“Houston, We’ve Had a Problem.”


Jared Odle

The problem of male loneliness

The original crew of Apollo 13 Jim Lovell, Ken Mattingly, and Fred Haise. Jack Swigert replaced Ken Mattingly 3 days before the mission due to his exposure to the German measles (which he did not contract). Photo from NASA’s archives.

I know, I know…this isn’t what Tom Hanks said in “Apollo 13” to rank #50 in the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Movie Quotes…the iconic quote, from the iconic actor…

Houston, we have a problem.”

The screenwriters made a conscious decision to change the actual words of the astronauts on Apollo 13 from past tense to present tense to make the moment more suspenseful.

According to NASA’s Apollo Flight Journal, Apollo 13 astronauts John (Jack) Swigert, Jim Lovell, and Fred Haise awoke on the third day of their mission to the moon. The mission progressed like the other Apollo mission with a few bugs. None of these problems foreshadowed the massive problems about to break out in the command module.

Running through a series of protocols and checklists, John (Jack) Swigert, pilot of the command module, first said, “Ok Houston…we’ve had a problem here.”

The CapCom is a fellow Apollo astronaut and usually the only person to speak with a launched crew. Jim Lousama, Apollo 13 CapCom, responds, “This is Houston. Say again, please.”

Commander Jim Lovell responds. “Ah, Houston, we’ve had a problem. We’ve had a Main B Bus Undervolt.

So begins a harrowing adventure which you should read or watch the movie Apollo 13 headlined by Tom Hanks.

The astronauts and mission control perform an amazing rescue for three men who would have veered into the nothingness of space.

Guys, we’ve had—and have—a problem in the form of loneliness.

Many of us are in danger of being lost into a nothing life…a vacuum of nothingness…without connection to other people. And it’s a problem we’ve had for many, many generations which is getting worse for men around the world.

Henry David Thoreau said more than 170 years ago in his classic book, Walden, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

When I shared the depths of the problem with my friend Vincent, like I’m going to share with you in just a moment, he quickly quipped:

Loneliness for guys is like porn. We all know it is a problem, but no one talks about it.”

The fact that you have scanned or read this far means you are aware of the problem at some level.

  • Maybe it’s a guy you know or a friend that always seems distant and unreachable.
  • Maybe it’s an older relative that’s not made connections and you see how alone they are.
  • You might know someone with a traumatic experience and/or problem with addiction and it’s driven wedges between them and the world.
  • The pandemic has shown all of us that we need healthy connections—more than Zoom can provide.

Maybe you are the lonely one.

Out of Control Loneliness

Why do we need to get a handle on this problem? Loneliness is killing us—literally…physically…killing us.

Let me share a few highlights low-lights from an article published by the Centers for Disease Control.

  • Over 33% of men over the age of 45 report often feeling lonely. (Remember, men statistically always underreport problems of any type.)
  • Loneliness is just as big of a risk for premature death as obesity, smoking, and physical inactivity.
  • Heart patients reporting a problem with loneliness were
    • 4 times more likely to die,
    • 68% more likely to be hospitalized, and
    • had 57% more emergency room visits than the same aged men with the same conditions.

Loneliness is a silent killer lurking in our silence.

The same article outlines mental health problems that loneliness can cause—or at least magnify.

  • Loneliness was associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide
  • Social isolation was associated with about a 50% percent increased risk of dementia.

And it isn’t just an “old guy” thing. This study from YouGov in the UK shows the trend of males reported loneliness actually decreasing with age.

The CDC also notes that minorities and especially those in the LGBTQA+ community face more isolation and loneliness than a majority of a country or city’s population.

Houston, we’ve had a problem…

…and it is past time that we begin to deal with men caught in lives of “quiet desperation.”

Heck, even though lockdowns and loneliness became something that we talked about during the COVID-19 pandemic. But why does it take a pandemic to start a discussion about such a big problem facing men?

Do we even know every person who is at risk?

All Systems Are Fine—Until it Spins Out of Control

The Apollo 13 mission was so boringly normal the major networks of NBC, CBS, and ABC did not air the three astronaut’s film session. Until this point, every Apollo mission was major news—people cared what happened during the Space Race.

The mission looked fine to everyone—astronauts, mission control, the astronaut’s families, the public—until it went out of control.

Many men look like they are doing fine, all systems are “go”, the mission is under control (boring even)–until all hell breaks loose.

We’ve seen it in other men and probably even in ourselves. How often have we pushed down our feelings of being lonely until we cannot ignore it?

How good are we, especially men who have much more limited emotional vocabulary, at (willfully) ignoring our problems?

I’ve been talking with my male friends about loneliness. More than one friend, after I listed some of the loneliness problems and the way guys often treat each other reacted by saying:

I guess I’m lonely and I didn’t even know it.”

My friends are not the only ones unaware of their own loneliness.

I must admit, that I do several things to push away the feelings, thoughts, and emptiness that comes from loneliness. I do several things, maybe you do too…

  • I work more—maybe not productively, but I put in more hours.
  • I try to entertain myself with video games and reading (both fiction and nonfiction work for me).
  • I take up “learning” a new skill. Really, I’m just gathering information from boredom. Seriously, how many Medium articles on making money with writing, sports scores, news articles, Facebook posts, and other filler media have you consumed…today? Confession: I’ve bought entire courses and a library of courses just to have information around me for busywork.
  • I talk with friends, but not about the stuff that is really going on in my life. The things gnawing on me so bad it causes me to lose focus on other parts of my life—yes, I’m stuffing it and not sharing.

Work, hobbies, acquaintances…they are all distractions, but not solutions to my creeping loneliness.

Confirm Your Problem

Before the astronauts of Apollo 13 jumped into full “fix-it” mode, they sought out confirmation from the Control Center in Houston, Texas about their very serious problem.

Guys, start today with confirming that loneliness is a problem. This article is a confirmation of these facts:

  • Men have struggled with many forms of loneliness for years—even Thoreau knew it 170 years ago.
  • Loneliness is a very serious health risk.
  • Mental health risks increase with our isolation and loneliness.
  • Age doesn’t spare us—men of all ages, and boys too, experience dangerous amounts of loneliness.
  • We often don’t see a problem until it erupts in front of us.
  • Most of us try a lot of things to hide our loneliness from ourselves and other people.

Today, admit to someone that you are lonely. You can email me jared@jaredodle.com and I will respond.

Just put “Hey, I am lonely, too” in the subject line.

You are not alone in your loneliness.