Some years ago, I facilitated a men’s group for the alumni of the addiction treatment facility where I worked. It was one of the most satisfying experiences in my career - to watch this group of men, mostly young adults, change the course of their lives. It was an honor to be a mentor of sorts; to support them.
We met on Tuesday evenings, and occasionally I would take them to dinner afterwards, on behalf of my employer. On one particular Tuesday, I invited a mentor of mine to join us.
An elder in the local recovery community, like no one else I have ever met, the man was respected - not only admired, but respected. He carried an air of kindness, humility, compassion, peace, wisdom, and love, in addition to playfulness and friendship. Some might call him an Alpha-male (I hate this term) - other men, and women, were naturally drawn to him. Men followed him.
Most of these guys hadn’t met Jimmy, but they knew who he was, and they became excited when I told them he was coming. This man invariably brought smiles to people’s faces, including theirs. They were eager to meet him personally and relished the opportunity to share a meal with him. They envied my relationship with him and said as much in anticipation of his arrival.
Having had an earlier commitment that evening, he entered this buzzing, coal-fired pizza place 15 or 20 minutes later than the rest of us. By the time he made his way to the back of the restaurant and joined us, we’d ordered several pies to share, and the waiter had only a few minutes before placed the pizzas on pedestals in the middle of this long, makeshift table comprised of three or four square high-tops that were pushed together.
By this time, Jimmy was clean and sober for close to 40 years. The guys in the group, who were relatively new in recovery, had all heard at least some of the story of his addiction. Much of what he shared in 12-Step meetings about his experience was at once colorful and harrowing.
Although they knew Jimmy’s story, he knew nothing of theirs. So, as the guys helped him get the slices he chose onto his plate, he began asking them questions. Where were they from? What meetings did they attend?
They watched intently as he took a moment. He looked down at his food, closed his eyes, and sat silently for a couple seconds, not long enough to make it awkward, before taking a bite.
An enjoyable and memorable time for us all, there was banter and laughter, talk of sports. Then there was solemnity.
As the conversation unfolded and we all talked about who we knew and with whom we were connected in the recovering community, one of the guys, Scott, who was about 23 years old, from New Jersey, and a student at the University of Miami, mentioned his mentor had passed a couple weeks before.
When Jimmy heard the man’s name was Paul, he asked more questions. What was his age? Where was he from? He soon concluded it was someone he’d hoped it wasn’t.
Jimmy lifted his hand to his brow and held it there. Again, he became silent. Just breathing. Seeing tears begin to roll slowly down his cheeks, the rest of us looked at each other the way people do when someone gets this kind of news, and we see the pain consuming them. We too sat quietly, respectfully, as he wept, until he broke the silence.
“Paul was a friend,” he said. “I didn’t know . . . I needed a moment.”
He didn’t apologize.
He didn’t hold back his tears.
He showed no shame.
He never lost his composure.
He didn’t “break down.”
I sat there, sad for Jimmy, but even more proud to call him my friend. In addition to feeling proud, I was grateful this group of young guys had the opportunity to witness his example.
In this instance, a man acknowledged and experienced his emotions without fear. He didn’t stuff his feelings. He felt them, and he did so without the least bit of self-consciousness.
This shouldn’t be a big deal, but it is. Because we live in a culture where tears are taboo, especially when a man is shedding them.
I wouldn’t say it took courage for Jimmy to shed his tears in our presence. Courage implies the presence of fear. He didn’t fear embarrassment for weeping this way.
When a man is secure in himself, like Jimmy, he feels no shame for demonstrating the appropriate emotional response in times of great sadness. There is no question of whether he feels “safe,” only whether the people around him are emotionally literate.
I wouldn’t say he was vulnerable with us because he didn’t feel threatened. When a man is grounded the way this man was, he doesn’t care how we may or may not respond to his tears.
It’s not that he cried, but how he cried. There was nothing weak about it. Dignity. That’s what we saw from this great man that night.
He was connected to his emotions, not detached from them. Rather than resisting the response to shed tears, he went with it. But, unfortunately, because of the way we are socialized to resist our emotions, to never cry, it must have taken years of working on himself for him to reclaim the ability to respond naturally to his emotions.
This is the power of the “boys don’t cry” trope. When a group of men in a pizza place watch one among them weep when he learns someone he loves has died, we are spellbound.
As you may know, last week, a young defensive back for the Buffalo Bills suffered a near-fatal cardiac arrest on the football field. Taking contact to the chest as he tackled another player, nothing unusual in the Nation Football League, 24-year-old Damar Hamlin collapsed seconds later and had to be resuscitated.
So, a traumatized sports world has watched Hamlin’s progress since. He spent the week in a critical care unit at a Cincinnati hospital, on a breathing tube until the weekend. By all accounts, he is recovering well.
On Saturday, during a live episode of “NFL Countdown,” on ESPN, former Bills head coach Rex Ryan, obviously inspired by the player’s response, was overcome with emotion as he commented on the courage Hamlin has shown since the incident.
“This guy is a legend,” Ryan said, among other things, choking back his tears. Then, he apologized to the rest of the panel. He apologized.
And, you might wonder, was I watching ESPN when Ryan “broke down” on Saturday?
No. I wasn’t. I saw the clip on CNN. Because it was news.
One headline read: REX RYAN CRIES ON NATIONAL TV TALKING ABOUT BILLS’ DAMAR HAMLIN.
As men, this society trains us to ignore our feelings. It trains us so well, we are so alienated from our emotions, that when we see a person of notoriety fail to contort himself effectively enough to hold back his tears, as natural as they are; when he expresses his pain clearly and publicly, it’s big news.
We have to re-evaluate our relationship with our emotions. You think this way is working? If you asked the group of guys at the pizza place, they would tell you.
They all got the same indoctrination - the same “boys don’t cry” bullshit. So, they each found a way to fight their emotions, rather than feel them. They all lost themselves in addiction. These guys were fortunate enough to have families who could intervene and send them away for help, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.
They all survived another day, so a guy like Jimmy could challenge all the brainwashing and show them what to do when a friend or a family member dies. You cry.
You don’t have to clinch your teeth and swallow your tears. You don’t have to pretend it doesn’t hurt. You don’t have to get shit-faced, or stick a needle in your arm, or do anything else to numb yourself.
Just cry and be done with it. And, if anyone has a problem with it, tell them to kiss your ass.
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What if ‘the news’ instead of focusing on acts of violence, delivered us stories of people acting in humane ways…? What if primary and secondary education included critical thinking, money management and emotional intelligence? What if instead of relying on news channels and schools, we take the work in-house, clean our side of the street and lead an emotionally rich and secure life with our families so the people closest to them set a healthy example?