Published: Good Men Project (May 7, 2015)
Matthew Rozsa explores an unusual aspect of the question: Why aren’t men supposed to cry?
A funny thing happened on the way to my thirties: I’ve started crying again.
This would normally be the part of the editorial in which I’d denounce our culture’s inability to differentiate between masculinity and mindless machismo, followed by a discussion of how the stigma against male crying works to neither sex’s benefit. For better or worse, however, I haven’t experienced that gendered form of cry-shaming since I was in middle school. Indeed, I suspect the condition I’m about to describe applies to women and men in roughly equal measure (although there may be differences in how it manifests itself).
I’m referring, specifically, to the notion that reasonable people don’t supposed to cry.
When you cry, the assumption goes, you’re allowing your nerves to override your judgment. The image of the staid scholar is simply incompatible with displays of overt emotionalism, and even the archetype of the tortured artist – which at times can encourage rather obnoxious displays of angst and brooding – usually draws the line at crying.
Until last year, it had never occurred to me that I’d spent my entire adolescence and most of my twenties without ever shedding a tear (save for obvious involuntary physical reactions). After all, I was – and still am – in the process of carving out careers for myself as an academic, writer, and politician. All of these fields place a premium on detached self-control, the subordination of emotion to reason. When you cry, the assumption goes, you’re allowing your nerves to override your judgment. The image of the staid scholar is simply incompatible with displays of overt emotionalism, and even the archetype of the tortured artist – which at times can encourage rather obnoxious displays of angst and brooding – usually draws the line at crying.
Of course, there are considerable advantages to this intellectual approach. It helps you better understand life’s hardships and heartaches than you would if hysteria (the other extreme from detachment) prevailed, helps you break down which problems you’re capable of addressing and determine effective ways of solving them, and allows you to provide strength and comfort for those around you who need it most. On the other hand, the approach also has one serious weakness: It depends, absolutely depends, on its user being able to reconcile his or her situation with logical thinking patterns and an existing knowledge base. The instruments of pure intellect can be immensely valuable, but when even they are unable to provide you with definite answers, the loss of control can feel unbearable.
My first encounter with this occurred last spring, when my mother had a heart attack. Because I was in the middle of preparing a campaign event when my father called with the news, it took me a moment to switch from the mindset of a professional to that of a son. “It’s not serious, though, right?” I kept asking, as if I could somehow spin this story to my liking in the same way I would an unfavorable news item. The unavoidable truth was that he didn’t know if she was going to make it (she has since had a full recovery). And while there wasn’t a single moment when I broke down in tears, I found that by the time I was in the hallway searching for my mother’s room, I had an unfamiliar dampness around my eyes and cheeks. I paused, dabbed them off, took a deep breath, and went on my way.
The instruments of pure intellect can be immensely valuable, but when even they are unable to provide you with definite answers, the loss of control can feel unbearable.
Ever since, I’ve found myself increasingly in touch with an emotional side that had laid dormant for a very long time. When a close friend of mine was hospitalized due to an apparently severe neurological condition, I was upset but managed to keep it together; after all, she had been diagnosed with a form of multiple sclerosis that both her doctors and my own research indicated was entirely manageable. After I heard that her illness might be more serious, however, the realization that I had no idea what would happen next, that no matter how hard I tried to think it through I just didn’t know, became too much to bear.
I even began to have the same reaction about events that were long past; thinking about how I hadn’t been home when my childhood dog passed away, or had allowed my personal shortcomings to ruin a past relationship that meant a lot to me, could similarly devastate me. Nor was this limited to incidents in my personal life: News stories that I used to view with cold, objective eyes would now knock the wind out of me. While this rarely led to actual crying, it could get pretty close, particularly when the stories involved issues I’d written about before, such as poverty, racial profiling, or school shootings.
Back to gender for a moment: Most men can vividly recall the last time they allowed themselves to cry in public, and my story is probably a fair representation of the norm. I was in 7th grade, my family had just moved me to a new school, a larger boy told some of the other kids that I’d been “talking smack” about his allegedly deceased parents (who I later learned were alive and well), and they ganged up on me during gym class to pelt me with dodgeballs. This experience, though scarring, was far from unusual. For most men, the specific instances of public shaming are soon carried into our private lives, so that even when we’re alone and thus free from third party judgment, it remains virtually impossible for us to perform the physical act of shedding tears.
This aspect of the phenomenon is specifically male, and I still struggle with it today. True, these days I’m able to cry, but I have yet to do anything beyond that; vocalizing, wringing my hands, weeping, sobbing, or any of the other histrionics that normally accompany the physiological act of lacrimation still elude me. It’s nice knowing that I can cry – that this natural act of human expression hasn’t been entirely suppressed by society’s unrealistic expectations of men – but I can’t honestly wrap up this story by saying that I’ve completely gotten a handle on it. After a minute or so at most, I’ll usually find my tears drying up even if my heart continues to break and my mind continues to be wracked with fear. That old intellectual side – the one that lays his concerns out on a slab and dissects them with clinical precision, that focuses on solving the problem instead of adequately conveying how he feels about it – still prevails.
But I’m turning thirty tomorrow, so if nothing else, I have another decade in which to try to get better.