Some actions are startlingly ambiguous. Right now for example I’m not shaving my upper lip. Am I growing a moustache –which would be an action—or am I simply not shaving my upper lip?
I had that thought, thinking about a topic that reared its head a few days ago, in passing, at the beginning of an opera review, where I spoke of crying.
I’d mentioned crying in response to opera.
And the next day a friend spoke to me about her husband, who had seen the review and was delighted because he also cries at the opera. And like me, he is of a generation reared to conceal such feelings. Two other gentlemen also spoke to me about crying.
So I thought I’d talk about it a little bit. When I started I thought I wouldn’t have more than a couple of paragraphs. Surprise surprise, the floodgates were open, and I am working hard to stop this from turning into War & Peace.
And so as it turns out, we’re speaking of another thing like my shaving example, hm, and here I am thinking of that proverbial stiff upper lip. I suddenly have a new perspective on the metaphor.
I have to ask, is it that we sometimes cry, or that we sometimes don’t stop ourselves from crying?
The analogy goes further.
There’s a kind of choice between a natural process and an intervention, refusing nature’s pathway.
The hair growth is the process that happens naturally, even, gulp, after we die (or so I have read). Shaving is a revolt against nature, an attempt to civilize the caveman, trimming and mowing the chaos of a facial garden.
Similarly, the emotional response –whether we mean the tears or something more extreme like sobs—is a natural eruption like a rainstorm.
But I am far less lucid about the alternatives, the choices for this one. I remember being teased for my tears as a child.
Boys don’t cry, I was told.
Men don’t cry, I heard.
And it gets messier because of course I transgressed. While I may have been told I wasn’t supposed to cry: I did anyway. I was perhaps one of the lucky ones, because I was exposed to things that would make me cry involuntarily.
Now imagine that you’re older and you discover via books or in conversation reasons to doubt what you learned before. Maybe you start to wonder if your previous conditioning was wrong. Can you allow yourself to cry, to surrender to those impulses, however taboo or forbidden they may feel?
Or maybe you think about it: but aren’t able to do so.
It’s a deep-seated set of messages that aren’t overturned easily. I’m reminded of the stutter we saw in The King’s Speech, a kind of visceral battle of wills, between one older set of instructions at a gut level, and new injunctions at a more superficial level of conscious thought.
I can’t help thinking that opera and classical music are really good for me: because they help overturn those old faulty messages.
Wagner’s operas, especially Parsifal, were among the first works to help subvert all that bad conditioning: softening me up.
In time I have found more and more. Beethoven leads me back to my true self. Poulenc strips away the BS and reminds me of who I really am. Debussy too. And John Lennon.
I’m lucky that so many different media & styles move me so much. I cry for baseball movies like Field of Dreams, or the politics of The Post or JFK. It was helpful to watch Dumbo as a dad with my daughter: which stripped another layer off of me.
One can read about the physiological processes of music. This is your brain on music, we would discover. There is something called a “Mozart effect”, someone claims.
So I would add my own little footnote at this point. Perhaps there is something redemptive about music, indeed, about the arts, in restoring ourselves to ourselves and subverting the false conditioning that may have been imposed upon us.
A stoic warrior is one who denies his or her feelings in service of their higher cause: because something important was needed, that precludes the luxury of feelings & tears. At times civilization demands such sacrifice, or maybe one thinks it’s necessary in the trenches of our 9-5 lives. And it is one’s humanity itself that is sacrificed.
Sometimes humanity needs tough heroes, and sometimes the gentler person that feels and cries, that is vulnerable and malleable. I think nasty impulses sometimes begin in the fear of exposure, fear of being shamed. If we are given space to be ourselves in whatever failed versions, we can find a happier reconciliation of our impulses. I recognize that what I am talking about in my personal restoration project is to redress the balance, to be less a pure warrior, less likely to sacrifice myself for a cause (and one where the enlisting was imaginary; nobody really asked me to enlist), and more likely to take care of myself. When push comes to shove, the warrior is still there, but he is no longer perpetually at attention, guarding the citadel of visceral emotion against anything soft & tender.
In case you’re wondering, the headline isn’t like the song in the musical, and Argentina doesn’t come into it. I am explaining what I do. I cry for me the way I run for me or lift weights for me or eat kale & krill oil for me. I do it because it feels good, and to block the impulse is harder and harder, finally.
One of the things I do on this blog is suggest films, CDs, operas, plays, books, that you might enjoy. Chances are you already know this phenomenon But if you’re like me, someone who was led astray when you were younger, crying might be something you’d really enjoy.