Mark Greene has to dig deep to recall the memory. Nearly 50 years deep, and not even a real event.
Greene’s singular recollection of a grown man crying was James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause.” He saw the film when he was about 10.
“It was repulsive to me,” said Greene, 57. “We are, collectively, a bit horrified to see that happen on a man’s face.”
“It” being tears. “We” being men.
Greene, of New York, has strayed far from that thinking over the years. Now the father of a 12-year-old boy, he is a writer, filmmaker and creator of remakingmanhood.com, a website featuring provocative articles on fatherhood, men and emotional health.
He and his wife work hard to ensure that their son is “OK with expressing his feelings. We want to help him understand that there are different levels of emotions; happy and angry, but all kinds of middle spaces, too.
“And we remain in conversation with him, sometimes at bedtime or walking down the street.”
Greene’s approach is admirable, unusual and, sadly, un-American.
“American manhood,” Greene said, “is someone who does not show uncertainty or tears.”
I’ve been mulling men and boys and tearless living a lot since attending a national conference in mid-September called “The Many Faces of Manhood.”
Sponsored by A Call to Men, a national violence prevention organization, and funded by the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, the Bloomington conference tackled fatherlessness, violence and incarceration.
Yet, the diverse discussions often shifted to a common theme: our society’s mandate that little boys buck up.
“I’ll ask men anywhere in the country, ‘What age do you start telling boys to not cry?’ ” said Ted Bunch, A Call to Men’s chief development officer. The answers range from ages 2 to 5, “and certainly by the time they start school,” Bunch said, noting that girls never get the same memo.
“The only emotion boys get to express is anger, and what anger really masks is the fear and the pain and the hurt.”
Bunch, 56, emphasized that fathers don’t do this because they think it’s a good idea.
“We’re not bad parents,” he said. “But fathers, who grew up in the same culture of masculinity, are trying to toughen their boys up so they don’t become a target on the playground.”
Women don’t get a pass here. Wittingly or unwittingly we, too, box in boys — and men.
“Even some women will say, ‘Man up!’ as fast as some men will,” Bunch said.
“Men have said, ‘Look, my wife, my girlfriend doesn’t want me to be soft.’ Men are supposed to be strong and fearless. We’ve all been misinformed.”
If you doubt this, do what I did: Reach out to men in your life and ask them when they saw another man cry for the first time and, also, their reaction to it. Or ask them the reaction they got the first time they cried openly.
They may struggle to answer. Or, as in my case, they may dodge your question completely.
The few who did respond via e-mail offered poignant replies.
Nate Jordan, 41, of Plymouth was 8 when he saw a man cry for the first time — his father, who has just lost his own father.
“My father received the phone call and then sat my sister and myself down with him on the couch,” Jordan wrote. “I just remember him putting an arm around each of us, holding us tightly and sharing the terrible news. At that moment he shed a few tears. I felt extremely confused and sad for him, as I have never seen this man hurt by anything.”
Another Minneapolis man, who asked that his name not be used, recalled at 17 driving downtown to pick up his inebriated father.
“It was a quiet drive back but he, in his alcohol, was drowning in his sadness and his weakness that I did not know then. Now, I do. He was also angry to see a son rescuing a man who would need more rescue and, then, pity. He wasn’t mad at me. He was mad at everything except gin. So he started to cry.
“I wasn’t able to cry then, and I don’t cry now when I think of how alcohol can ruin a man,” he continued. “But I remember Dad and his whiskery face next to mine, tight while he said he was so sorry.”
Bunch is not surprised that most men chose to avoid answering my request. He said he’d never seen a man “fully cry,” either. “I’ve seen a mouth quiver, pain in his eyes, but he shuts it down. It has to be something tragic, the death of a mother or child, or winning a championship.”
He laughs at that last point, but agrees with Greene that there is a steep price to pay for such stoicism.
Greene recently posted a video called “The Emotional Suppression of Boys and Men” that offers a troubling list of what such suppression creates: stress-related diseases, violence and rising suicide rates, for starters.
He pointed also to a 2010 AARP study revealing that one in three Americans 45 and older is chronically lonely. He’d wager that he knows the gender of most of them.
“When we teach boys to not express themselves emotionally, we take away one of the most primary mechanisms for forming relationships,” Greene said. “On the other end, we have an epidemic of isolation and loneliness, especially among men.
“But,” he said, hopefully, “we are seeing a tipping point.”
That tipping point includes greater value placed on “emotional intelligence” in the raising of both boys and girls, and growing support for social and emotional learning in schools.
“When you integrate this type of learning into academics,” Greene said, “you get an 11 percent increase in academic performance. Learning how to manage and name emotions creates resiliency and strength, in both boys and girls.”
Bunch, too, is hopeful that a new generation of boys will be allowed to express a wider range of normal human emotions, leading to all sorts of good things.
“Wouldn’t he be more understanding, patient, open? Wouldn’t that give him more respect for what women bring to the table? We’d be closer to our humanity,” Bunch said.
“And I’m sure there would be less war and dominance.”