I’m remembering back to a time long ago, when I was thinking about the special people in my life. I thought about how much they meant to me, and how I longed to demonstrate to them how much they meant to me, and how my lavish imagination produced heroic scenarios for me to burst into. I imagined stepping in to keep them or their families safe from danger, to be there solid as a concrete pillar should tragic circumstances arise, to be a rock when lives were on shifting sands.
I smile now at the gothic nature of these ruminations played out to a soundtrack of German opera. But I remember the guy I was then, and my memory is vivid around this. I feel now that I’ve come so far in a linear way, or maybe it’s just a qualitative shift that’s not so far removed from an earlier emotional locus.
In those days my emotions were not my friends. Feelings of tenderness and vulnerability lurked like a 4 year old that might at any time throw the tantrum of the century in the frozen food aisle. I became adept at sensing an imminent loss of composure, and would steer the conversation or events away, to a new track that was safe. I could simply change the subject, or use humour to lay down a smoke screen to obscure what was really going on with me.
I see now that my fantasies of coming to the rescue in my state of dormant heroism were a way to deal with emotions, to release something pent up, without having to verbalize what I was feeling. Such broad strokes would demonstrate the depth of my feelings of love and connection without having to fess up, to own my real emotions. In my world at that time such vulnerability was to be avoided at all costs. Admitting that a sad movie made me cry, or that someone’s actions had hurt my feelings could not be allowed to happen. I would preemptively accuse someone nearby of tearing up (as my wife of the time could attest), or I could tease someone, or simply lie about what I was feeling. Sadness could be masked with anger.
I recall sitting through movies with throat and chest muscles tensed, willing my eyes not to betray me by allowing a stray teardrop to burn a trail down my cheek. Kind words would trail off if an incoming swell of emotion was spotted. Letting the flood of emotion come had as much appeal as running down Main Street naked.
Permitting emotions to well up and be on public display was not to happen.
I can see the early roots of this behaviour in how I was parented, but it was also the social norm for lads of my vintage. Big boys don’t cry. Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about. Little baby. Crying like a girl. I was on a course for this to be a life long struggle. Fortunately and serendipitously events intervened, and long patterns were broken, and new openings appeared for me.
It has been a great boon to me to witness strong men articulate and display soft emotions. Once at a sports training session the organizer, a wonderful man named John, concluded the session by announcing, “I love you all, and see you next week”. Wow! Just like that! Out loud and everything! That was a turning point for me. I guess because I admired John for a number of reasons I saw his vulnerability that day not as a weakness but as a sign of strength. I didn’t immediately see that as a way I could be -- in fact I supposed that he was lucky to have genes that allowed him to show this publicly -- but I think that what I saw worked on me over time, and I was eventually able to see a path from who I was to how John was.
I took many courses after that not with the intention of opening myself up, or to be at home with vulnerability, but those were the effects that the training had on me. I saw that I did not need the excuse of running into a burning building to indicate my level of caring for people. I could express my feelings in words. I could say I love you, and just put it out there. I could drop walls, lay down defenses, and be stronger than I could ever be sequestered behind emotional fortifications.
I could, and I do. And in the simple expression of love and vulnerability, I awakened the dormant hero inside me.