Being a mate

MARTIN and Bella were fighting more and more. Tonight, Martin was drunk and Bella refused to let him drive her home from the office party. Bella sat inside crying while Martin fumed out in the car. I work with Bella and Martin is a friend. I know their marriage has its troubles but usually I feel it's not my place to interfere. Now I go from one to the other trying to find out what they want and negotiating a compromise. I'm not sure what to do and not sure if I'm the one who should be doing it though I am sure something should be done.

What is it that makes a mate? Why am I friends with some people and not others? Why do some friendships crack and fall apart at the least trial while others chug along for years through thick and thin? Perhaps most importantly, how can I be a better mate?

Australia is steeped in the lore of mateship, the Anzac tradition, dying stockmen, football teams and fishing partners. The icons and mythology of mates surrounded me in my childhood. At school I had a small bunch of friends and I guarded my friendships jealously. Through my youth there was nothing more fun than just hanging around with my mates. We rarely did anything in particular, we just wandered around shopping malls or spent the afternoon at someone's house listening to music and talking. I don't know what made us friends but within a year of leaving school I was no longer friends with any of them. Apart from one traumatic separation we simply stopped seeing each other. Some of them had moved interstate but we didn't write for long.

At the distance of fifteen years I'm sure this means these friendships were very trivial even though they were all I had. I know I was never very open with my friends, I never shared the many fears and insecurities of my adolescence. I never dared to, and that left me to face the world alone. I thought for many years that human frailty was a burden I alone carried. Everything I know about friendship, about being a mate, I have learned in the last dozen years. So, what do I know?

A friend in deed

I ONCE had a friend who put out her back lifting a pot plant. She spent a fortnight in hospital, flat on her back, recovering. I lived and worked on the other side of town and was studying part-time as well but I made the time to visit her every day, at lunch or after work and on weekends. I brought her flowers, books and other amusements. I listened to her complaints of pain, hospital food and annoying visitors. I was simply there, not making demands that she satisfy any need of mine for praise, conversation or entertainment. Perhaps I was just being another annoying - and persistent - visitor. I can't be sure, and sometimes you can't even believe friends when you ask them, but it felt at the time that I was welcome. So how did I know to do this? I have no idea, it just seemed appropriate. She was a friend in need and I was being a friend in deed.

Men are much criticised for having friendships based simply on doing things together and not knowing each other. Whether it's men fishing or on a university debating team or at the footy or in a Rotary club apparently we will talk at length about anything under the sun except our own inner selves. Because this idea fits my own history of trivial friendships and my own fear of self disclosure so well, I have long thought it to be true. It's not the whole story though. Your average bloke may be more likely to wax philosophical or play pinball with other men rather than discuss his relationships or his deep-seated fear of being alone in his old age but this doesn't mean we are incapable of these things or that we have no desire to share our feelings.

Get the inside out

TALKING about myself - the inside, private, scary bits - is how I make a friendship grow. Other men do this too. Most of us are quite selective about who we share ourselves with and we may only do so occasionally but the doing it is important. Sharing myself with another person generates trust and knowledge. Trusting someone is a risk and like all risks can bring rewards. In this case our friendship is deepened and whatever my worries, they are eased by being shared. I grew up in a very private and self-restrained family and even in my 30s still feel a novice at self-revelation. I have a deep fear of being ridiculed, of being the only one to feel insecure. Everything I know tells me I'm not the only one and that people will hold my fears gently.

There's a lot to be said for this male ability to just pass the time doing things with their mates. I see it now as providing an excuse or context for being together. If Michael and I go for a ride up Black Mountain the cycling is fun and gives us the time at the top when we are tired, sweaty and together. He tells me about his latest relationship troubles and I tell him about feeling lonely. It's not the whole reason we are there but it's why I like cycling with Michael. Because we're mates.

So, how to do it better? A friend of mine had a baby several years ago which died a few days after birth. I had left town on a holiday just before the birth and wasn't back for some weeks. I felt like I'd missed everything when I returned. I wasn't very close to her and wasn't sure what would be the right thing to do. Because I'd been away I basically ignored the whole thing, assuming it wasn't my place and those closer to her would be better to share in her grief. I don't think I was much of a friend to her. A friend assumes it is their place to be there, to talk about any issue, to raise any problem, voice any doubt, offer any help, whatever the situation and whoever else may be involved. But not boots and all. A friend uses tact and care, only goes so far and withdraws when asked. The skill of friendship is in being able to step outside your own ego and learn sensitivity.

At the office party that night I could have left the messy, emotionally draining and possibly dangerous task of negotiating with Martin and comforting Bella to someone else. Bella's mother was there and Martin has other friends. In running between Bella and Martin that night I might have been interfering in their marriage. I might have been clumsy. I prefer to think I was being a friend to them both.

Reprinted with permission from the magazine XY: men, sex, politics. PO Box 26, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA © Copyright 1995