The world is a big, often harsh school from which you never graduate. Not in a single lifetime anyway. Early lessons are mostly on how things rarely go just the way you want them to. Accepting that truth is what we refer to as “growing up.” You’re not as attractive to certain girls as you wish you were. Teachers don’t see you in the positive light that your grandmother does. There’s sickness to contend with. God-awful stuff happens out of the blue. Your dog gets hit by a car. A friend drowns.
In our formative years, these “growing up” lessons are often way over our heads. When I was eleven, my mother got deathly ill. It started out as a simple in-and-out hospital procedure and ended up with her life hanging in the balance. Complications developed. That was the way it was explained to me. There were complications.
She’d be sometimes home, then back in the hospital, home again, maybe this time on stronger pain pills, which seemed at first to help, but which turned into even deeper “complications,” spawned hallucinations, transformed her into someone else, sometimes suicidal. In a very short time, our seemingly secure home had been turned upside down and inside-out, and all attempts to make it right again were soon frustrated. It was a bright, happy day to see Mom come home from the hospital, which Dad and my sisters and I always took as a sign that she was on the mend; but the moaning through the night told the deeper unfolding story.
Things never got better for very long before it was bad again. Then better,… but always less better. Then worse,… but always more worse. As the months wore on, sometimes I would go off by myself, usually to the barn, to cry.
As a boy, it wasn’t easy to cry. There was that “boys-don’t-cry-wall” holding back my tears, locking in my fears and pain, but sometimes the need to let them out was the greater power. So I cried, in private, frequently, and I slowly discovered something along the way: once that barrier was broken through, and the emotions were released, I felt better. I could function again, even though my mother’s situation continued to worsen.
This went on for a full year before, indeed, she began to genuinely recover. In the meantime, at an early age I was learning, from the school of raw experience, that crying does not reveal weakness at all, as I had been trained into believing. That was a yet another kind of “complication” to sort out. Exactly the opposite of what I’d been taught, a fully ex-pressed cry opened up avenues to an inner reservoir of surprising strength to carry on.
Part of the difficulty in knowing ourselves, which is so crucial in mastering the complicated world that we’ve been born into, is how poorly we are taught. The stigma of shame and/or inadequacy attached to male crying is a good example of that. I recall how Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president in 1972, was permanently sidelined when he broke into tears while confuting a report that his wife was a drunkard and a racist. In a few short seconds, Muskie wasn’t a contender anymore. A man who cried in public wasn’t the calm and reasoned person you would want as a leader.
But has this always been the way people saw tears? Reach back into antiquity, Odysseus and his men often cried on their ten-year journey home after the Trojan War. Odysseus himself, a hero, a leader of the highest order, cried prodigiously when a comrade died, or when he became homesick, disheartened of ever making it back to his beloved Ithaca, to his wife, Penelope; his son, Telemachus; his Father, Laertes. None of his fellow voyagers seemed to think the less of him for it, any more than Jesus’s disciples thought the less of Him when He wept.
Quite obviously, over the centuries, there evolved a societal expectation that men, to be men, must suppress their tears until the body became armored against them. (Until suppression hardened into repression.) Why? I recently wrote a poem that asks that question.
OUT OF OUR REACH
I’m a new face in the therapy group,
and when my turn in the circle comes
to say what I’m feeling right now,
my tears surprise even me. I shout
that I’m leaving as I head to the door.
Back home with my mortified wife,
soon to be ex, I don’t try to defend
my behavior. I take refuge instead
in the toolshed, where I find solace
in crowbars, scythes, wrenches, vises,
everything hanging on its proper hook.
Yes. I’m my father all over again.
Even the day my friend Bennie drowned,
I hammered and sawed my way through it
while Mom lay sobbing in the house.
Dry-eyed, Dad confessed to me that he felt
like someone had punched him in the gut.
He was referring to Bennie’s death, true,
but also to Mom weeping like that,
out of his reach, and mine too.
As we walked to the barn that night
to milk the cows and slaughter
a chicken for the funeral dinner,
I asked Dad why men don’t cry.
You just learn to take it, that’s all,
he said, handing me the hatchet.
Somewhere between antiquity and now, crying came to be seen as losing control, incompatible with male functioning, and thus to be programmed out of a boy’s behavior long before he could think for himself. To this day, all is thought to be well when on the playground a crying boy is sneered at more than felt sorry for. Or when a downright cry-baby is rejected by his peers, and knows he will soon become an outlier if he doesn’t change his ways – i.e., doesn’t master the art, as the saying goes, of sucking it up.
“Sucking it up!” Put in such stark terms, repression sounds nothing less than brutal. And it is. To have control over one’s feelings is one thing. That would take some very effective schooling. But to kill one’s feelings is another thing. And then to evolve a whole society, millions upon millions of men, who have deadened feelings – well, that’s nothing short of the catastrophe that it is.
For a brief period in the mid-20th century, there was a concerted effort to re-evaluate masculinity, to re-sensitize a man to his emotions. Alfred Adler, one of the pioneers of modern psychology, wrote of a man’s inability to cry as a serious emotional disturbance. And he went further to suggest that a for man to regain his in-born emotional capacity, which his wholeness requires, he has to overcome not only his inability to cry but his inability to cry in front of people. At least some select people. At the very least, one other person. For Adler, that was the litmus test of a man’s emotional openness: when the powerful need to cry arose, he was not ashamed of it. He could he cry in the presence of another person.
After Adler, further innovative therapies worked in the direction of re-opening shut down feelings, and for a while in the 70’s one felt there was a revolution in the making here. I, myself, was in Primal Therapy for several years, and vouch for it to this day. I sought out this therapy in the first place because in my mid-thirties I realized it had been fifteen years since I had last wept. I counted them up. In fifteen years, had not there been one thing worth weeping about? Was that possible? Even when my mother died (when I was thirty-three), I did not weep. As well I was becoming a little bit sickly, I noticed. Carrying a low grade depression.
Go figure. First suppression, then repression, then depression. That, I believe, is the typical progression.
Primal Therapy saw it precisely that way. It had a strong run for a decade or so, but finally petered out because, in my opinion, it is so hard to reopen what has been shut down for a long time. It takes a lot of persistence. Its founder, Arthur Janov, pointed out that we didn’t give up our expressively feeling lives without great reluctance; and thus we would never reclaim them without a great commitment.
That commitment would have required, I suspect, somewhere along life’s path, having experienced the value of more openly suffering, of not burying suffering, which, let’s face it, is an inescapable part of being human. And in a workaday, “let’s-get-on-with-it” world, who’s got the time and energy. Or patience. Primal Therapy worked for me, I think, because I was still carrying that memory of the restorative healing powers of ex-pressed feelings, from back when I was a child.