Growing up, I saw people around me cry all the time. Just that most of them happened to be women. It was, back then, reassuring to know that the stereotypes associated with my gender at least allowed me to break down every once in a while. But what often left me perplexed as a child was this absolute lack of emotion I saw in the men in the family.
There was stoicism and even hurt, but it was carefully bottled up to be processed at a time when the rest of the family members weren’t watching. I still remember the time when my paternal grandmother passed away and my father was visibly heartbroken but not a tear was shed during her last rites and even in subsequent days.
My mother’s gentle advice to us was to not bother our father during those days because he would be processing the loss in isolation. Looking back, I wonder if he would have received closure much earlier if only he’d cried and let the baggage out. Only when I entered the adult life did I realise that he was merely subscribing to the notion that ‘boys don’t cry’.
Today, I am exactly the age my father was when he lost his mother. My fear is I might just have imbibed the ‘no-crying’ principle, though I do address my disappointments in the form of cribbing and complaining, but my eyes simply refuse to shed tears.
I have not been able to figure out what it is that holds me back, but I am certain that something does. To others, it often comes across as cold-heartedness. Recently, I was calling out a friend on the lack of professionalism he had displayed at work. My intention was to give him a perspective that he may not have had.
Before I could proceed to say anything, he broke down for reasons that had to do with his personal life. While I did manage to console him, a part of me was wondering what a personal setback had to do with his work. This is often seen as coldheartedness, and most of us are cautious enough to not project such an image when a conversation driven by reason veers towards an emotional tangent.
Is this the beginning of indifference, that messy untying of cords with what makes us human — our ability to empathise? Or could it be that I am unconsciously imbibing values that I see men in my life embody? I posed this question to a close friend who I have never seen break down, including when her father passed away two years ago. “I tell myself I can handle it” — was her response.
This is what I tell myself too. That idea is dangerously flawed — because then you are going through experiences in a certain catatonic state, hoping that time or some other force will help you process it. Worse, when you tell yourself you can handle everything, you expect others to do the same; you inadvertently set a standard for something that should be a subjective response.
One’s utter failure in breaking down means others too begin to think you can take on more than you can chew because you have made it normative. Whether at work or at home — showing vulnerability is what makes us human and humane at the same time. And yet, there is a micro minority of people like us who refuse to put our vulnerability out there. Could we be gathering more skeletons in our closet in the process? Perhaps. Perhaps not.