Do you cry in public? Do you cry in front of The X Factor or Downton Abbey when the emotion gets just a bit too overwhelming?
Remember that Hilary Clinton’s fight-back in the 2008 Primaries came, not when she started fighting, but when she started crying about how difficult things were in a downtown diner. And three of the Republican candidates choked up in front of millions of viewers at a recent debate in Iowa:
Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and former pizza executive Herman Cain both choked up and fought back tears. Santorum got misty-eyed when he talked about the struggles facing his young daughter Isabella, who was born with the genetic disorder Trisomy 18, which results in main-organ malfunctions. Cain, on the other hand, choked up about being diagnosed with cancer. Forum moderator Frank Luntz said: “I feel like Dr. Phil.”
William Leith explains how the return of public emotion is a return to the social norm, and the stiff upper lip is just a recent blip.
Interestingly, we haven’t always felt the need to stay in control. The academic historian Thomas Dixon, who has studied the history of crying, tells me that the 18th and 19th centuries were very “tear-soaked” – crying in public, particularly at the theatre, and particularly in the cheap seats, was no big deal. Emoting was linked to popular culture – and also to religion. There used to be lots of weeping when people found God, and when they repented their sins. Then came the era of the “stiff upper lip”, an age of stoicism engendered by Empire, the Victorian public schools, and muscular Christianity.
The fashion for keeping your emotions bottled up lasted about 100 years. “Since the Seventies,” says Dixon, “we’ve been returning to something like normality.” In other words, normality is about losing control.
I asked Adam Curtis why television is so busy creating these tear-jerking moments. There are various reasons, he said. One is that we are hungry for authenticity; in a highly mechanised world, in which we are often confronted with things that are fake, or are copies of other things, we seek the genuine. And the emotion that causes you to cry seems to come from far inside yourself. When you cry, it feels very personal. It feels as if the person crying is the real you.
“In this age,” Curtis says, “individual feeling is the most important thing for us. What we neglect to think is that these feelings are part of a wider social system. Your feelings are as much from outside you as inside you.” In other words, if a skilled television producer knows how to short-circuit our brains, if he can locate the neural back alley that leads directly to our amygdala, he can make us lose control for a moment. Is that right? “The great myth of our time is that what we feel comes totally from within us,” Curtis says. “It’s shaped by outside forces.”
So what were these outside forces? In the second half of the last century, we were stepping out of the shadow of totalitarianism, and wanted to celebrate the self. At the cutting edge, there were talk-ins and hug-ins and love-ins. After this, the culture at large began to celebrate open displays of emotion. Footballers hugged and kissed each other when they scored. The air-punch began its journey towards universal acceptability.
One by one, the old citadels of restraint toppled and fell. We began to see cricketers hugging each other, politicians punching the air when they won, and crying on television when they were skewered by a personal question. Gazza cried. Maradona cried. Margaret Thatcher cried. The Australian prime minister Bob Hawke cried. Peter Mandelson cried. Bill Clinton raised a finger to the corner of his eye, several times. Diana cried. Diana died. Blair, making the announcement outside the church in Sedgefield, seemed to be holding back tears. There was a catch in his voice. Anything less would have seemed inappropriate.
Then came the public outpouring. More recently, millions of Apple fans mourned the passing of Steve Jobs with similarly religious fervour. Candle-lit vigils were held outside Apple stores; wreaths and half-eaten apples were placed, and iPhones laid on the ground like virtual eternal flames.
Displaying our emotions, just like hiding them, seems to be contagious. Right now, we’re all going through a weepy phase. And who knows — in another few decades’ time, we might be back to the stiff upper lip.
Fashions move fast these days. One question remains. Is it healthier to hide our emotions, or to display them? Decades of research have come down on the side of display. But the tide may be turning. A survey conducted on Americans about the trauma of 9/11 has tentatively suggested that keeping your feelings bottled up might not be so bad. At least, those participants who chose not to discuss their feelings right after the attacks seemed to fare better, mentally and physically, over the next two years, than those who had responded openly about how 9/11 had affected them. The jury is out.
At seminary it was suggested that there was a place for ‘appropriate self-disclosure’ in your ministry as a priest. I have found that phrase very helpful over the years. As priests and public figures, our personalities and feelings are not meant to be completely hidden; but nor are they meant to get in the way of our ministry, or in the way of others meeting Christ. The word ‘appropriate’ is so important. We are human – but part of being human is knowing what to share with others and when to do that.