Trying on a new story about crying


This is an x-ray of my son’s left humerus. He tangled feet attempting to leap an opponent on the soccer field. Time suspended as he hovered horizontally cartoon-like, then landed WHUMP! flat on his back. Gravity snapped his arm near the shoulder. Before the orthopedist revealed this image with his diagnosis, he asked if my son had cried. He said, “This is a break that makes people cry.”

On the field of battle, right after it happened, Toby stood up without help. I was sitting three yards away in the stands, holding my breath. Knowing, as the mother of an adolescent son, my worst move would be to go to him. That mortification would hurt far worse than the arm. He did not cry while in company of coaches, trainers and teammates. He finally shed a few tears in the car on the way to the doctor.

Two nights later, I asked about that. Did he hold back the tears out of a desire to be the tough soldier? He shrugged his good shoulder and smiled wanly. He knows it’s okay to cry. Doesn’t he? I asked what gave him the idea that it’s not okay to cry. I know he is embarrassed by my own easy weeping—I am, too. Then I realized that, in his 13-plus years, he’s never seen his father cry.

I’ve seen it myself only rarely. Upon the deaths of his parents. In the midst of living through an inter-personal crisis at work. Our own relationship struggles over the years. The loss of our first child. By that record, a man may cry only over Big Life Events. Not at touching films or in the presence of beauty or wonder. Or slamming your thumb in a car door.

Speaking of wonder, take a close look at that x-ray. Have you ever seen such a gorgeous structure, just that shoulder and the collarbone and ribs? It’s a miracle of form and efficiency and function.

Certainly, breaking your arm in such a way that they can’t even cast it qualifies as a Big Event. We’ve taken to saying that our son has a high pain threshold, but that’s not really it. Somehow he’s gotten the idea that he must do whatever it takes to avoid being called a “crybaby.”

How is it that we accept such a story? How could something so natural, often uncontrollable, be labeled a sign of weakness and compared negatively to that most vulnerable and dependent state we all go through—infancy? We do have a fraught relationship with emotion in this culture. Our animal bodies are equipped with exquisite involuntary responses designed to aid in our survival, our bonding, and our learning. To deny by “controlling” such impulses does a great disservice, and likely harm, to our nervous system and health. Research has shown that years of suppressed anger or grief or sadness can eventually morph into depression or immune system dysfunction and disease.

Dis-ease. Over millennia, humans have developed ways to cope with and hold emotion rather than deny it. One such practice is the Council Circle, where those gathered speak from the heart and listen with the ears of the heart. It is a ceremony, not a conversation. We are not there to fix something, but to bring our various perspectives, place them into the space, and invite a solution. There is an alchemy in bringing one’s whole being to such a setting, this human container within the larger body of the earth. To be held and witnessed without judgment is profoundly transformative.

Humans have emotions. We also have egos, psychologies, power struggles, “shoulds,” shame, repression. The living earth has none of that. She just IS. Rather than try to rid ourselves of ego, of family history or cultural stories, rather than fixing and purging and correcting, we could simply dilute all of that into the vast, impersonal and nonjudgmental body of the living earth. Humans have done this for millennia through ceremony as well as direct encounter.

A good friend tells me that when she is feeling out of sorts—sad or depressed or just “off”—she goes outside and sits on the earth. It is mysteriously healing to feel the energy of that connection, the circuit between her body and the larger body of Earth.

Mark Nepo tells a parable of a master and student. The student is agitated, upset about something. The master tells him to put a teaspoon of salt into a glass of water and take a sip. Of course, the water is undrinkable. Then, he takes the student out to a large lake, and gives him the same instruction. The student puts a teaspoon of salt into the lake and then takes a sip. There is no taste of the salt. We always have this choice. We can keep our troubles tightly locked up or we can offer them to our larger body, Earth.

Could letting the tears flow help my son heal faster? There is no rational answer to this question. This is the territory of intuition.

I have a habit when I discover a damaging and mistaken story, like the one that says real men don’t cry. I always want to know how we got to this place, as if that answer will somehow tell me how to change the story. But the story is there. It stands through force of culture, through constant reminders and use by all who have unconsciously signed on to it. It is so strong that my own son has absorbed it, despite—or more likely because of—his parents’ ambiguous and self-contradictory attempts to model the strength of crying even while feeling ashamed by it.

It’s another example of the both-and of life on the threshold. I note the potential toll it takes on my son not to cry. Then I reach back into history and my own limited experience and know that there is another way. One that humans have known and practiced for generations before us. We can create containers of community to hold our struggles and we can go straight to the container that holds all. Emotion, including crying, is one of the precious gifts of being alive in an animal body: it connects us to the living earth, and to each other.

3 thoughts on “Trying on a new story about crying

  1. I very much agree. The loss of ways to comfortably cry, weep and express our grief is surely one of the most devastating parts of the “Old Story” in which we are caught.

    Our failure to cry harms us as individuals and as culture, but the way it separates us from the Earth (as you suggest) does great harm to Earth herself as well.

    David Abram speaks of this harm, and of the importance of those who have learned to cry – who have learned that new, and also ancient story. He speaks of those who “let their eyes fill with tears that fall easily to the ground,” and says, “The soil needs this water.”

    It is altogether possible that healing and restoration of Earth will only happen when our tears begin to flow.

    • Thank you for that beautiful reminder. I remember how moved he was when he said that – the soil needs this water. Indeed.

      • Though vague in how it happened, I grew up understanding that is was a sign of weakness to cry. I sense it often made my mother angry when I exposed my sadness, perhaps in too dramatic a way. When I feel sadness, I often end up with a jammed throat and a headache, and yet I don’t even know how to release the tears. When tears come to my eyes, I consider it progress, but, again, I will not let the sadness go further. I sense that if I went outside and lay down upon the earth, or at least sat with her beauty and presence, my chance of releasing the sadness would increase. Reading this and being reminded of the cultural story that men bear reminds me that I got that message, too. And I would agree with Jim that healing for ourselves and our beloved Earth is connected to the flow of these tears, for, much like grieving as a threshold emotion for joy, I sense releasing sadness makes space within and around for peace with what is.

        The soil needs this water…yes.

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