There is a stigma against showing our emotions in public.
I first experienced this in kindergarten when our class was watching an animated film about Christopher Columbus and his discovery of the Americas. Towards the end, I let a tear trickle down my face – a combination of genuine happiness of his success and of a yawn. A classmate noticed, and she whispered, “Gloria, why are you crying?” Soon, the whole classroom echoed this innocent, but awkward question, and I realized in an instant that crying was not normal in this society that I had been born in.
I never cried in the midst of a large group again until seventh grade, not even when the Pixar movie “Up” broke my heart, or when I read about the death of Sirius Black.
I felt that if I allowed myself to show how I felt, I would be perceived as weak. And I suspect that most of the world feels the same way.
Up until age 13, I had a picture frame in my bedroom. There was a mother tigress with her cub, and the text read;
“There is nothing as strong as gentleness. There is nothing as gentle as true strength.”
That surprised me the first time I read it, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized how it was true. Those who are weak bully others and try and prove that they are strong. Those who are strong don’t need to. Those who are strong can’t be hurt, because they have love. I wondered about myself and whether I was both gentle and strong. But my assessment was pulled back to the expectations of society, and I thought, I am weak because I don’t know how to be anything but gentle. So this combination of gentle and strong always seemed to elude me, profoundly, until I continued in my lifelong lesson in what it means to be human.
I had always envied boys. They were tough and emotionally stable. Or so I thought. Living with a brother since third grade made me feel immense sorrow for those who painfully suppress first certain emotions, and then both their identity and passion.
To be human is to feel. Why is society okay with so many emotions, but not those that leave us vulnerable? It’s okay to argue, shout, get angry, become bored, show annoyance, to laugh, to be tired, to show love, or feel amazement, but it’s not okay to grieve, to feel hurt, or scared, to be sad or lonely. We would sooner go up to someone and talk about our achievements with pride than burden them with our sadness.
I must have been sucked into this vortex of superficiality as well, until I faced a series of existential crises, which forced me to find some more meaning in my life than looking or sounding good. Without getting into too many details, I learned that vulnerability was necessary to achieve anything great.
The best music is not micromanaged and tightly controlled. It’s free, and risky. It thrills both audience and performer. To be human is the same way. A genuine human is, needless to say, not a preprogrammed machine, but a risk-taker and an open book.
And we’re scared of that. But we stop taking these risks at the risk of living uninspired. As Brene Brown says in her TED talk, “we cannot selectively numb”. You numb the bad feelings and you numb the good ones too. As the old cliche goes, you can’t have happiness without sadness, or sunshine without rain.
Anyway, after realizing this fundamental truth that had evaded me for so long, I was no longer ashamed to cry in public. There is no embarrassment in being human. There is a strength in caring for people and things and for the problems in the world. It is no bad thing to have a sensitive heart, or in Gandalf’s words:
“I will not say do not weep, for not all tears are an evil.”
(That part breaks me every time.) To live the full life, we must be open to feel the full spectrum of emotions. And perhaps that’s one of the secrets of happiness. To not fear the sad or the unknown, and to not fear fear itself either.