Don't Fear The Weeper
Simon Mills addresses the social trend for crying, assuming such a thing exists, before moving on to some more humanistic and personal insights on the phenomenon and the taboos surrounding it
Some men can’t cry. You can take them to a soppy wedding or a horridly sad funeral, show them pictures of orphaned kiddies or that bit from ET and… nothing. Not even the thinnest cataract of salty mist.
Oh, they’ll choke a bit and get a bit dry-mouthed as the scalenus muscles in their gullets constrict the thorax, but the lacrimal glands' nicotinic and muscarinic receptors will fail to activate, and the tears just won’t come.
But this is usually not an ocular plumbing issue, more a complex, emotional thing – a kind of phobia in fact. Fears for tears, if you will. There isn’t a specific psychiatric term for the condition, so I’m going to make history by coining one: Lachryphobia.
Stephen Russell, “The Barefoot Doctor”, used to suffer from a chronic form of mature lachryphobia. In his book “The Man Who Drove With His Eyes Closed” Russell describes a poignant scene in his young life when his mother dropped him off at boarding school for the first time. “I was eight years old and I felt an overwhelming sensation of grief and abandonment,” he says. “My natural instinct was to blubber, but no way would I do that because none of the other boys were crying.”
In fact, Russell suppressed his tears so effectively, he actually thought he’d never cry again. Eventually, it took the death of a close friend, mentor and father figure, the celebrated psychotherapist R. D. Laing, to release the tension of that critical childhood moment. “I cried for three days solid when he died.” says Webster. It was the first time he’d shed a tear for 27 years.
“Crying, like laughter, is a natural semi-autonomic function, there simply to force your diaphragm,” explains the shoeless doc. “You breathe out and thus release whichever intense emotion you were holding onto in your chest and abdomen.” This process, he says, “makes mascara run, figuratively speaking,” and it will often seem inappropriate to indulge. “Bottling it is bad for your health on all levels.”
Away from the psychiatrist’s chair or the yogic mat, bottling it up often seems like the only dignified option for men, doesn’t it? Should men cry at work, for example? I’d say never. Not even if their work involves chopping onions.
For women, crying at work is much less embarrassing than, say, being drunk at an office do and photocopying your backside. In a few days time the shame and the heat of the Xerox bulb is all but forgotten by a girl’s peers. Women are nice like that.
With men it is different. A tearful episode will always be remembered and ridiculed for years to come. Resigning should be seriously considered, especially if their workplace includes women.
In touch with one’s feelings… and Cheryl Cole
Yes, women might find your occasional bloke-sniffles slightly endearing, ensuring your friends that the salty release marks you out as someone “in touch with his feelings”. But the outburst also means you have shot your emotive and dramatic, lachrymose load and there is now no going back. Why? Because crying is to a man’s dignity what a fatefully administered suicide sting is to a bee - a one off thing. You cry, you die.
When a man cries in front of a woman (or a work mate) he is only one eruption away from being a dreary, high maintenance cry-baby. Just one, soggy hankie off being a pain in the neck, a saline stain on a shoulder. In short, there is a very fine line between “Ah sweet” and “He’s off again. How pathetic.”
Think about it; X Factor judge Cheryl Cole wells up every week of a Saturday teatime when some tubby Maria Carey wannabe tells the nation that her nan died six years ago. And people love her for it. If Simon Cowell cried just once, we would table our mugs of tea to seriously consider the future of the global X Factor brand.
That said, even Cowell, ringmaster of the sob circus that is the X Factor, would probably admit that crying is now a rather dreary, over-exposed and played out emotion. In just the same way that Gordon Ramsay’s tiresome, ubiquitous use of expletives has devalued the “f” word, crying is now suffering a similar identity crisis via gratuitous and cynically tactical over-use. Simply everyone on the telly seems to cry now, cameras hovering around the likes of Gok Wan as he coaxes some nervy, thin-skinned prole into a tizzy, waiting for the triumphant, tearful money-shot to come.
Even the politicians are at it. But guess what? While David Cameron’s tears for his dead son at the Conservative party conference a few months back were controversial (his choking up perceived by some to be a cynical attempt to make him seem more human) these weren’t the first tears shed by a high-profile politician.
Barrel-chested, bulldog-spirited Winston Churchill, the man with the wasp-chewing expression and the uncompromising rhetoric was Westminster’s biggest ever cry baby. Apparently perpetually tired and emotional (a titanic booze habit probably didn’t help) Churchill blubbered at the christening of his son, cried every time he watched Vivian Leigh and Laurence Olivier (playing Lord Admiral Nelson) in "That Hamilton Woman" and cried on the airport tarmac when the Queen arrived back from Africa after her father’s death. The big silly.
Is it terribly shallow to say that this might be a vanity thing? You only have to think of Churchill weeping into his cigar end, Gazza or big tough John Terry in floods on the football pitch to confirm that men crying are not pretty. I’ve caught myself in the mirror when I’ve cried once or twice, and do I ever look pathetic. Raw, puffy-ugly, weak, overwrought, self-pitying and histrionic like a big spoilt, attention-seeking luvvie who can’t control his emotions and wants to make a scene.
It doesn’t happen often and it doesn’t happen when you’d expect either – bereavement and news of cancer-stricken friends leave me choked with sadness but usually dry-eyed. I try to cry in private only because male crying, like masturbation and IKEA furniture assembly, is something best attempted alone. But when I do decide to blub, my water works go off like a vandalised Brooklyn fire hydrant during a New York heatwave.
Here are some things that “set me off”, as we wussy types like to say. The bit in The Railway Children where Jenny Agutter claps eyes on her newly released father getting off a train and delivers the line “Daddy. My Daddy.” (welling up now just writing those three magically heartbreaking words). Any medal ceremony at the Olympic games… actually, pretty much any climactic moment at the Olympics, especially when it involves a victory by some poor downtrodden country. The Paralympics? I can barely bring myself to watch it because it makes me weep too much. The 1963 news footage of JFK’s funeral when tiny John-John Kennedy steps forward and salutes his assassinated father’s coffin.
My wife’s face as she told me we were expecting our first child. The appalling thought that my beloved daughters are not going to be children forever and will, very soon, be phoning me, if I’m lucky, once fortnight rather than spending every day and night with me. Sarah McClachlan singing “When She Loved Me” In Toy Story II (just viewed it again on YouTube to make sure – yep…in floods again). Aretha doing “Say a Little Prayer.” Ray Charles’s version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.5 in E Flat Major. The beauty of the Yorkshire countryside. The wretched sadness etched on my dad’s face when I went to pick him up after my Mum had died.
Actually, my Dad’s crying when Mum died was especially upsetting. Even as a grown man (I was 30) I found my 70 year old dad’s wailing unexpectedly disconcerting. Suddenly, our roles were reversed and I was expected to play the surrogate paternal part. It seemed as if it wasn’t my place to cry too much and, to be honest, I felt as if my I had been cheated out of my own grieving time. Even now, because of this pivotal moment, because I know that it will be worrying, discombobulating and properly scary for them I try not to cry in front of my children. So when that bit of the Railway Children comes on, I’ll bottle it up, leave the room or say I’ve got something in my eye. Call me old fashioned, but I think that makes me more of a man somehow.