Picture the scene. A group of eight men, ranging in ages 20-something to 80-ish, sitting at a round table, part of a church men’s fellowship program. It was kickoff night for our second year, and there were several more tables each with eight men strewn throughout the large room. That night, following our meal, welcome, and overview of the curriculum decided for the year, began with one singular question for each table to tackle, an icebreaker of sorts, aimed at evoking memories, draw out feelings, and initiate sharing. “Have you ever seen your dad cry?” Our facilitator repeated the question. To a man, deep contemplation written all over each and every face, as if lost within a memory. Or, lost from a lack of memory of a father’s cry.
The first response, a solemn, “no.” Another “no.” Followed by another “no,” almost a whisper. Each of the first three men older than my forty five years on the planet. I was the first in the affirmative, albeit just one singular time. I elaborated. The unthinkable occurred when I was around the age of eight, at my father’s favorite uncle’s funeral, as the bugler played “TAPS.” As I recall I had stared in bewilderment, then looked away, somehow sensing that my dad’s crying wasn’t something I was supposed to see. As we rounded out the remaining responses, three more “no’s” and two additional “yesses,” also one time only cries of their fathers. We sat quietly. Each of us spent, numb, in temporary states of paralysis.
Then, the floodgates opened. That simple icebreaker question melted away Fort Knox-like strongholds of repressed feelings, raw emotion. Story after story ensued, men recalling taboos of boys crying, the lack of emotional intimacy with their fathers, long-ago longings to share deep secrets with a peer, hiding behind the mask of masculinity, doing anything to fit in with the boys. Jaw dropping honest sharing drew empathetic nods, a few affirming chuckles, even several pairs of moistened eyes. Our generations may have differed. As did our circumstances. Our settings. But the themes were all too familiar for each one of us. That evening, our brotherhood bonds formed in our collective stories of commonality. We were from “I’ll give you something to cry about” times. As young boys, we were told to “buck up.” “Toughen up.” “Take it like a man.” “Be a man.”
When we came to my spot in the circle, I shared recollections of my early attempts at keeping tears at bay, or the shards of shame I felt if a classmate or sibling saw me cry. By the third grade, I vowed to myself, willed myself to no longer cry or even whimper under the far-too-frequent assaults of my father’s heavy belt. I went onto share how I played hard as a boy, earning nicknames like “Red.” It seemed nary a day that I did not have some scrape or cut that was not covered in Mercurochrome. Those raised in the 60s and 70s can identify with that. Some called me “Knees.” There was nary a time that I didn’t have grass stains or holes in the knees of my jeans (even knee patches upon patches … mom tried her best to salvage the couple pairs of jeans, stretch them till I eventually would outgrow … we were not the throwaway society back then) or a concoction of dirt, gravel, mud, and blood on my bare knees.
One day at recess in fifth grade I made a diving catch in a game of kickball on the macadam. As my mates ran to me for congratulations on saving the victory, disregarding my pain and concrete induced scrapes all of my arms and knees, my only instinct was to wipe away any signs of tears before I could let anyone see my face. That’s how ingrained it was in we boys to “never let ‘em see you cry.” But we did cry. Alone in our rooms. That was the lone acceptable place to hunker down and get it out. In private.
Society told little boys to buck up. Society expects men not to cry. It’s no wonder we squelched our tears, buried our cries of pain, of sadness, deep within ourselves. We were conditioned to keep emotions inside. The one exception, the emotion we tended not to hide … anger. My father punished with rage. We learned it was okay to vent, to act out in fits of anger. Our fathers and other adult males modeled these volcanic eruptions. But as boys on the wrong end of such outbursts, we had to simply “take it.” No crying. Be stoic. Don’t incite anything further.
Robert Henry teaches at the University of Calgary and works with gangs. To him, masculinity is a performance, an outdated model of what used to appear as masculine strength. “Stereotypical masculinity is about being afraid of not being in control,” Henry says. Crying is losing control, and being able to move past guilt, shame and anger toward acceptance, repentance and responsibility is a priority for improving men’s inner lives.
“Crying is power. It’s powerful. It shows ‘I don’t give a fuck what you think about me—I’m not going to hide how I feel,’” says Claudio Aprile in the back room of Copetin, a new restaurant he opened in Toronto. Aprile, 48, is a judge on MasterChef Canada and the father of two children. And while he was raised by women and didn’t know his dad, he believes public displays of male emotion are just one factor of contemporary masculine times. At chef school, Aprile was called a ‘pussy’ when he wanted to take a break after a pot of boiling water scalded his hand. Later, after soaking up Europe, he returned to Toronto and ordered champagne around his Canadian friends. They called him a ‘fag’. It was a different time. “The old school way was very rigid for men … you needed to endure pain, be quiet and be macho. There was all of this conformity shit.
At our table, ‘George’ shared his experiences growing up in 1950s Brooklyn, NY, where the boys on the block idolized the local tough guy, the one who would win any brawl and acted the part. The bully boasting of conquest, muscles bulging, the envy of all as he held court. The sharing continued. “I was brought up by a father who said ‘you will not show any emotion … you’re a man’.” Another commented, “When I was growing up, I wasn’t really allowed to cry either, but it wasn’t like I was directly told that … it was just like it was implied.” “Yeah, it was unsaid,” explained another. “But if you showed any sign of weakness it was like ‘what are you crying for, are you a girl’?” Our 80-something brother chimed, “I was always told to ‘be a brave little soldier’. Not crying was a good way to show how tough you are.”
Each comment drew nods of agreement. Brothers indeed. Men doing life together. We were making inroads into something special. Men sharing. Men sharing feelings. Men feeling. Some moistened eyes. Even a couple of instances of choked-up sharing. After learned behavior, stated or implied commands, and societal imposition of too-long emotional repression, how refreshing indeed. On that particular evening and subsequent Wednesday night meetings, the brick wall of masculine stereotypes began to crack and continues to crumble.
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