Growing up, I never believed I was a tough person, I didn’t hang around with the cool kids or the outcasts. Hell, at that age you don’t really know what being tough is. Does it mean you have the biggest muscles, push people around or generally act like a twat?
If I was ever under the illusion of being tough, that went out the window when I visited Howtown for a week. It was an outdoor pursuits week long school trip. Faced with a 30ft mountain climb and then abseil all my mental toughness and physical prowess vanished.
It wasn’t until that very moment of standing looking up to the cliff, did I realize I was terrified of heights. There’s nothing quite as sobering as the instructors calling you a “little girl” or “pansy” from the vantage point 30ft up a cliff.
So, I knew I wasn’t physically tough. I could handle myself in a fight, not that I’ve had many in 34 years of life mind you. There are some people who would say not getting into a fight, is the way to win a fight in the first place. i never thought i was tough or strong in the fights i got into as a young boy. Sometimes I won, other times I got the crud kicked out of me. But it didn’t matter, I knew that if someone wanted to beat me, they had to knock me down enough that I didn’t want to get back up.
Most of the fights I got into, were protecting my younger sisters who went to the same schools as I did. It mostly happened when my sisters confronted by someone, always used the lines, “I’ll get my big brother onto you”. As girls often do.
I looked for answers from parents, father figures and was mostly told what all boys are told, “suck it up”, “if someone hits you, make sure they don’t ever hit you again” that kind of thing we force feed young men when they grow up. The kind of message that can turn young boys into steroid taking super freaks or the lifer bully.
I thought weakness was to let people into your life, your heart. Because, how can anyone hurt you if you don’t let them in. But as a boy growing up, you learn to mask your face, you build barriers and hide behind walls of denial and self doubt.
You begin to believe you are all right, because other people think you are all right. That you pretend everything in your world is how you want it to be. The problem is you can hold it together most of the time. But, that dam that you build piles up with tonnes of water and eventually the cracks begin to appear.
The issue is when the water starts to flow, there is no real way to stem the tide of the tears that will follow. And, when you are a boy and you cry, you begin to feel really weak and self conscious. If you are the child of someone raised in the 80’s or 90’s you wont know the real loathing that comes from a boy crying. No, the real loathing comes from people raised by older family, parents who were raised in the old fashioned way, that boys don’t cry. Boy’s don’t show a shred of emotion either good or bad.
I talked to an elderly gentleman, the first time he ever cried and he only admitted this once. He cried when World War 2 ended. He remembered the men and friends he’d lost on Normandy and it made him cry. He came home from the war, never talked about crying to anyone. The happiest day of his life, he got married to a woman who waited for him. But, he didn’t cry on his wedding day, he didn’t cry when his wife passed away of breast cancer or any other countless times that would have made a modern day man cry. No, this man cried once and that was his lot in life.
As I began to build myself back up, after the dam broke, I began to look at the moments where I’d felt weak because of pain, or tears or every emotion I had in these cracked bits of dam, and I began to feel strong because I could let those memories and emotions strengthen me as a person. I looked back and realized I was tough, not because I could get up from a fight or handle a punch, I was tough because I had gone through the wringer of my own mind and come out as someone who wouldn’t be controlled by emotions and self hatred or doubt over whether it’s OK or not OK to cry.
My final word is this:
Stop telling your son’s that it’s not OK to cry, that a real man doesn’t cry. Because, you and I know that is a load of shit. Men cry, men have emotions and doubts. Men can be romantics, lovers and they can be tough.