Let Him Cry

Another shooting.

100_8700While I was waiting for my laundry to finish this morning, I sat in my car writing.  Across the street from the laundromat is a residential care facility.  I’ve often sat in this spot and I watched as women, who I will assume are mostly Muslim (by their headgear) and possibly immigrants, walk in to this facility also wearing the typical care facility garb of scrubs and comfortable shoes.  This morning, I realized that in all the time I’ve looked at this place, it hadn’t registered in me that there are people living there, and possibly living out the end of their lives there.  I thought of the vibrant world around this place: gentrifying hipsters, long time black, Latino and Asian families, young people on skateboards, politics, street fairs, muggings, joggers, commuters, busses, bikes, all literally passing this place by and with it the people inside.  The women in scrubs, caring for each, maybe doing their jobs well, maybe not
, but doing what they can to both earn a living and to actually accomplish some small part of caring for someone who cannot care for themselves.  And it made me cry.

There was a recent article (PolicyMic, May 15 2014 – Eileen Shim) that looked at the quality of tears based on why they were being shed.  Rose-Lynn Fisher goes into wonderful detail of this phenomenon on her website. As I recall there were several types that were easily identifiable, but never did it mention the tears of mixed emotions.  My tears would have been a good sample for this.  Seeing this care facility, my tears were angry…that there weren’t bigger windows or more family visiting; my tears were touched by the dedication of the staff who may not be making more than minimum wage to deal with the messy bodies and emotions of the sick and dying; my tears were filled with sadness…for the families that had been lost by the people inside, whether physically or lost in the lack of commitment from others for their care; and my tears were the memories of having seen my own mother in such a care facility.

The first shooting death of 2014 in Oakland was a 13 year old boy.

When I was a little boy, I was a “cry baby.”  I was constantly criticized for responding to every challenge and every confrontation no matter how small, with tears.  It was eventually impressed upon me that this was inappropriate behavior for a “man” and I remember consciously turning off that part of my reaction and suppressing my tears, adding a healthy dose of guilt and shame to my natural reaction.  Nevertheless, I learned how to be remote and stoic.  Never mind that I also became an enormously angry teenager who channelled that anger into compulsive and destructive levels of over achievement, often pushing himself well beyond his physical limits.  Never mind too that I developed esophagitis and the early stages of an ulcer.  

All of this changed a few years later one day in college when the movie Diva was shown on campus.  In the scene where “La Diva” and the young man walk around Paris to the haunting melody by Vladimir Cosma (Sentimental Walk) there was something triggered in me; the combination of the tune, with the lonely light and the two characters in their shared isolation…it made me bust out sobbing.  It was the first time I had really cried in 7 or 8 years and something in me said that I shouldn’t let it be the last.

Having so consciously cut this part of myself off  and then just as consciously reclaiming it, I have thought a great deal about what happens inside me when I cry ever since.  Something happens within all of us when we cry.  I suppose we try to hide it because it can be as intimate yet universal as a sexual orgasm.  It bubbles to the surface, it swells and wells up until it bursts in us and we can’t and don’t want to stop it.  Yet, terrifyingly, it can also feel so much like falling.  There is an uncontrollable feeling of cascading that comes with surrendering to the emotions that bring tears.  But where do we land?  This is the trouble for men.  Our culture doesn’t tell boys and men that it will catch them when they fall down this well of tears.  In so many ways, men are asked to bargain with society in order to justify their emotions and that bargain rarely includes tears. 

Tears for Western men are a sign of weakness; that is, not being physically strong enough to overcome the emotional tide of tears is contradictory to our misshapen male identity.  With the extreme emphasis put on men to have a monosyllabic physical strength, there is no place for that strength to be vulnerable.  Be strong = hit, push, run, jump, lift.  But if that physicality shows any opening to the inner world (dance, sway, rock, hug, kiss) our culture looks at it as a hole that should be plugged, like an opening in the hull of a boat.

74 school shootings in 18 months; almost all young white males; mostly teenagers; We are training killers.

I remember well the feeling I had in high school before my Diva moment.  I used the word “trapped” to describe it.  I felt as if there was no way out, that even once I graduated, I would be stuck in a way of living, on a path that I hadn’t chosen.  Always, I had this feeling as if I was supposed to be living up to an ideal “male” pattern that I increasingly didn’t fit within/live up to.  I hated that feeling.  I imagine that with all of the images of “ideal” men with all of the talk about what men are supposed to be and with all the competition for increasingly fewer resources of all kinds, young men today must be in a constant dance between devastation and desperation.  I can’t imagine being told to not cry in those circumstances.

But, we are too familiar now with the images of fathers crying on newscasts; the fathers of teenage boys who have been existing in today’s pressure cooker of a world, being told to “suck it up” and “man up”, not maybe in so many words, but in the shape of a world that still looks to Superman as the male ideal.  We are all guilty of creating this generation of murderers.  Every time we defend a classic “strong silent” type or tell a boy to be a “man” and assume that that means somehow acting less vulnerable.  Every time we look the other way when a parent puts a tool instead of an experience in a boys hands….a bat instead of a flower.  Every time we joke with our teenage boys about objectifying girls and women.  Every time we use the word “fag” as a term of derision; and definitely every time we tell a boy or a man either through our own embarrassment or actual words to stop crying.

1 Samuel 20:41 – After the boy had gone, David got up from the south side of the stone and bowed down before Jonathan three times, with his face to the ground. Then they kissed each other and wept together – but David wept the most.

The Bible is full of men crying and expressing themselves.  I don’t recall a single passage where the Bible says “thou shalt not show emotion if you have a penis.”  Quite the opposite.  Men express joy and love (even for one another) and frequently cry to God, to Christ, with other men with women…

How can we re-imagine a male equation that no longer holds on to emotion?  Like canned goods in the sun, boys and men without emotional outlets (beyond anger) are bound to explode some day: maybe in dangerous behavior, or in aggression toward those who are weaker, or in a career spent proving ones “manhood” over and over and over again.  Or maybe they will literally explode in the chamber of a gun.

For God’s sake, why can’t we just let him cry.

Conversations About Masculinity – Starving Men

“When I was a little boy, there was a point at which my dad stopped kissing me and holding me.  He was very clear that I couldn’t do that anymore…it was time for me to be a man.  I was 9.” – Story from an anonymous man

Hands of the poor

How many men can tell this story?  I was reminded of recently hearing this from a colleague when reading Mark Greene’s article in The Good Men Project “The Lack of Gentle Platonic Touch in Men’s Lives is a Killer. We are hurting our boys and men.  More than any blunt force, or assault, or simple neglect…we are actively and systematically damaging our boys, men and male identified people.  We surround them with images of “manliness” that celebrate force and control and demonizes compliance and emotion. Above all, we are hurting them in one of the most basic ways possible; and we are doing it without laying a hand on them. Literally.

When I read about trauma in men, I realize that I am reading about something that is sometimes as hard to pin down as gender itself.  It may look simple on the surface, but like gender, trauma may have fairly easy to see external signifiers, while at the same time it also has very complex, personal and individual internalizations.  In some of the work happening around healthcare and public policy, people are looking at trauma as a major factor in contributing to the outcomes, or rather the poor outcomes for boys and men of color.  The language is turning to “trauma informed care” (See: The National Center for Trauma Informed Care) and “school based health centers” specializing in addressing trauma in a way that will at once allow young victims to get what they need (care and education) in a context that factors in those cultural elements that have most held them back.  This isn’t just about people of color however.  In the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study done in 2012 on Tarpon Springs, FL, the predominantly white population in this small Gulf Coast community benefited to learn about the links to adult challenges (diabetes, heart disease) that can have their origins in childhood trauma (ACEs Too High Blog.)  Trauma is real for everyone who experiences it and it has deep impact on their lives regardless of both race and gender.

However, there is one kind of trauma that men in America experience we should be exploring much more deeply.  It has no official name at this point and it is not as simple as pointing to a direct victimization or something that is clearly outside of our traditionally based realm of moral constructs.  It is imbedded in the other traumas that get primary attention.  This trauma is a sustained, cultural damage that we endorse as a society and therefore will need much greater effort to combat.  Starvation by touch or what I would call culturally imposed skin hunger.  By forbidding touch, particularly touch between males, men in our culture experience life in a world devoid of unconditional human contact.  They are in essence ‘starving’ for physical contact and most of them don’t even realize it.  In an earlier blog post (Conversations About Masculinity – part 1), I described how American men are taught to experience touch as an exchange and how this “commodification of touch” doesn’t allow most men to experience touch outside of the experience of sex, gender stereotypes and power dynamics.  The most extreme result is sometimes a complete absence of touch experienced in the male life.  There are numerous studies that point to what happens when infants are denied touch…how they fail to thrive and develop (here is a great article from Pediatrics & Child Health.)  But this need does not actually change through life, hence the popularity of massage therapy and other ways in which adults experience human contact for a price.  When we  are regularly denied the most common and essential life sustaining elements of existence (food, water, light) we experience trauma.  Studying anatomy and physiology, one learns a great deal about how the body can’t actually distinguish between types of stress; how in fact, on an emotional level, the body experiences a punch in the face the same way it experiences the loss of a job (outside of the possible broken bones and blood vessels.)  If the body then cannot make the distinction between these kinds of broad differences, then why would it be able to distinguish between the more subtle trauma experienced surviving sexual assault and when it is denied loving human contact?

Where Does the Trauma Show

The US Department of Veterans Affairs has a very impressive section on their website that explores trauma and stress in relation to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) On this landing page they list any number of signs of PTSD and we are familiar with most of them in the context of those who have experienced war (sleep disturbances, anxiety, extreme behavior, etc.) But looking at the list of emotional disturbances, presents a very surprising parallel:

  • Feeling nervous, helpless, fearful, sad
  • Feeling shocked, numb, and not able to feel love or joy
  • Avoiding people, places, and things related to the event
  • Being irritable or having outbursts of anger
  • Becoming easily upset or agitated
  • Blaming yourself or having negative views of oneself or the world
  • Distrust of others, getting into conflicts, being over-controlling
  • Being withdrawn, feeling rejected, or abandoned
  • Loss of intimacy or feeling detached

When we see the way in which men in America react to physical intimacy that is not connected to sex (this even goes for same gender loving men), many of these same reactions are present.  How many times do we see an angry reaction from a man who feels another man has gotten too physically close? How often to we see men avoid physical contact?  How easy is it to see men as being cold or numb to affection.  The comparison between how men react to being culturally denied touch and other types of trauma is easy and disturbing.

Some of the most obvious evidence of  trauma resulting from the demonization of touch in America is in the way men do express themselves physically.  The extremes to which some men will go so that they are not in physical contact with another man can be comical if not sad; whether it be a crowded subway or a party game.  If an embrace or a handshake with another man lasts “too long” the defense systems are deployed and the contact is broken, often accompanied by a verbal posturing to assert one’s non touch defined maleness (“I’m no homo”, etc.)  But paralleling the actions that are sometimes seen in those who suffer abuse, the reaction can be significantly beyond the perceived affront.  One could draw this kind of parallel between many different types of trauma (the child of the alcoholic who becomes an alcoholic/ the boy who is chronically denied platonic touch and becomes a rapist, etc.) Of course this is not science (yet) but it may be an indicator of one way that we can look at how the lack of touch for men, manifests as a trauma reaction in every day life.

Another indicator is language.  Men are taught to avoid language that points toward affectionate contact with one another. Men do not use words such as: caress, stroke, hold, embrace either with each other or in reference to each other.  These are words (if they are used at all) that are reserved for intimate sexual settings only.  This points to the most damaging indicator of gendered skin hunger creating a trauma response in American men: sexuality.  It is easy to look at abuse and rape as ways in which men are disconnected from authentic sexual relationships, but it is more difficult when we start to actually explore what men are seeking in their sexual relationships whether they be gay or straight.  Even just the vast preoccupation of our culture with sex contrasted with the body shaming that we engage in speaks volumes about a complete disconnect with how men are experiencing their physicality.

Regardless of scientific evidence, there is no denying that the touch languages expressed by most men in America do not come from healthy places of self-esteem or security in one’s masculinity.  Some may claim that as ‘animals’ men are compelled to prove themselves and display their dominance over one another and those around them, hence the reluctance to interact physically without challenging the other male(s).  But then what of the other ability of male animals to groom one another and sleep with and enjoy each other’s bodies as expressions of comfort and safety and belonging?

How we can fix it

If we can look at the effects of culturally imposed skin hunger as a real trauma then we must look at real trauma solutions to help men recover from it.  Creating safe spaces for men to explore touch with one another; redefining verbal and physical language; establishing a new set of criteria for acceptable physical expressions that are not based in narrow, 19th century stereotypes or 21st century media-types.  Men are exploring options through support groups and online conversations.  But still, the cultural standard is the “strong man” image; the stoic, independent and unflappable warrior.

As a black man in America, I am also aware that men of color are among the most guilty of perpetuating culturally imposed skin hunger.  The problem for men of color however is that changing this environment is dependent upon dismantling a concept of success built upon restrictive, heteronormative social mores.  This goes deeper and involves exploring the whole dynamic of masculinity as a survival mechanism in post colonial cultural structures.  I am convinced that the changes that have to happen with all men will need to occur both in the world surrounding us and inside of our hearts.  Through some of the work around trauma in general, getting stories out in the public without shaming men, exposing the human vulnerability of men may allow for a different external dialogue.  But getting into the hearts of men will be a much greater challenge.  This will have to come from nurturing better environments within families and communities and by letting go of fear based cultural norms.  In a world where people are actually starving for dietary nourishment, why would we let others go hungry for human contact when the solution doesn’t require either an act of Congress or a budget.  The only real cost involved in feeding American men what they most need is an open heart.

Websites on Trauma

http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/pages/common-reactions-after-trauma.asp

http://www.nctsn.org/resources/audiences/parents-caregivers/what-is-cts/12-core-concepts

Articles on Touch (from Mark Greene at Good Men Project)

http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201302/the-power-touch

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2865952/

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201010/why-have-we-lost-the-need-physical-touch

A Simple Plea…

To all of my gun owning friends:
I respect your choice to own a weapon and I understand your desire to be able to defend yourself. Those of you who hunt, although I do not condone it as a sport, I understand those of you who live from what you kill.

However, I am asking you all from the bottom of my heart and because I love you all, to please consider giving up your weapons for defense. If someone attacks you with a firearm and you are unarmed, there is a 50% chance that neither of you will be harmed. Your “stuff” might be taken, but the odds say that no life will be lost. When you defend yourself with a firearm from someone else with a firearm, odds are someone will die or at least be seriously hurt. This isn’t science and its not always true, but I don’t want to see you die, and I don’t want to visit you in court or in jail or see you have to live with having taken another life.

Crazy evil people will hurt others regardless of whether or not they have a gun. Laws will not fix our problems; people fix problems. This is why I am asking you personally.

Again, I respect and understand your choice no matter what it may be, this is not a simple issue; but please consider getting rid of your gun and giving yourself a better chance…for me.