It was Emmanuel’s first time in the U.S.
He was a 25-year-old Ghanaian rail, dark-skinned and with a bright-white grin, stretching past his cheeks like Cheshire Cat.
I was a 19-year-old kid, stricken with wanderlust, youthful ambition, and the innocent arrogance we all have at that age, believing we’re the first to discover the secrets of life. I pretended to be grown up but I had the face of a cherub, hairless and soft, and I was often asked what grade I was in.
He and I met at church (it wasn’t even mine) and I immediately attached to him, committing myself to his mission back home before he could ask.
Quickly, we started preparing for a 6-week trip to Ghana to work for Children’s Medical Missions in the summer of 2007. In the meantime, I became Emmanuel’s friend, personal chauffeur, and Western tour-guide. I fed him grease and other American delicacies, took him to Branson, Missouri, a Christian gift-shop of a city where old people find early refuge and Jim Bakker is a star. And, of course, I taught Emmanuel inappropriate American words.
What would you expect?
“You know, in Ghana, we eat crap,” he said wide-eyed at a Cracker Barrel once. After minutes of concealed laughter and light-hearted interrogation, I figured out he’d mistaken the word crap with crab. I corrected him, properly defining the word, crap, and before the meal was over, he declared to the table he was about to go take one.
“What are we missing out on as hopelessly independent macho men?”
Emmanuel had a computer business to help fund his mission, so we spent a lot of time at the Best Buy, strolling the aisles, and hunting for good deals and giveaways. One such day, beneath the fluorescent canopy of the electronic store, something unusual happened that shook my identity and questioned my perceived masculinity.
I felt a man’s hand take mine. I shook it off without saying a word like I would a fly, but it persisted. I weaseled away. By the third attempt, I had to ask.
“Emmanuel, are you trying to hold my hand?”
Turns out, many cultures, including Emmanuel’s, readily accept and even welcome hand-holding between two heterosexual men. Egypt, Senegal, India, Israel, and many more consider it a social norm. In Ethiopia, close male friends will sometimes even feed one another, hand to mouth. It is a sign of affection, trust, and meaningful friendship.
I didn’t hold Emmanuel’s hand that day (or any other day, for that matter), but considering alternative cultures and then reflecting on our own, the question needs to be asked: Why are we Westerners so quick to pull the trigger on the gay-dar? Is our toxic homophobia robbing us of beneficial brotherly affection and healthy male intimacy? What are we missing out on as hopelessly independent macho men?
It’s not necessary to hold your buddy’s hand to share intimacy nor encouraged to start feeding him at the Buffalo Wild Wings. But, maybe if we can let go of our apprehension to show our brothers affection, and if we better define and embrace male intimacy, we can benefit from deeper and more meaningful relationships with our guy friends, making buddies into brothers.
So, if intimacy is not defined by hand-holding, what is it?
Intimacy Is Familiarity
I have a friend named Michael. We’ve only known each other for less than a year, but early on, we could tell there was great potential to our relationship. While sneaking off for a beer can prove to be difficult with families and jobs, we are good at checking in on each other via text.
“How’s it going?” one might ask the other to which a common reply is, “Fine,” or “it’s okay. you?”
We touched a new ground the other day when I decided to be honest in the text, as did he. Behind the texting facade, neither of us was doing too hot. Being transparent about our mental and emotional state, however, opened new doors for our friendship, and solidified a deeper bond between brothers.
Intimacy is being familiar with and honest about one another’s struggles and personal issues.
Intimacy Is Closeness
My friend, former roommate, and fellow comedian, Ian, lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and newborn daughter. He’s an hour from me which can feel like an eternity when I remember back to the days of counting seconds between snores to ensure his sleep apnea didn’t take him in the bed across the room.
The times we’ve lived together are some of my fondest memories. We laughed, we cried, we talked, we played hockey in the apartment and let the dishes pile up.
But, while physical nearness is important to building intimacy, it’s not necessary. Ian knows I’m only ever a call away to talk or to race over to Michigan’s west side if he needs me for even just a stupid joke. I know he’d do the same for me.
Physical closeness certainly helps build intimacy, but relational closeness knows no bounds.
Intimacy Is Friendship
Joe and I frequent local diners where smokey waitresses administer IV’s of thick coffee. We pass ideas back and forth like salt shakers, and conversation is always easy. His ping pong paddle is rattier than mine but he still wins two out of three. He introduced me to Turkish Coffee, Wendell Berry, and “Of Gods And Men.” I’ve watched him eat an apple in two bites and re-order a sandwich immediately after slamming one down.
Side by side, intimacy is shared interest, and the enjoyment of one another in a variety of settings. In a word, it’s friendship.
From coffee, ping pong, and soccer to theological debates, Joe is a true friend.
Intimacy Is Fellowship
Friendship is a nice word, but fellowship is a strong one. The first five synonyms on Thesaurus.com are society, fraternity, brotherhood, company, and camaraderie. Just think of “The Fellowship Of The Ring” in which hobbits, elves, dwarves, and men band together to conquer the darkness of Sauron.
When we have intimate friends, we have brothers and fellow warriors to side with us on the frontlines of life. My close friend (and lover of LOTR), Rob has seen some ugly sides of me. Still, he has made it abundantly clear that he is my Samwise Gamgee, unwilling to give up the fight, even when I am.
Intimacy is fellowship, teaming up with one another in the journey.
Intimacy Is Freedom
At the time I was toting Emmanuel around, I lived with my Uncle Bruce. He and my Aunt Lori have a special place in my heart.
I expect him to say, “You’re never too old to kiss your uncle,” as he dives in for another smacker at Meadows Christmas. It’s something I appreciate and respect about my Uncle Bruce; his ability to show physical affection to the men in his family. It is a freedom many men don’t allow themselves to embrace, but one he retains with confidence.
Even a hug, an “I love you, man,” or a pat on the back can be taboo these days. But, intimacy among friends is free of judgment, side-eyes, or needless confusion. It is the freedom to share appreciation and show affection. I think of my buddy, Brent. We don’t shy away from being honest about the care we share for one another.
Perhaps you’re not ready to kiss your buddy, feed him, or take his hand at a Best Buy, but feel liberated from the cultural expectations that limit the opportunity to have meaningful and rich friendships. Male intimacy is an important aspect of a guy’s all-around health.
There are incredible benefits to being a part of a male intimate relationship, so put your gay-dar in the dumpster where it belongs, and if someday in Best Buy, your buddy tries holding your hand, just go with it. Meh…maybe not, but at least pursue a deep and authentic relationship with him. Journey with your buddies in freedom, fellowship, friendship, closeness, and familiarity, and they will become brothers.
You’re never too old to kiss your uncle, and you’re never too masculine to be intimate with your buddies.
Who are your buddies-turned-brothers? Share this post with them! Also, check out this goofy post: How To Hunt For Bigfoot And A Make Male Friend