25 June 2012
MEN AND TEARS
It's no secret that in our culture, most males are discouraged from crying starting in early childhood. For the first year or two of our lives (if that), we're allowed to express our sorrow, confusion, pain, or rage through tears. But like all gender stereotyping, the prohibition against crying starts very early. "Big boys don't cry", "Are you crying? What are you, a girl?", and similar messages take direct aim at our identity. The result is a wrenching cognitive disconnect. I'm a boy, so I can't cry. I have to keep the feelings stuffed inside.
Walling ourselves off from our more vulnerable feelings is something that females aren't expected to do (at least, not to such a severe degree). It's hardly a surprise that women don't get it when men display a lack of insight into their own feelings. We men are trying hard to understand it, believe me. But we were deprived of support and the right tools when we were too young to protest. Over the course of years, stuffing our feelings has made us a little neurotic (and who wouldn't be?).
If we're lucky, in adolescence or adulthood we'll encounter a person or situation which challenges those old, crippling assumptions about what it means to be a man. That person or situation will tell us tenderly that it's okay to cry, creating the safety to do so. This doesn't mean that we men can suddenly cry at will ~ far from it. But thankfully, it means that we know that safe places and safe people exist where our tears are welcomed.
Growing up, I somehow didn't internalize the "don't cry" mantra quite as much as many other boys did. As a teenager I grieved when my parakeet died. As a young man I cried when I found a dead fox by the road. As a single father, kept from my son by his insecure, jealous mother, I wailed in the darkness of my bedroom. Tears flow whenever I hear the aria E Lucevan le Stella from Puccini's opera Tosca ~ the love story ends in tragedy, but even not knowing that, the music alone squeezes one's heart with the purity and depth of grief. Hearing the funereal salute "Taps" has a similar effect. I weep during certain evocative scenes in movies. And I cry on Veterans Day, Memorial Day, and the 4th of July, remembering the violent loss of life I witnessed in Vietnam. Those faces, the explosions, the blood, are permanently seared into memory. For one such memory, see my post from July of last year.
Sadly, it remains true that I cry only when I feel safety, either when I'm alone, or when I'm with someone I deeply love and trust. To that extent I'm still crippled, still deprived of my full humanity. As are all men who went through the same training. It is so difficult for us to access our tears that when we do, people are often stunned.
I was reminded of all this when I read a remembrance by Fred Branfman, called When Chomsky Wept. Franfman met Noah Chomsky in 1970. The U.S. was conducting a secret bombing campaign in Laos and Cambodia, killing or leaving homeless tens of thousands of civilians. During a visit to a Laotian refugee camp, Chomsky was overwhelmed by the inhumanity of the war, and broke down into tears. Franfman recalls, "I was struck not only that most of the others I had taken out to the camps had been so defended against what was, after all, this most natural and human response (my italics). It was that Noam himself had seemed so intellectual to me, to so live in a world of ideas, words, and concepts, had so rarely expressed any feelings about anything. I realized at that moment that I was seeing into his soul. And the visual image of him weeping in that camp has stayed with me ever since. When I think of Noam this is what I see.
"One of the reasons his reaction so struck me was that he did not know those Laotians. It was relatively easy for me, having lived among them and loved people like Paw Thou so much, to commit to trying to stop the bombing. But I have stood in awe not only of Noam, but of the many thousands of Americans who spent so many years of their lives trying to stop the killing of Indochinese they did not know in a war they never saw.
"As we drove back from the camp that day, he remained quiet, still shaken by what he had learned. He had written extensively of U.S. war-making in Indochina before this. But this was the first time he had met its victims fact-to-face. And in the silence, an unspoken bond that we have never discussed was forged between us."
Thus with me. Thus with most men of my generation or older, taught to keep our tears rigidly in check. It takes a moment of profound revelation to put us back in touch with our deepest fears, losses, sorrows. If we're lucky (as I have been), we continue to encounter people or events which allow us to reclaim the tears of childhood. Many men never do. Please try to understand, we want to. Desperately.