The Tears of Men: A Consideration

September 4, 2019 Updated: September 4, 2019

Winston Churchill was a self-confessed blubberer. 

Biographer William Manchester tells us “no man wept more easily” than Churchill. Tears trickled from his eyes at the slightest provocation: a patriotic song, the bravery of Londoners during the Blitz, the death of a pet. Manchester tells us that Churchill even wept a river of tears watching “Never Take No for an Answer,” a hokey movie about a little boy whose donkey was dying. When the prime minister told the British people he had nothing to offer but “blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” he meant those tears literally.

I myself am a closet crier. When my eyes begin to leak, I prefer they spill in private. My children and I used to watch “It’s A Wonderful Life” during the Christmas season. Just before the scene where Jimmy Stewart finally explodes at all the frustrations and burdens he carries from life, I would excuse myself from the television and move to the kitchen to make popcorn, where my watering eyes would remain undetected. My wife and I often suffered hard times, and that scene hit home.

When I taught literature a few years ago, I soon learned which poems I could read aloud and which I had to assign to students to read, the ones that made my eyes well up with water. There’s nothing like the sight of some old guy crying over a poem to terrify young people.

And the tears of women … oh my gosh, the tears of women. These are the worst. Put me in the company of a weeping woman, and one of two things is certain to occur. Either I begin crying with her, or I am putty in her hands. 

Once a homeschool mother whose daughter was enrolled in my Latin and history classes began weeping in the parking lot of my home while recounting the recent death of her father from heart failure on a New York City sidewalk, alone and far from his home and family in North Carolina. Within seconds, I was sniffling with her. 

On another occasion, my wife and I had invited a real estate agent to our bed and breakfast to prepare for the sale of that property. When the time came to sign the papers to show the house, I realized that Kris had left the room. I excused myself, and found her pacing back and forth in tears in the living room. I gave her a hug, returned to the kitchen, and told the agent, “I don’t think we’ll be selling the place anytime soon.” Selling was the smart move, but Kris loved the house, so there you go.

Like Churchill, some men in literature and history are unafraid to cry in public. When Aeneas arrives in Carthage on his way to Italy, he sees scenes from the Trojan War carved on the walls of a temple. Overcome by memories of his lost comrades and his destroyed city, Aeneas begins to weep, “tears rivering his face,” and cries out to a companion, “The world is a world of tears and the burdens of mortality touch the heart.” In “Beowulf,” King Hrothgar weeps in gratitude after Beowulf saves his people from a monster. In Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur,” you’ll find enough salty water to fill a sea, spilled by the likes of King Arthur, Lancelot, and other lords and knights.

As for historical figures, the melancholy Abraham Lincoln frequently shed tears, most famously on receiving the news that his one-time rival, Stephen Douglas, had died. Ulysses S. Grant cried on hearing of the death of Lincoln, who had always supported him against his enemies in the Capitol. George Washington, who prided himself on his gravitas, dabbed tears from his face as the crowd cheered him at his first inauguration as president of the United States. When General Dwight Eisenhower was saying farewell to the troops who would cross the English Channel and invade France, his eyes filled with tears.

Despite some among us who believe men should become spigots, leaking water on any occasion, most guys still admire restraint in their fellow males. “Boys don’t cry” is a false and sometimes cruel admonition, because boys and men do need to release their emotions. On the other hand, however, no one I know, male or female, wants to be around a guy so fragile that he sobs on the drop of a dime.

At The Art of Manliness, editor Brett McKay’s article “When Is It Okay for a Man to Cry?” offers this advice:

“There are, of course, times when we feel sorrow or frustration so acutely that it must be let out. Yet there’s a balance between being so sensitive that a Hallmark commercial can make you weep and shedding some tears over something truly significant. Just as there is a balance between releasing some man tears and turning into that kind of blubbering mess that makes everyone feel uncomfortable.”

McKay then lists occasions when a man might get misty: the death of a loved one, leaving the altar with his new bride, the birth of his child. Some of us may not find ourselves choked up when our vehicle is totaled, which McKay also deems acceptable, but most would agree that crying when your favorite sports team loses, or when you’re frustrated or don’t get your way, is ridiculous. 

Though it didn’t make McKay’s list, crying because you feel sorry for yourself is also unacceptable. It’s … well, it’s just not done. In Gary Paulsen’s “Hatchet,” the story of a boy on his own in the Canadian wilderness, even the 13-year-old kid realizes the futility of lachrymose self-pity: 

“He did not know how long it took, but later he looked back on this time of crying in the corner of the dark cave and thought of it as when he learned the most important rule of survival, which was that feeling sorry for yourself didn’t work. It wasn’t just that it was wrong to do, or that it was considered incorrect. It was more than that—it didn’t work.”

Tears can bring a healthy release of pent-up emotions and of deep grief. Such tears are signs of our humanity. 

To show restraint, however, was and is a manly virtue as well. Like most men, I try to control my tears, especially over insignificant matters. Most of the time, I succeed.

Just don’t ask me to read “Gunga Din” or “The Man in the Glass” out loud.

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.

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