About 15 years ago, I was shopping in my local grocery store in Waynesville, North Carolina, when a man who once owned an antique store near my bookshop on Main Street offered me condolences about my wife’s recent death. Within two minutes, he changed direction and launched into an account of a sexual encounter he’d had in his store after hours. I will spare you the details, but about halfway through his narrative, he stopped, looking puzzled, and said, “I don’t know why I’m telling you this story,” and then resumed his narrative. I was too polite, and too stunned, to intervene and tell him to cease work.
While he was speaking, however, I was pondering the same question he had raised: Why was this guy telling me these things?
Maybe we can attribute it to these five words: “Let it all hang out.”
All Heart, No Head
Here’s the definition of this phrase from the online Collins Dictionary: “If you let it all hang out, you relax completely and enjoy yourself without worrying about hiding your emotions or behaving politely.”
I nominate “Let it all hang out” with its rather sloppy definition as the byword of our culture and the wrecking ball of civility, disinterested discourse, and truth.
From television talk shows to the vulgarities employed by politicians and protesters, from the rude talk of radio “shock jocks” to the confessions of acquaintances barely known to us, we find ourselves deluged by the unfettered emotions of others. Ours is now a culture powered by sentiment and passion rather than by thought and introspection. As a result, our public dialogue and behavior have grown more and more adolescent and immature.
Even complete strangers sometimes bare their souls to us. Once in my bookshop, a customer entered, and within minutes was telling me authorities had recently accused him of child abuse. He denied the charges, proclaimed his innocence, and then left the store, never to be seen on the premises again. Perhaps, like a priest or a bartender, owners of small bookshops are regarded as confessors.
Moans and Groans
A handmaid to this desire to unload our every thought and indulge in our feelings is complaint. We feel free to dump our misfortunes on others without considering that we are spreading our misery. Here’s a trivial example. I have several acquaintances who respond to “How’s it going?” with long, involved recitations of their latest health or family issues: back problems, arthritis, child care, engine troubles with the car. Whatever happened to the perfunctory “I’m fine, thanks. How about you?”
Recently, a good friend, a man in his late 50s, was describing some health issues. He then stopped and mentioned that his father, a veteran of World War II and an accountant who had died years ago, had major health problems the last few years of his life. “But you know what?” my friend said. “I never heard my father complain. Not once. And yet here I sit going on and on about my cholesterol, and my diet, and my aching back.”
Once Upon a Time
There was a time when we admired restraint in our fellow human beings. If we visit Hollywood back in the day, we don’t find John Wayne crying into his whiskey because Jimmy Stewart married his sweetheart in the film “The Man Who Killed Liberty Valance.”
The flinty missionary played by Katherine Hepburn in “The African Queen” doesn’t feel compelled to share her every thought and feeling with Humphrey Bogart’s Charlie Allnutt. Even recent movies celebrate restraint and a stoic attitude toward pain missing in society today. When German soldiers shoot Sgt. Horvath twice through the chest in “Saving Private Ryan,” and his captain asks him if he’s all right, Horvath replies, “Just winded,” before he dies.
Such reticence was once particularly admired in men, but that is no longer the case. In the last 30 years, many in our culture have denigrated male taciturnity, and have encouraged boys and men to acquire skill sets once traditionally associated with women: sensitivity, openness, and greater emotional awareness.
Death of the Grownup
“Let it all hang out” and its general acceptance have brought profound and often unrecognized changes in politics and culture. To adjust to our therapeutic culture we have, for example, replaced the classical virtues—justice, prudence, temperance, and courage—with the virtues of the social justice set: acceptance of various lifestyles, diversity, equality, and “rights.”
These “virtues” prevail in our universities, our government, and our corporations, where they are enforced by fear, by the quelling of freedom of expression, by the unspoken threats of what happens to those who cross the boundaries of the politically correct.
In her book “The Death of the Grownup,” Diana West writes, “Chucking maturity for eternal youth may have created the culture of permanent adolescence, but it should now become apparent that this isn’t the same thing as achieving cultural longevity. The question is, what if it turns out that forever young is fatal?”
Maybe it’s time for a sea change.
Maybe it’s time to hang up on “Let it all hang out” and take up reticence and restraint.
The next time the bank teller asks how we’re doing today, we can say, “Fine. And you?” instead of describing our sleepless night. The next time we want to unload our troubles on someone, even a friend, we might pause a moment and ask ourselves what is the good in sharing that information. We may feel better after the conversation, but our friend may feel terrible. The next time we want to criticize a spouse over failure to perform some household chore, we may decide to bite our tongue and try to find some humor in the situation.
In the movie “Finding Forrester,” an elderly writer says to his young protégé, “You could learn a little something about holding back.”
I suspect most of us could do the same.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.