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Guys who cry

More and more manly tears are being shed in public -- but should they be?

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Real men don't cry -- a least not in public.

Not so long ago, that was the maxim.

You look at old wartime leaders such as Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or hockey heroes such as Maurice (Rocket) Richard and Gordie Howe, and there's hardly a wet eye in the bunch.

Flash-forward to the crocodile tears we see pouring out of Wayne Gretzky and the public weeping of such modern politicos as George Bush, Bill Clinton and John Boehner and we see a huge change.

What happened? Why? And what does it mean?

Many will say we live in more sensitive time, and that the rate and occurrence of men crying in public reveals changing values. But it may also indicate a deep conflict between sincerity and showmanship. Cynics may say crying in public is nothing less than the manipulation of the public for personal, political and financial gain.

The truth is probably somewhere in between. To uncover it, perhaps some history will help.

Let's begin with the Kennedy clan, which made "no crying" its creed. There was the complete absence of tears when oldest son Joe's plane was shot down during the Second World War. Nor were there any public tears when John was declared missing in action and presumed dead after PT 109 sank.

Years later, when JFK was assassinated, brothers Bobby and Ted were joined by mother Rose, wife Jackie and daughter Caroline in steely, dry resolve. Even little John John managed a calm, heroic salute to his father's casket as it rolled forlornly by.

There were signs attitudes toward manly tears were changing, however. After Gen. George Patton slapped a GI who was suffering from "shell shock" (now known as post-traumatic stress disorder), he was severely ridiculed and disciplined, and there were whispers that "Old Blood and Guts" himself welled up about that.

Nevertheless, old attitudes were tough to break. Tears cost Sen. Edmund Muskie the Democratic nomination in 1968.

Nowadays, we have Justin Trudeau protesting he is not "a crybaby," but welling up over a photograph of his father. And we can't forget Republican John Boehner, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, weeping on 60 Minutes -- or whenever and wherever he can find the time and a handkerchief.

In this group we must include U.S. President Barack Obama, who had to brush his eyelids and pause while speaking about the Newtown, Conn., tragedy.

It was a tricky situation for Obama -- and especially his advisers. The absence of tears might create an image of insensitivity, but the image of a commander in chief crying in public has repercussions, too.

Contrast that with Bill Clinton getting caught laughing with colleagues immediately after Ron Brown's funeral before noticing a TV camera directed his way and wiping away fake tears.

One has to wonder how often men cry in public just for show or gain.

Retiring NFL superstar Brett Favre couldn't get 20 seconds into his retirement speech without breaking down, but a smiling Brett un-retired about 20 seconds later with the New York Jets. Gretzky gushed great gobs when he was leaving Edmonton but was giddy with glee when he arrived in L.A. This raises questions about the sincerity of such sadness.

How many times do we find an athlete tearfully saying "I apologize if my words or actions offended anyone," after an ill-considered tweet? Is he sincere or is he crying more because of all those endorsement deals at stake? TSN recently featured a Top Ten Crying Moments as a highlight package and the sincerity of the sobs was hard to see in most of those moments. (Tiger Woods crying after winning the U.S. Open he had dedicated to his late father, yes. Anybody missing out on setting a dubious personal record at the expense of team goals, no.)

Some people have taken to laying down some crying-in-public rules. Brett and Kate McKay of artofmanliness.com have prepared a list of Greatest Cries and Dishonourable Mentions.

They maintain that while there are perfectly acceptable times for men to cry in public, they should also make an effort to "fight back the tears."

The greatest cries, they say, are the ones where otherwise stoic leaders are so overwhelmed by an experience they can't help but choke up -- such as Dwight D. Eisenhower on D-Day. Knowing he was sending men into battle where a 70 per cent casualty rate was very possible, the general and future president grew misty-eyed as plane after plane, landing craft after landing craft, left for France.

 

Television has brought high emotion into our living rooms and network news anchors are supposed to be objective and distant from their content. Yet the granddaddy of them all, CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, choked up on air when he announced the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Later, Cronkite said it was not so much the death of the man but what Kennedy represented that overwhelmed him. This was truly another great cry.

The best (or worst) at faking sincerity comes from Madison Avenue, which gave us that infamous Keep America Beautiful commercial featuring "Indian" Iron Eyes Cody looking out over a polluted American landscape. As garbage is tossed out of a passing car, a huge tear rolls down his cheek. But this "Indian" was really actor Espera Oscar de Corte, an Italian, and they had to use glycerin to create the emotion de Corte could not conjure up.

Topping the Dishonourable Mentions list is pseudo-evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, who sobbed "I have sinned," when he was caught with his pants down with a prostitute only to claim, "The Lord told me it's flat none of your business" when another prostitute pulled his pants down three years later.

But none of this answers the question, why do we cry in the first place?

Crying is the first way humans communicate. A baby cries to indicate it is hungry or wet (the second way we communicate is to turn our head away from food and this is why we nod our head from side to side to say "no"). A psychiatrist would loosely define crying as an attachment mechanism designed to solicit help from others.

Physiologically, crying serves a useful purpose as well. Tears are 98 per cent water but scientists have been able to separate tears into three types based on differences that exist in the remaining two per cent: Basal, to maintain basic lubrication; reflex, to respond to irritants; and psychogenic, to rid the body of chemicals built up from stress.

So crying has physiological and psychiatric benefits. But as we grow older, there is a perception we should be able to control crying that has little to do with all this.

How does crying fit with the macho image man has perpetuated and has been made to live up to?

Dale Spencer, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Manitoba, included a chapter about crying among athletes in his book, Ultimate Fighting and Embodiment -- Violence, Gender and Mixed Martial Arts. He found that, along with a release (of happiness or sadness depending on the outcome of their match), there was a "transformation of self.

"There is a realization that you are different," Dr. Spencer says, "That you are a winner or a loser and therefore, you have changed."

Win or lose, the rule is to try to control yourself in public during emotional times. Most of these are private moments that can draw sufficient comfort from people close to you. If you can't, keep in mind that scarcity often creates impact; the less frequent something is, the more weight it has. So, when a man cries, if something significant has happened, people will take the tears seriously.

Crying out loud really doesn't accomplish very much anyway. Turning one's self into a blubbering mess certainly isn't any help when those around you are looking for strength and leadership.

Yes, crying is therapeutic. The good feeling one gets after "having a good cry" can refresh and recharge us so we might change the situations that made us cry in the first place.

But whatever happened to the practice of going off by ourselves and bawling our eyes out, only to return strong and determined to make those changes that are needed?

Maybe we all should be playing baseball. Because, as everyone knows, there's no crying in baseball.

Don Marks is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 25, 2013 J14

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