Crying shame

Snakes, spiders and sharks we're okay with. But what about a small amount of salty liquid? Check out this short guide to doing the one thing every tough guy is terrified of.

My little sister had just hit me in the head with a golf club. It hurt, but I distinctly remember feeling pretty impressed with myself, because despite having a 7-iron accidentally smacked into my noggin, I’d managed to be really tough and not cry. Of course, this bravery only lasted about 3 seconds, until I saw all the blood. At this point I bawled. A profusely bleeding head wound was probably an acceptable reason for a 6-year-old to cry.
All the kids I grew up with learned pretty quickly that crying was an undesirable behaviour. Start crying and it’s very likely that someone would quickly suggest that you stop being such a cry-baby/wimp/wuss. In my house we tended to make ambulance siren noises if someone had hurt themselves and was starting to blubber. The intention was part sarcasm (to signal they were being an overly dramatic wuss) and partly to make them laugh instead of doing that horribly shameful crying thing.
Around my seventh birthday in 1984, I witnessed two most shocking events. The first came when the Prime Minister, Bob Hawke cried on TV. Having never seen a man cry, it seemed unbelievable that the Prime Minister was doing it. It sparked a massive national conversation. Some people thought his display of emotion unseemly. The more progressive thinkers deemed it fair enough that a father might shed a tear when talking about his daughter’s battle with heroin addiction. The general consensus seemed to be that because Bob could drink a yard glass of beer in 11 seconds, he had established his manly credentials and he could be forgiven for his slip-up.
Only a couple of months later, the unthinkable happened again. After being subject to intense scrutiny and a concerted campaign of bullying, the Australian cricket captain, Kim Hughes was brought to tears in a press conference, when announcing he was stepping down from the captaincy. To these tears the reaction was not at all sympathetic. ABC radio broadcaster Alan McGilvray called Hughes “a little boy who has not yet grown up.” Others said much worse. Kim Hughes quickly became a pariah and every cricket-worshipping kid loudly received the message that getting at all emotional was a sure-fire path to humiliation.
When I arrived at high school, I found it to be much like Lord of the Flies, apart from the fact we were stuck in a classroom studying Lord of the Flies, rather than roaming around on some cool island. Bullying and brawling were commonplace and the slightest sign of weakness was generally regarded as an open invitation to physical violence. Shutting down all emotions seemed like an entirely sensible measure of self-preservation.
Luckily, there were many handy role models I could count on to show me the path to becoming completely unfeeling and emotionally repressed.
“Hasta la vista, baby!” said Terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger before coldly dispatching yet another hapless enemy with his really, really big gun. As an entirely emotionless T-800 robot, the Terminator was obviously the ultimate male role model. I could be just like him, or at the very least like James Bond, or the fella from Die Hard.
Fortunately, Hollywood had devised a whole genre of movies which were safe for men. In these flicks, all emotional content had been carefully weeded out and replaced by car chases, explosions and hand-to-hand combat. Unless you really did get something caught in your eye, there was no real chance of embarrassing yourself by crying.
There was however one big problem. As much as I tried to mould myself into a T-800, it turned out I was entirely human. I had empathy, emotions and these annoying, fully functioning tear ducts. In fact, all sorts of things could move me to tears. I could tear up watching a non-action movie, seeing someone win a tennis tournament or when having a genuine conversation about what was going on in my life.
Knowing this, I tried very hard to avoid having genuine conversations about what was going on in my life. Rather than contend with the shame of having someone see me with big salty wet ones rolling down my cheeks, I dealt with stuff the normal man way – by not really dealing with it at all. This went on for a couple of decades.
And then I married a psychologist.
Strangely, my psychologist wife was not really impressed with my efforts to be a T-800. She preferred that I was human. She wanted to have genuine conversations and when these conversations resulted in big salty tears spilling from my eyes, she didn’t make sarcastic siren noises or tell me to stop being such a wuss.
It was weirdly liberating. These days I am a little braver about being my authentic self. I don’t desire to be the action hero representation of manliness and I don’t need to limit myself to Hollywood action flicks. In fact, one of my favourite activities is listening to a podcast called The Moth, which involves ordinary people telling their own personal stories. The stories tend to be beautifully honest, poignant, funny, tragic, inspiring and often deeply moving. Pretty much every time they move me to tears. While I’m still a little awkward about this, the experience seems a lot richer and less one-dimensional than the sad pantomime of watching Jason Stratham smack an endless succession of baddies in the head.
As much as we men try incredibly hard to be tough, the truth is most of us are scared. We are fearful of emotions, frightened of genuine conversations and terrified of letting anyone see us cry. These fears are far more debilitating than being afraid of spiders, snakes or clowns. They shut us off from loved ones, lead us to terrible avoidance strategies and cause us to waste decades of our lives trying to be T-800s.
It’s not just men who suffer from this fear. Women have long been maligned for having normal human emotions and have had to work even harder to fit in to strangely repressive workplace cultures dominated by T-800 wannabes. The unwritten rules of these cultures have long required everyone to keep things surface level, leave emotions at the door and to never make anyone else feel awkward by doing something as un-robot-like as crying. While successful in easing awkwardness for a few, these cultures have been immensely damaging for many.
All of us have a choice. We must work out whether we want to continue to act tough, or if we want to be truly brave. If we choose bravery, it might get a little awkward. We may have to interact with some uncomfortable emotions. We might have to have some real conversations. We might even spill a tear or two along the way. But there is much to be gained. When we allow ourselves to be human, we can life in a richer, fuller and more meaningful way.