Men Need to Cry More

“Sadness” by Lua Zemenis licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

I can’t remember the last time I had McDonald’s. And to be honest, I’m kind of proud of that. McDonald’s is the de-facto example mentioned when discussing unhealthy eating. While McDonald’s might be tasty, no one has any illusions about what a consistent diet of McDonald’s food will do to your body.

In a similar way, I used to have a sort of pride about going long periods of time without expressing strong emotions, especially in the form of crying. As a child, I bragged about how long it had been since I last cried. I internalized that I shouldn’t cry when I encountered pain, expected or unexpected. I remember being in the doctor’s office and being given a sticker, lollipop, or plastic animal mask if I didn’t cry after getting a shot. The implicit message was that I would be rewarded for gritting my teeth and bearing the pain. I learned to see crying as like McDonald’s. It might feel good to cry, but ultimately it would be bad for me. Better for me to just avoid it. After all, nobody wanted to see a boy, or a man, cry.

About two days before the graduation ceremony for my master’s degree, I walked into the office of two friends, also black grad students. They’re both a little older than me and are PhD candidates. Most importantly, they’re both black, and I cannot stress enough how crucial it is to get connected to other black students when in a predominantly white school. I walked into the office, full of anxiety, my mind spinning as I realized I was nearing the end of two long, difficult years. At the time, I wasn’t sure why I walked into the office. I just knew I wanted to talk to someone.

One of my friends looked up as I walked in, smiled and asked me how I was doing. I mumbled something about being okay before admitting, “I don’t know how I feel. I just feel overwhelmed.” She asked me if I was okay and why I was overwhelmed. I reflected over the final papers I still needed to complete, my paranoia over whether one of my grades wouldn’t turn out well, the fact that I still hadn’t found a job. I thought of last year, when my confidence was shattered, and I questioned if I was going to complete my master’s. I remembered the grueling summer months of finishing incomplete class work, rebuilding my sense of self as a scholar. My thoughts shifted to all the family members I expected to see that weekend, how they were going to praise and congratulate me when I didn’t feel like I deserved it. Then, I thought of the family who wouldn’t see me graduate but whom I yearned for: my grandparents and father.

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As I shared these thoughts to my friend, my stomach knotted and clenched. My eyes felt heavy, and before I realized what was happening I was sobbing. It felt as if a dam had been keeping all my emotions in check until it finally broke. My tears were as convoluted as my thoughts. There were tears of grief, relief, sorrow, fear, and even joy. As I cried, I became suddenly aware of the toll that the accumulated stress had taken on me. I grasped that I had worked hard to earn my degree, even if by the end of it, I had to crawl across the finish line. From high school to college to grad school, I had never stopped. I kept fighting and striving, trying not to let myself slow down.

With every other graduation, I knew what my next step was. After high school, I knew I was going to college; after college, I knew I was going to grad school. But I didn’t know what my next step would be after grad school. Part of me felt tempted to take the suggestion of one of my mentors and apply for a PhD program. But I knew I need practical experience to take into such a venture. I had decided that it was necessary for me to begin my professional career, then later pursue a PhD. But I was questioning the stability of my decision. Academia, while arduous, has always felt familiar, and things were not going according to plan. When I entered my second year of my master’s program, I had planned to have a job lined up before I graduated. That way there would be a relatively smooth transition from grad school to professional life. That didn’t happen. Things rarely go exactly as planned.

Toxic masculinity tells men, especially black men, that we should never show our true feelings. The only exceptions are monumental achievements like winning a sports championships or tragic losses such as losing a family member. Other things–such as heartbreak, getting into or graduating college, losing a pet–are not colossal enough to make a grown ass man cry. At least that’s what I used to tell myself.

After I cried and processed why I felt so overwhelmed, I felt better. I didn’t have any definitive answers, but it felt cleansing to get those emotions out. Crying was better than my norm of going to the gym and lifting heavy shit. While weight lifting has its merits and will always be part of my routine, it’s not the solution to everything. I’m an action-oriented person. I like expressing myself through what I do. However, the thing about doing something is you’re not always thinking. You’re just on autopilot. That’s one of the comforts I derive from weightlifting. I’ve been lifting for so long that I can do it without thinking. The only thing I’m consciously thinking about is the number of repetitions to a set of an exercise. There is a sublime peace to it, to letting myself feel the familiarity of an iron bar in my palms, inhaling as I begin an exercise, then exhaling as I complete it. In those moments, I feel in control–of my body, my mind, and of my life.

In the end, it’s all an illusion, as there’s only so much I can control. Furthermore, the myth of perpetual control is another aspect of toxic masculinity that needs to be unpacked and eliminated from the male psyche. We don’t want to appear like we aren’t in control. Not just because it makes us feel uncomfortable, but because it unsettles those around us. Yet control, like time, is a Western, capitalistic, colonial notion. Colonial Europeans imposed their sense of time upon native populations to administer control over them and their land. Contrary to what the colonial explorers enforced, time isn’t universal. Even within the continental U.S., time is relative, as we’re divided into four different zones. We acknowledge the relative nature of our sense of time, yet we are less willing to acknowledge that our sense of control is just as ephemeral, transient, and as unpredictable as the wind.

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