trying to combat the looming threat of universal annihilation, they are prepared to waste quite a long segment of the film poking fun at each other with biting daggers of sarcasm. And these guys are on the same side!
Another thing which drives banter between men is insecurity. This isn’t always the reason why men pick at each other, but it’s certainly something that’s present. Boys may feel so uncertain about their own value that they subtly attempt to pull others down. It’s strange that we choose friendship with this kind of dysfunction, but it makes a weird kind of sense. Our friends are the people around us who we feel comfortable enough to share our insecurities with, but in banter culture, the way we share them is through humour instead of honesty. Believe it or not, your friend who is teasing you about your test score, your relationship or your video game skills is probably doing so partly because they feel nervous about their own achievements in the same areas.
Sometimes friendships get competitive – and that is as unhealthy as it sounds. Tie this up with boys’ insecurities, and they get sucked into comparison with each other. Because our friends are the people we know best, we naturally score ourselves against them. It may be as simple as exam results or a sporting event – but it’s when we compete to be more popular, more ‘known’ or more attractive that marks an unhealthy friendship. Sadly, these things can be legitimised in a joke-filled, banter culture.
A better way
Good friendship isn’t characterised by how sharp the banter is but by how well we love each other. We don’t tend to think about male friendship in terms of love, partly because of centuries of homophobia at the heart of our culture. But platonic philia love between boys is a thing to be celebrated, and what’s more, something that we clearly see in the life of Jesus.
When Jesus turned up to resurrect Lazarus, he was overwhelmed with emotion. While the Bible only describes that emotional reaction in two words (see John 11:35), the people around him who are observing the situation see clearly the emotion Jesus is feeling: “See how he loved him!” (John 11:36). They are so struck by the depth and passion of Jesus’ response that they can find no other word for it than love. It’s hard to imagine Jesus’ friendship with Lazarus as being mainly banter based. It was more likely characterised by two men caring deeply for each other.
Jesus had a lot of male friends. He travelled with twelve of them for three years and within that group he had some even closer associates. His friendship with Peter was strong enough to withstand betrayal and another disciple, John, describes himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23; 21:7,20).There’s nothing romantic here – it’s as simple as Jesus truly loving his male friends.
So, what does that kind of love look like in the lives of young men? Fundamentally, it’s about putting our friends’ needs above our own. Jesus said: “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35). That probably sounds a little bit crazy. Why on earth would we want to be the least of all people? Why would we want to prefer everyone else’s needs, hopes, dreams and agendas over our own? What happens to all of the things that we want? Follow the logic, though. In Jesus’ version of friendship, you put all of your friends’ needs ahead of your own. But if they’re all doing the same thing, then the only person in your entire friendship group who isn’t putting you first…is you. Do you see how brilliant that is?
In this version of friendship, an issue like competition disappears – unless, of course, you’re competing to out-prefer each other. And insecurity therefore melts away; you know your friends have got your back because they constantly remind you of the fact. You might make jokes, but you might also take a moment to consider each other’s feelings before you launch into an ever-nastier exchange of put-downs.
The thing is, this kind of idealistic view of friendship applies a bit of pressure to our relationships. Not all of our friends are going to want to subscribe to this way of interacting with each other. Painful as this may be, boys and young men have to realise that this is because they’re not really good friends. In fact, changing the script of friendship from banter to love is a great way to find out who your real friends are.
A good friend is one who cares what happens to you. He’s someone who wants you to do well, rather than not quite as well as him. He’s someone who would be devastated if you were hit by a bus, but also makes sure to tell you that you are important to him while you’re safe and well and free of tyre-marks.
We need to be telling our boys and young men that a good friend is someone who loves you – and that means that you can and should love your friends too. I believe this is the kind of friendship we were made for. Not for teasing and insecurity, but for deep, lifelong relationships. Of course, this has to start with us. Fora culture to change, someone needs to go first – so how about you start treating your friends this way and then encourage others to follow suit? Be like the man who once said: “Greater love has no one than this: to laydown one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).