As part of my training to become a Board Certified Chaplain, I had to study a great deal about human emotion. As it turns out, Western culture is not very good about allowing people to express their emotions. This seems to be especially true when it comes to men. Men in the United States are greeted with an unspoken expectation to refrain from showing emotion. This often comes from early childhood when boys are taught that it is not OK to cry. I was not aware of this tendency for Americans to keep their emotions in a box until I studied more and more about emotional health. In the process, I learned about my own tendencies. I discovered that the tears of others made me uncomfortable. I noticed a tendency to guide a crying, grieving family member into a more private location so as to prevent that person from the “embarrassment” of crying in public. After I became aware of this, I explored it a little more. As I reflected on my discomfort with emotions, I recognized that almost every influence in my life had taught me to avoid tears. I was taught that crying is bad. I remembered voices that told me, “boys (and subsequently men) should never cry.” “Women are too emotional.” “Suck it up.” “Be a man.” “Don’t be a cry baby.”
Of course, these are all complete nonsense. I know that now and I knew it then on some level. But I was unaware of the impact that such deep-seeded influencing had on me. I know that I was not alone in this discomfort. In fact, I bet if you do some self-reflection, you will discover that you have some of these same thoughts and ideas buried somewhere within your psyche as well. Society seems to teach American men that they are allowed to express emotion in two ways: Anger and laughter. As much as I love to laugh, what am I supposed to do when the emotion I’m feeling cannot adequately be expressed by laughing? Am I supposed to become angry and upset at half of the things that take place in my life and laugh at the other half?
Fortunately, I developed a newer, better awareness of emotional maturity. I studied the importance of expressing emotions appropriately. I studied the concept of mixed emotions and even confused emotions. Did you know that it is possible to feel both happy and sad at the same time? Think about your grandmother’s funeral. You were probably very sad that your beloved grandmother had died. And at the very same time, you probably also felt joy on her behalf that she is alleviated from suffering and is now with Jesus in heaven. See? Sadness and happiness at exactly the same time! And did you know that what we often call “guilt” is actually “shame” much of the time? Here’s how to know if what you’re feeling is guilt or shame. If you are feeling guilt, it’s because you did something that you now understand to be wrong. Your feelings of guilt inform you that you don’t want to do that same thing again. Shame, on the other hand, is when you’re convinced that you’re a bad person because of your actions. Shame is something that is put upon you by someone else. Think of the difference between explaining to a child that his behavior is not appropriate compared to telling the same child that he’s a “bad boy.” It’s a pretty big difference, isn’t it?
These days I like to model appropriate expressions of emotion. I encourage people to leave space for others to feel what they are feeling and to receive those feelings. Sometimes, when others around us are experiencing strong emotion, the natural response is to avoid or deflect because those strong feelings make us uncomfortable. But have you ever stopped to think of how powerful it is to dive right in instead? To welcome someone’s emotions? To sit with that person in their sadness or their grief? If you’ve ever felt sad and someone lined up with you emotionally and held space with you, then you understand how helpful it can be. All of a sudden, things don’t feel so hopeless. You might realize your feelings are normalized. You feel human. Affirmed. Understood.
I’m no longer afraid to cry in public. I am very open with my tears even though “men don’t cry.” In fact, we all cry. Men cry. Women cry. Children cry. In the Gospel of John, we are reminded that Jesus cried. Crying is helpful. Crying is healing. Through our tears, we release chemical reactions that help us to make friends with our unpleasant emotions. Our eyes become lubricated. Our hearts become more open. And when someone else’s sadness causes us to produce tears of our own, then we know we are having a real, true emotional connection with that person. We are demonstrating a very beautiful and necessary thing: human empathy.
If you are ever with me and you begin to cry, I promise to welcome your tears. I promise to sit with you and to be with you. I won’t try to solve your problems. I will just be present with you. In return, I hope that if I ever cry in front of you, that you welcome my tears just the same. If I ever preach a sermon, and become teary-eyed, just know that it means my preaching is coming from the heart. It means that I am allowing myself to be vulnerable with you. Vulnerability is a sign of trust. As a community, let us all work to continue to understand our emotions. As we can continue to be vulnerable with each other, we will continue to grow in faith. Our emotions are gifts from God. Let’s use them to build stronger relationships with each other.