Excerpted from a talk that longtime summer resident Don Brown gave to a Martha’s Vineyard men’s discussion group in August 2018 on the importance of friendship to men’s health. Mr. Brown died in March; his obituary appears in today’s edition. 

Seventy five years ago, Miss Whitney, my ninth grade teacher, required our class to read Dale Carnegie’s book on How to Win Friends and Influence People, a trailblazer that since 1936 has sold over 30 million copies. This started me thinking about the importance of friendships. But even by that age, I was already troubled by the isolation of some classmates who were excluded or treated meanly. I noticed that boys achieved popularity through superficial things such as being good looking or good at sports. I was a bit of both, but Warren Buffet, who was also in my high school class, was about the least popular kid I knew.

In high school, my friends and I hung out together: riding bikes, playing ball, watching movies. They were good guys, good friends. A few guys in our class were different. Different dress. Different behavior. Different gestures. To us, that meant they acted feminine.

Cruel as boys are, especially when their manhood is threatened, we ridiculed them among ourselves. Some kids had it worse and were teased and taunted, using words so offensive that today they are no longer in any decent person’s vocabulary. Today we understand and appreciate our diversity.

When I first selected this topic of friendship, I was concerned that readers might think the topic wasn’t sufficiently weighty or intellectual. I worried it might be considered too personal or too sensitive.

Then I read the Harvard Business Review’s cover story on loneliness written by the immediate past surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy. When he took office, Dr. Murthy had read of a loneliness crisis, that social isolations had more than doubled from the eighties to the nineties. He formed a study of friendship and loneliness which found correlations to heart disease, depression, anxiety and dementia.

One in four Americans reported being lonely, without a single confidant. Chronic loneliness increased the odds of an early death by 20 per cent. One study found that those with close social ties but unhealthy lifestyles actually lived longer than those with poor social ties and healthier lifestyles. Other studies at the Weill Cornell School of Medicine, Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Dartmouth College cited evidence of disrupted sleep, abnormal immune responses and accelerated cognitive decline among socially isolated individuals; that loneliness may be a pre-clinical sign of Alzheimer’s disease, often results in anxiety and can even lead to suicide.

Over the years, I have been fortunate to have many wonderful and important friendships, but also times when what I thought was a durable friendship left me deeply disappointed. For example, in my youth, which continued until age 85, I was an avid tennis player. Along with a group of friends, my band of tennis brothers, I was on the court most mornings and weekends.

But when prostate cancer took me away from tennis, it also took me away from men I thought were close friends. It turned out that with most of my tennis brothers it was a limited friendship based solely on tennis rather than anything deeper. Most of them made no effort to stay in touch. Did I make enough of an effort to reach out to them? Probably not.

In light of my tennis experience, I have tried to notice and reach out to friends that seem to be down. But it’s a sensitive matter — crossing boundaries, entering into private space. A few years ago it became clear that a dear friend was struggling. I took him to breakfast to try to help, but he didn’t want to talk to me about his problem and our relationship became awkward. The payoff did not come until a year later, when he finally to the opportunity to open up to me.

Even though it sometimes feels like discussing personal problems is feminine or intrusive or confrontational, I am no longer reluctant to take that risk.