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Aug 21

Men Crying—Personal or Cultural?

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.

Gender InequalityWas 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?

Cultural? Environmental?—

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?

10 comments

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  1. Brenda

    Tears are a fact of life-of the living. Don’t forget the many tears of joy we also shed. One who can’t shed these tears has no feelings. Tears are an outlet of sorts.

    1. Don Bay

      Unfortunately, this “fact-of-life” is crippling men more than women in our society. You are right that tears can be a healthy outlet, but male suppression of tears is still dominant in our society.

      It’s not that the person who can’t shed tears has no feelings. That person normally has feelings, but in suppressing those feelings the person’s health is being adversely affected. That’s the tragedy of suppressing one’s release of tears. Fingers crossed that the day will come when everybody feels free to display tears that have too long been bottled up.

  2. Jim Newton

    This is a biggie for me. I cry often, when there is a personal loss like putting my dog down just two months ago, when there is a past loss like the loss of a dear friend, when I encounter distant wrongs and unfairness. My dad couldn’t talk many times because he would tear up. Yet he would chastise me as a child if I cried in pain because “boys don’t cry – be a man” said to an eight year old. The former is personal, the latter cultural, and the incongruity can be difficult for boys/men in our society.

    I’m not ashamed of my tears, whether in public or private. They are me, they are part of who I am and uncontrollable because of that. When I am training a group and the tears come in front of them it doesn’t matter if there are South African men in the group. I don’t care what they think of me, and in fact I hope it will free something in them.

    And then there is the toxic cult of masculinity which says to boys, “don’t cry, be a man.” Crying is natural on a personal level and to stifle it because of some cultish blather is both unhealthy personally and dreadfully damaging on a social level.

    For me the rule should be, go ahead and cry, man or boy, be a human being.

    1. Don Bay

      Your story illustrates the conflict between the personal and the expectations of society. Without knowing, I suspect that this dichotomy is a Western phenomenon. Without knowing, I suspect that non-Western males are less inhibited than we. The good news is that this stiff-upper-lip stuff is giving way. The bad news is that it’s too slow.

      Brenda raises an interesting point: tears of joy. Without knowing, I suspect this is still largely the province of females. I hope I’m wrong.

      As the Olympic Games wind down, I am reminded that there are other instances of tears: tears of relief, tears of frustration. No doubt I’m missing some. Readers are encouraged to help me.

  3. Dave Meyers

    For me, it seems to be an age thing. The older I get, the more easily I can cry. I’d like to think that it’s a result of my acquired wisdom. My ability to let go of embedded notions about what a man is.
    Trying to wipe a tear away as stealthily as I can while watching a movie is more and more a common thing for me. Yes, I know, they’re just actors, this is not real, but a well acted scene can transcend all that….and tug at me.
    I shed a tear from time to time when I think of my younger brother who would now be 58 had he not died of a rare cancer at age 25. I tear up when I realize how long he’s been gone, what he has missed, and what we might share in common after all this time. The thought of my parents who died very young cause me to tear up when their images cross my mind as well…..cheated out of watching their children grow, and marry, and have children of their own.
    There is a lot to cry about over the coarse of a life time. Frustrations, disappointments, tragedies, and, just as sadly, the state of the world in this day and age. Crying may be a better release than any other emotion. It can cleanse the sole just enough for one to carry on…. at least for a while. There is no shame in it.

    1. Don Bay

      Age seems to release some of the inhibitions we have. The older we get, the more we feel free to cry, but I notice that you stealthily wipe away that tear. That suggests the cultural inhibition is still alive in you even though it is fading with the years. I hope it keeps fading…for all of us. As with Jim, I appreciate your sharing your story with us. As you say, there’s no shame in it.

  4. Linda

    I don’t believe it is just American culture where men are raised to hide their feelings or to not openly display tears. The Japanese are very stoic; men and women do not display emotions freely. I have rarely seen my mother, who was born in Hawaii and raised in Okinawa, cry. When my father died, she collapsed in my arms at the hospital and cried out tearfully but for the most part she silently, clinged to me with no tears. I have no memories of seeing my father actually crying, but I do have memories of his eyes red, tearing up in sadness.

    The Japanese have a word “gaman” which means patience, tolerance……to restrain from displays of emotions. My mother would often tell us fidgety kids to “gaman.” It is more than restraining, it is restraining with dignity.

    However, Okinawans in contrast to the mainland Japanese are much more apt to display all kinds of emotions as I have heard from family visiting Okinawa. Maybe this is a new thing? I don’t know but I do know that when my mother last visited in the early 2000’s, some of her relatives cried when they said goodbye. A few years ago, a relative from Okinawa called to say hello to my mother and when I got on the phone, she was crying. I asked her what was wrong and she said she was crying because she was so happy to hear my mother’s voice.

    In raising my sons, I have told them that it was okay to cry. As children, one rarely cried holding back his tears and the other cried more easily; but I have never gotten the sense – – even as grown men — that they are embarrassed by tears or feel tears are signs of weakness when the emotion hits them. Their father cries at movies but in life’s situations where he is overwhelmed with emotion, he tends to walk away to be alone with his tears, returning with a tissue, wiping away tears.

    Me? I cry even when I listen to music….

    1. Don Bay

      I usually write for Americans, so I have no knowledge of Japan or other Asian nations. I suspect that the reluctance of males to cry may be global, but it seems to vary in other parts of the world…Japan excepted.

      In America, the stiff-upper-lip still predominates, but it is slowly fading. I hope this fading continues if for no other reason than improved health, both physical and psychological. That said, your mother appears to have been influenced by the American culture, but I can’t speak to her situation.

      You are one of the smart ones by letting your boys know it is okay to cry if they are emotionally moved. Still, societal pressure will influence them. Fingers crossed that your words are more powerful.

      You are a female, so it’s okay for you to cry no matter the cause. Your boys, however, are the beneficiaries of your wisdom. Let’s hope they are the future.

      1. Linda

        Just one more note, we have seen our President cry when speaking of the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting. Things are changing….

        1. Don Bay

          Obama certainly had reason to cry. Maybe things are changing.

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