HE COMES HOME from playing. He is short, cute, wearing his winter clothes and somewhere under all that padding -- the parkas, mufflers and sweaters -- a tear appears. First one and then another. He is crying. A friend has said something, he reports. A friend has done something, he reports. His feelings are hurt, he admits. Stop crying, I say.
He tries. He tries hard. The tears stop. The sniffling ceases. He looks up at me with pride. He has done it -- he has stopped crying. I smile. He laughs. Now we can talk about what has happened -- man to man, as it were. Now we can laugh. Now we are not crying.
This happens. Sometimes often, sometimes only after a long time. It is not easy to say when it is right to cry -- when it's okay, and when it's not. The women's groups are telling us that one of the problems with men is that they can't cry. They are taught as little boys that crying is weak, effeminate, for girls -- and they are taught not to cry. It is, we are told, the first step down the road to emotional constipation -- being a man.
I don't know. I think about it, I think about the last time I cried -- the time on the playground when two kids fought me for the basketball court. One of them bit into my arm, clamped down hard and I cried. I tried hard not to, tried awfully hard, but the tears came anyway and the kids who were fighting me just stopped what they were doing and stared.They helped me straighten my clothes -- a Boy Scout uniform -- and they walked off confused -- maybe disgusted. It was as if they had fought a girl.
There have been some cries since then -- not many -- but some I cry every time I see the movie "Casablanca," especially the scene in which "The Marseillaise" is sung. I cry at the end of the movie "Sands of Iwo Jima" when John Wayne is shot in the back, and I cried just recently while reading in Lauren Bacall's book about the death of Humphrey Bogart. It was a good cry.
But that is it for me and so I read with some puzzlement about how the ladies say I should be able to cry and how I can't or I don't. I think I can't, but even if I could I think I wouldn't. I think it does no good, solves no problems and creates some. This is what I think I think. I am not in analysis so it is hard to tell for sure.
It is, of course, a bit more complicated than that. Not only don't men cry, but by and large they don't know how to cry -- a far more serious indictment. It means, the feminists would say, that men are icebergs, emotionally congested, frozen in the mold of a silly, outmoded, macho ethic. They would all be better off if they could let it out -- cry. This has become something of a basic tenet of the women's movement and what it comes down to, more or less, is that in this department -- crying -- women have it all over men.
There is room for some argument here -- the argument, for example, that this is standing matters on their head. Crying has always been seen as a sign of weakness and weakness, we all know, is bad -- not strong. That is what we teach our children, especially boys, and it makes some sense. Children use crying as a diversion, a red flag to make you feel sympathetic rather, say, than angry at something they have done. Children can also be incredibly self-centered, thinking that the word will wait for them while they have a good cry. It doesn't work that way. Most of the time the word could not care less.
Some of this applies to women, also. The vaunted feminine freedom to cry is often much-abused. It is sometimes intrusive, the sort of activity that forces you, compels you, to pay attention. Sometimes this is justified, but sometimes it is just plain childish, a way of getting attention when there might be other ways. Crying is also sometimes used in a manipulative way, another tactic to be used when logic or talent has failed -- in the same bag of tricks with skirts hiked too high or blouse cut too low. It has in these cases nothing at all to do with sensitivity. There are people who cry all the time about what has happened to them, but wouldn't shed a tear over what has happened to you.
Anyway, this question of crying, of when you tell a boy he can cry and when he cannot, has perplexed me and I decided to write about it. What I was going to say is that maybe this is one area where women could learn from men -- that what is needed is less crying from women and not more crying from men. There was a shrink I talked to who agreed with me on that, but there was a lady who did not and what she said was that this was just another example of the inability of men to communicate emotion. She said you could not just take crying by itself, but had to see it as part of a package and mostly, when it came to emotions and how to articulate them, this package -- most men -- were mute.
She went on, talking about her husband, about how one night he wanted to cry but couldn't. She recounted other incidents and I think I have had some myself and what she said, in the end, was that this put just more of a burden on women. They had to grope, to fish, to reach for some feedback, to sense the hurt or whatever and never have it talked about or confirmed. The way she described it, it sounded awfully hard to watch. And it left her, she said, feeling somehow responsible for her own emotonal state and also for his. It's just the way I feel when my son comes home crying. It's painful sometimes.
It's almost enough to make you cry.