His unrestrained emotion made me uncomfortable. Something inside me needed it to stop. The more he cried the more I wanted the camera to move to another athlete. I needed distance. And then the middle-aged male coach placed his arm around the young gymnast’s shoulders. Too much. It’s one thing to tear-up with red eyes and another to release them uncontrolled. Did they not know they were on worldwide television? Men do not cry like that in public. No. Couldn’t handle it. Needed it to stop.
Last night, my wife and I sat in the loveseat enjoying our nightly viewing of Olympic competition. She turned to me, “I’m loving this guy’s emotion. He’s just letting it flow.” Part of me wanted to dismiss the crying because it was men’s gymnastics. From a macho, American perspective, this was not a “real man’s sport” like football or baseball. I bet the men who tend to compete in gymnastics are overly emotional. I bet the sport draws this type of personality. As I listened to myself, I could not believe my inner dialogue. I was startled by the hyper-masculine judgment that surfaced within me. A critical voice reappearing from a dark corner. I consider myself a sensitive dude, one of the guys in touch with their feelings. A man willing to be honest about what stirs inside. You know, a forward thinking guy. Yet, I could not deal with the crying Brazilian.
The camera switched to other athletes, but it kept coming back to the raw emotion pouring out of the expressive gymnast. Overwhelmed. Scrunched Face. Tears. He had just finished a fantastic floor routine. The commentator noted the tears stemmed from joy because he realized a metal was within reach. It was only a matter of which one. When they announced the final scores the young man, now standing on his feet, released more emotion with open gestures. He won silver. He exploded with excitement.
As the Brazilian’s emotional response increased, I couldn’t ignore my discomfort. It was relentless too. Hounded me. Reminded me that was it not okay to express this level of feelings. It was not acceptable to accept another man’s freely flowing emotions. Not in that setting. Couldn’t handle it. Needed it to stop.
When I woke this morning, I couldn’t stop thinking about the young gymnast, hands in the air, tears unrestrained. I thought about his gentle coach who wrapped an arm around him, not trying to calm him or stop the tears. He just sat with the young man. Shared the moment. Offered words of what appeared to be celebration and encouragement. He embraced him like a friend. A family member. A human being.
The more I digested the scene, I realized how perfectly natural the gymnast’s expression was in that moment. Completely appropriate for a young man who reached a goal he worked towards for years. I can’t fathom the sacrifices he made and the commitment and discipline necessary to compete at the Olympic level. He had every right go let the joyful tears flow. And it was my problem that I had an issue with it. Not his.
His emotional display terrified me. Translation: I feared how others would perceive me if I released a similar, unrelenting cry. I worried others would see me as weak, soft, and inferior. Deserving rejection.
I can’t help but view my response through the lens of fatherhood. I am raising a boy. A boy moving through the toddler years and displaying wild flashes of emotion, often emotions he does not know how to control. But the day will come when he will learn he has the power to control them and I hope he will find a healthy way to express his feelings. Not the bottled-up, macho version of American masculinity but something along the lines of the cry released by the young, Brazilian athlete. I hope he cries tears of joy and sadness and frustration. A gushing river. Whatever the moment warrants.
And I hope to learn how to do the same.