“Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.” Brene Brown
“Paul D would keep the rest where it belonged: in that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be. Its lid rusted shut.” Toni Morrison
“You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” Psalm 56:8
When I was 10 years old, I won the pine wood derby car race at my church’s version of Boy Scouts. And I never won things as a kid. Competition always pinned me to the mats. So this rocked my boyhood world.
I had Lucky Number 7 to thank, that little car I worked on everyday after school for a few weeks. With some sand paper borrowed from my father’s tool bench, I first got that front nose just right and then rounded the sides and back. I spiffed the little guy up in a coat of black model paint with a red front as the backdrop – perfect for those number decals. I was proud… until race day. Lucky Number 7 looked awfully pitiful sitting on the tracks next to all the other boys cars whose fathers had clearly spared no power tool to shape and contour and paint.
And yet I won. For a minute, time stopped. And then I lost it. I burst out crying instantly. I could not contain myself. I hugged the pastor’s son standing right next to me. He was a teenager and I didn’t even know him. I ran around the room, my legs light under my small boy frame. I was a tear soaked mess of joy.
A little while later on the drive home, I sat with Lucky Number 7 in one hand and my trophy in another, utterly ashamed of myself. I wanted to get home and run up to my room. I wanted my grandmother to be quiet with her doting celebration. I felt like a momma’s boy for crying. And had I really hugged the pastors teenage son? Surely everyone knew the truth about me now: I was a cry baby.
I buried that memory for years and years, and with it much of that boy’s open heart and my ability to cry. Stuffed it deep down inside. And then as I recalled the story with utter shame to my counselor one day, he said, “Of course you cried. That’s what men do when they win.” I lifted my face from my hands where I was hiding my tears. What had he just said?
And he pointed out to me what is now so obvious. When men win something – the Superbowl or the World Cup or that trophy elk or just about anything – they cry. They break down and hug and hold each other and fall to the ground and weep. A bunch of blubbering tear soaked messes of masculine joy. And we love this. Heck, we as fans join right in. The tears are as manly as the sweat that made them victorious.
Real Men Don’t Cry Right?
Yet somehow still, we’ve got this thing hanging over us as men: Men do not cry. And if we do, we are weak. I have not met a man yet who has not wrestled with this feeling. And so its in secret that men cry usually – in the car on backroads or in the dimmed lights of a movie theater or behind the closed door of a counseling office – If they cry at all.
The truth is, statistically speaking, the average man cries 1-2 times a month. This is a lot lower than women for sure who cry 3-4 times a month. But its not zero like most men think they need to live. And I’ll tell you from my experience in my office that every man has stuff worth crying about. Every man I have ever met with or known in friendship has a heart and feels pain. Most men would want to cry, if they just knew a way to do it without feeling so pathetic.
So how do we cross this no man’s land? How do we learn to cry well as a man? It took me many years to get my heart back in this area. Let me share a few things I learned.
If You Sweat For It, You’ll Cry For It
You will only cry about something you’ve put your heart and soul and sweat into. Parenting, a friendship, your walk with God, a project at work, your prayer life. You have to take risks and spend yourself in some worthy cause to get your heart involved. I recently watched a PBS special on the building of the Panama Canal. It was a torturous undertaking for the men. Malaria from mosquitos. Dynamite induced exploding rock. When they finally opened the dam and let the water join in the middle, the men who oversaw the project wept and hugged each other. What an odd thing to cry about? I thought. But then it hit me. Of course they did. They had risked life itself for this project.
Putting your sweat and soul into something isn’t always enough to move you to cry. You must learn to welcome your tears too. You must believe they are important even if you don’t like them or understand them. As my friend Jan Meyers Proett has said, treat your tears like a welcomed guest you invite into your home, even if you have no idea yet why they have come. And I like this. In other words, you may not know why you are crying. But your tears matter before you even know why they matter. They say that something important has happened in your heart. Tears are never frivolous.
Let Your Tears Jump You
The poet Rainer Rilke adds a little more to Jan’s analogy. He wrote to a young writer he was mentoring that sorrow is a lot like having an intruder break into our home. And suddenly we come face to face with this stranger. “I believe that almost all our sorrows are moments of tension which we experience as paralysis… because we are alone with this strange thing that has entered us.” And yet, as he says, the stranger has come in peace. Even to help us.
I like this a lot. You have to let your tears catch you by surprise. You can’t make yourself cry. Well, maybe with a lot of straining and faking. But you’re liable to blow an O-ring somewhere inside your brain if you try. Its not that helpful to force it. Your tears will come when they need to. But you’ll have to let them come. Really, you have to let them jump you. And win. You have to let them overpower you and take you down to the mats. This has been my experience to a T. And Its not easy to do this.
Do You Celebrate Your Tears?
And that’s another thing I’ve found very helpful. You must celebrate yourself when you cry. During college, I went to counseling for a couple years. It changed my life. Actually, it probably saved my life. I was in a slippery slope depression. My counselor, Peter, really took to heart my struggles and cared about me and that brought so much healing. And I got my tears back there. I found things in my heart worth crying about. And in the presence of a good man, I learned to cry again without shame, without feeling like a girl.
I often left his office in a daze, my hands full of balled up kleenex, you know… because I had a piece of dust in my eye. Yeah. And so I usually found a Starbucks or a quiet place to park so I could journal for awhile. I had to put to words what had just come out in my sessions. My heart was a ball of tangled kite string. And writing it out helped me make sense of it all.
And right there in my journal I sometimes stapled those tear soaked kleenex. Sounds weird, doesn’t it? It definitely made it hard to write in my journal at times. I did it to remind myself that I really had cried, that the events I wrote about really did matter to my heart. These were worthy tears. And they helped me celebrate that I had been courageous enough to let it come.
Vulnerability Is Courageous
Sociologist Brene Brown points out that tears truly are a courageous thing. Granted, they don’t feel that way, which is exactly why they are courageous. In her words, “Vulnerability is the thing that feels so weak to us, but to everyone else watching, it look so very courageous.” We need to hear this as men. This is why you need to celebrate when you cry. It really is a mark of your courage.
One of the clearest examples of this came to me through the HBO series The Band of Brothers, which many will know as the dramatized version of the actual accounts of WWII Easy Company paratroopers. The box set came with a 2 hour documentary of the surviving members, where they simply tell their stories. Having faced all that war had to throw at them, its a moving account. In the last few minutes, the men reflect on their fallen comrades, the friends they shared fox holes with and lost in the war. And they weep, right there on camera.
No one can tell me these guys aren’t brave. And yet, they find no shame in letting themselves weep openly on camera. I’ve watched that documentary countless times and it still gets me every time. I find myself weeping right along with them, for their stories, for their losses. Call it my training video in brave tears. Its helped me learn how to cry like a man.
We need to be shown how to cry like a man. Or more accurately, we need to have it instilled in us that whenever a man cries, he is crying like a man. There is no secret way to make it more masculine. We need to see that the act itself is brave. I know very few men who ever saw their fathers cry. And so what’s the message? Men don’t cry. Which if you’re a boy, is confusing because boys cry. And when they never see men cry, they think its something they need to outgrow, get over, suck up. Some fathers literally emasculate their sons for crying with words like, “Stop crying like a girl, you big baby!” I know men who were literally beaten for crying. The damage of this is unspeakable.
Follow Other Men
I am immensely grateful that I did get to see my dad cry. Not a lot. But I still remember one time in particular, the day my father cried in front of all of my aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins. It was father’s day and he was praying, thanking God for my grandfather. And he just lost it right in the middle of his prayer, just let it out and couldn’t talk. My grandfather broke down too and hugged him. Everyone fidgeted, all that awkward affection and vulnerability between two men on display in front of us, the food getting cold. But I stood smiling. Secretly inside I was pumping my fists. I was in my early twenties and I tucked that memory away to savor for years to come.
If you’ve not had this luxury, of seeing good men cry in front of you , then you need to go find opportunities for this. Truth is none of us have seen it enough. Next time you see it at a wedding or a funeral or at church, don’t look away or walk out of the room. Linger longer than you want to. Movies are also great places for this. Watch movies with male characters who cry. And especially watch the movies that brought you to tears. I watched Cinderella Man and wept. So I went again a second time to let my tears jump me again, so I could understand them more.
There is no special way to cry like a man. Tears are brave. Period. So what’s been your story of tears? And what helps you connect to your grief and fight the shame?