It’s When I’m Crying That I’m Strong

I was having breakfast with a friend a month or so ago, and he was telling me about recent experience that had led him to tears. Big, fat tears of regret and pain and darkness. And, worse, it was in front of other people. So we talked about tears.

There’s a macho man myth that says “real men” don’t cry, that to be a “real man” is to be unaffected, to be a “real man” is to deny the things that hurt us, to be a “real man” is to brush yourself off and get back up again.

But, here’s the conclusion my friend and I came to: when we cry, when we embrace what we feel inside, that’s when we’re at our strongest.

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It takes no courage, no particular strength to avoid pain. Anyone can give himself to the pursuit of pleasure that denies or numbs the darkness. In fact, according to psychologist Terrence Real, in I Don’t Want to Talk About It, his book on male depression,

“There is a terrible collusion in our society, a cultural cover-up about depression in men.

One of the ironies about men’s depression is that the very forces that help create it keep us from seeing it. Men are not supposed to be vulnerable. Pain is something we are to rise above. He who has been brought down by it will most likely see himself as shameful, and so, too, may his family and friends, even the mental health profession. Yet I believe it is this secret pain that lies at the heart of many of the difficulties in men’s lives. Hidden depression drives several of the problems we think of as typically male: physical illness, alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, failure in intimacy, self-sabotage in careers.

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And I guess if a man doesn’t want to face his pain and would rather numb and ignore his inner truth, it’s his prerogative. But, I know in my own life, when I don’t acknowledge my inner realities, it comes out in less-than-ideal ways.

When I don’t enter into that space of honoring my emotions, when I’m not brave enough to face my inner truth, when I cheat and make a bowl ice cream, binge watch TV, pour a glass of scotch in place of facing my inner truth – it comes out sideways. My wife, my boys, my friends, my employees – they pay the price for my cowardice.

So, last year on my Sabbatical, I determined that I would face some of my own inner demons. I named some of my ugly truths. Some of them I named only to God. Some I named only to Jennifer, some I shared with others. And I learned some things.

First, I learned that not everyone is safe. As a “verbal processor,” I too often feel regret for the things I say in a conversation. I’ve learned that not everyone is safe. That’s not to say that other people want to harm me, but I’ve learned in time that I don’t feel safe when people don’t reciprocate. In time, I will come to think that I’m being judged or “managed,” and I’ll grow resentful.

I’ve also learned that not all truths need to be said out loud. Some I just need to acknowledge my truth in my own silence and solitude. (I read a novel on the beach over Spring Break in which there was this great line: “Marriage is made of lies. Kind ones, mostly. Omissions. If you give voice to the things you think every day about your spouse, you’d crush them to paste.”) I’m thankful that Jennifer doesn’t name all her truths to me!

And I’ve learned that I’m not a “wallower.” I don’t like to stay in tearful places very long. But I at least need to acknowledge my hurts, my brokenness, my sin – whatever darkness there is – and I need to feel it so I can get up and move on.

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So, here’s my manifesto:

When I cry, I am strong. When I name my doubts, when I embrace my failures. When I’m neither dismissive nor wallowing, when I choose to wrestle with the hard stuff, when I come back and apologize when I’m wrong, that is the true Charlie being his bravest self.

When I avoid, when I run, when I hide, when I choose to numb my pain. When I refuse to say “I’m sorry,” when I say the words, “I don’t want to talk about it”; when I try to be a macho, successful, American male who is unaffected by unkind words, intentional (or even unintentional) slights, heartache and rejection, that’s Charlie being his most cowardly.

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One final thing:

I’m fortunate that along the way, I’ve made plenty of friends like me. Men who are willing to be brave, to deal with their darkness. Men, who out of their love for themselves, their wives, their children, their friends are willing to be their bravest selves.

You know who you are. We’ve cried in restaurants, hugged in parking lots and declared our love for each other. Thank you.

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Hey, I Like You

I don’t normally get caught up in celebrity news. No judgement to those of you who follow it, but it’s just not my thing. I’ve never felt like I’ve wanted someone’s autograph and I surely don’t care what famous person is marrying/divorcing another famous person. I just don’t care that much. Except when Robin Williams died just over a year ago.

The thing that was saddest to me about Robin Williams was that it was as if he couldn’t hear the applause of the millions who loved his work. I don’t know what the voice inside his head told him, but it surely didn’t tell him how much we wish he were still around to make us laugh again. It didn’t tell him how much he was loved.

Earlier this summer I was reading Amy Poehler’s book, Yes Please, and she was talking about how she had occasionally performed with Chris Farley in their early years in Chicago. She writes, “He would stand backstage and berate himself if he felt he didn’t do a good job. It was almost like he couldn’t hear how loud everyone was laughing.” (emphasis added). I remember reading that sitting beside a pool this summer, and it took my breath away.

Because of the nature of my job I often end up being a reference for scholarship applicants, job applications and other situations in which having a clergy person say something nice will help someone out. And so, it’s not unusual for me to write letters or talk on the phone to say nice things about people. It’s really kind of fun.

A couple of months ago, I finished one such phone call and realized I was really excited about the opportunity I had to to talk up my friend, to talk about all the ways he’s amazing and how I think he does an incredible job and is one of the most creative people I know. And I just really, really like this friend of mine and it was fun to unabashadly brag about him for a bit with a stranger. It was kind of exhilarating. And just as I hung up the phone, driving home from work, sitting at a stoplight at the intersection of Allen Road and War Memorial, I had this thought: “You know, people feel this way about you, too.”

That’s hard for me to believe sometimes.

For me, some of this struggle is tied up in how I used to think about God. I used to have this idea that God didn’t really like me very much. In fact, he was rather appalled at me most of the time, but based on a technicality (Jesus), he loved me. In other words, I used to think God loved me, but he didn’t really like me. I don’t believe this anymore (mostly), but I’m still cleaning up the mess from that idea that lodged itself in the dark recesses of my mind.

And, it’s easy to only hear the critics. And it’s easy to only hear the inner voice that blames you for everything that happens, that tells you you’re not good enough. But, I promise you, there are people out there who love you and would love the opportunity to gush on and on about all your greatest attributes. In fact, they may be doing so when you’re not around (it’s just awkward though, to say it to your face).

So maybe, today, this is an invitation to tell someone you like them. Maybe there’s someone out there who needs to hear it from you. They need to hear about how great they are, and for whatever reason your voice matters to them. I know, we’re all busy, we all have a thousand things to do, we all think that everyone else has all their shit together and doesn’t need encouragement, because everyone else is confident and strong. But mostly, that’s a lie. And the people who project that are mostly just hiding. And the people who actually believe that are probably a bit narcissistic. Maybe today, in the middle of all the busyness – theirs and yours – you can speak something beautiful and meaningful into their life.

I know. It’s not Valentine’s Day or somebody’s birthday. It’s just Monday. But what if you spoke something beautiful into the world today? What if you told someone some (or all) of the ways that you like them?

PS: Somewhere in the space between the first draft of this post and the last, I got this text from a friend: “I just really really really really like you.” Unprompted. (I am not making this up!) And for a couple minutes, that text helped silence the other, darker voices in my head. And I smiled.

See?  It works.

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