In Brief—The author looks at his own history and whether his tears represent just one man or whether the display of emotion is imposed by culture or environment.
Tears are the silent language of grief. (Voltaire)—
”Oh, God! That’s the last news I ever wanted to hear!”
As I write this, it’s been four months since I learned that my old friend, Lionel, is dead. Those are the words I wrote when I received the news of his untimely death. My initial tears are dry now and warm memories of times past have replaced the pain.
Was I crying because of his pain? No. My tears were because he would no longer make me smile. We would no longer share our hopes and frustrations. We would no longer exchange messages and feelings. It was about me. Something has changed beyond the passage of time. There’s a wall blocking any tears. Is that me or is it the culture that shaped me?
In every loss there is an unexpected gift. The gift wrapped in this personal loss is the thoughts and questions that have surged through my head: When have I cried before? Are the feelings the same or different? Will they last or mellow with time? Is this just me or might it be part of America’s culture, of the world culture?
Tears of the Past—
We have all cried as children, but what about in adulthood? Memories whisper to me of a few occasions.
I have no recollections of love gone sour, but a clear memory of when John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas. ”Kennedy’s been shot.” Stunned, I drove to my office. Television sets blared the appalling news. Tears burst from my eyes then and later during the funeral cortege. Now, it’s tearless history. To many it is just words in a school book as distant as Abraham Lincoln.
Two airliners hit the New York Trade Towers. Fiery death, bodies plummeting to the plaza below. Thousands of people died. I wept as the tragedy unfolded. Today, it’s history that has resulted in perpetual war and thousands more deaths, grist for politicians. But no tears. Anger at the senseless waste, but no tears.
The old family dog was euthanized. No more walks in the forest. No more snowball chasing. Tears flowed. A dog. A loved family member. All that’s left today are fond memories and twinges of remorse at my occasional loss of patience, but no tears.
Åsne Seirestad’s searing book, ”One of Us” recounted Anders Breivik’s cold slaughter of innocents, of vacationing teenagers. I remained dry-eyed until the coroner zipped a youth into a body bag. Suddenly, sobs wracked my body and tears coursed down my cheeks.
I shed tears of frustration at my disability and the unfulfilled desire to die after nearly five years of this. Only the desire for eternal sleep. Lionel’s sleep. Nothingness. Tears, yes. But will time dull the sharp edges of the pain?
Why do we cry and when? Family or societal messages? Is it recognition of our own mortality? Will we miss the person or creature who will no longer warm our lives? The depravity of our fellow humans? Why not drowned refugees? Why not war victims? Why? The answers are as different as the humans inhabiting Earth.
My future wife cried quietly as the singer poured her heart into ”Send in the clowns.” Beside her sat the man she loved who was lost in the past. I suddenly realized what those tears meant, but my eyes were dry. A woman’s tears told me what I was missing.
Her tears met my heated wish for death. Her tears, not mine. The woman whose warm body next to mine would never be again. Her tears, not mine.
As I was growing up, I learned that men don’t cry, that I was expected to be strong, that only females cry. Despite this, leaders throughout history in all corners of the globe have shed tears, particularly when defeat has humbled them. Still, it is not considered manly to cry.
This may be changing. Researchers have shown that health and self-esteem improve with the freedom to shed tears when the occasion merits it. The old ways still exist and may in some respects be useful, but fortunately the stiff upper lip is giving way to a less judgmental mind-set and greater acceptance of shedding tears when the occasion warrants it. But it hangs on. I am proof of that.
I miss Lionel and mourn the loss. What will I do now that he isn’t there to make me laugh, to inspire me, to make me think? He has shown me the meaning of heartache.
I’m just one person, doubtless softer than many, but the old ways still live. They still cripple men, still cripple society…stiill live inside me. How do we end this harmful tradition? Will it ever end?