Big Boys Don’t Cry

The figure skaters at the Olympic winter games have to practice for years, honing their skills for this remarkable event.  But once they skate, their performance is not over.  They then repair to what is known as the “kiss and cry” room–a space that is camera-ready for fans to watch their every gesture, every twitch of the mouth, every tear of joy or disappointment that might creep out. (Facts taken from NY Times, 2/22/10, pp. A1 and A3)  

A major set with a backdrop and lights was created for “kiss and cry” for the first time in 1988 in  Calgary.  And ever since, the skaters have had to endure not just the stress of their performance on ice, but the stress of sharing their emotional response to their performance with . . . well, the whole world.  Some skaters try to smile, no matter what.  Others wave to folks back home.  Still others gesture, sending secret messages to special friends or family.  It’s all so awkward. 

The United States team practice their “kiss and cry” responses in a special training program.  After all, no one  wants to sit in an unseemly position on camera (girls), or make the mistake of cursing after failing to do well on the ice (boys).  In 2009, after Jeremy Abbott, a two-time U.S. champion, saw his score, he “made shooting gestures, into the camera and into his head.  Then he screamed, ‘I love kung fu!’ because he had been inspired by the movie Kung Fu Panda.” (NY Times)

Last week American competitor Evan Lysacek skated beautifully, setting himself up for the gold two days later.  Afterward, he sobbed.  Just sobbed.  His coach, Frank Carroll, said, “I’m very stoic in a way, very disciplined, and I think, when the ski jumpers, when they win, they don’t start to cry.  Let’s put it this way: I don’t like figure skaters to cry.”

Coach Carroll, this is what I have to say about that: I have two grown sons, and I hope they can cry.  I hope they cry when they’re very happy, and I hope they can let tears loose when they are sad.  Crying allows us to ease the mind, cleanse the soul.  When tears remain unshed, especially tears of anger or sadness, you can be sure that those feelings will be released in other ways, too often in destructive ways.  

Little boys are held and comforted by their parents when they are hurting.  But there comes a time when boys are told, “Big boys don’t cry.”  And they start holding in all those feelings of hurt and sadness that all human beings experience.  They don’t cry anymore.  But part of their humanity is then constrained, cut off.

How would our world be different if men were allowed the full range of emotional expression?  Would there be as much violence in the home?  Would war so often be the recourse when nations disagree?  Or would there be more emotional space for compassion?  Men, I think, would live longer and would have more emotionally and spiritually intact selves. 

So Coach Carroll, let your boy cry.  There is much to grieve, but there is much to celebrate.  And it takes a whole person to do either.      


What Does It Mean to Be Whole?

I was very moved by an article I saw in the Oregonian yesterday (2/18) on page 1 of the Metro section: “Dancing (and living) Her Dream.”  The piece concerned a young woman, Kiera Brinkley, age 16, who is a dancer.  But not just any dancer.  You see, she contracted meningococcal disease when she was 2, and in order to save her life, doctors had to amputate her legs above the knee and her arms below the elbow.  I thought about this child–never able to carry out the simple functions of everyday life on her own, never able to brush her teeth or touch the face of a loved one with her finger tips. 

Kiera has always known she looks different, the reporter tells us, but her mother, Elesha Boyd has ensured that the difference her daughter feels is only on the outside.  Kiera’s social worker at Shriner’s Hospital says that Kiera was “obviously distraught” after the amputations, but her mother saw her “as the same girl, just shorter” and she always treated her like a normal kid.  So Kiera saw herself as normal, too.

Therapists taught her to walk with prostheses, and when it was time for Kiera to enter elementary school, her mother asked the school to show a film about children who come to Shriner’s.  So when Kiera showed up at school, she was seen as a movie star, because she was like the kids in the movie.  She lived up to that image.

Kiera became a cheerleader, using prostheses.  Then she discovered that she like to dance, and she began tap-dancing lessons, wearing pants on the bottom of which her mother.had fitted taps.  “When I dance,” Kiera says, “people see me as a girl who’s smiling.  They don’t see me a girl who’s not considered whole.”

Last year Dream Factory got in touch with Kiera and asked her to tell them her wish.  She was shy, but she finally admitted that her dream was to travel to New York and go to a workshop at Julliard.  She and her family went, and Kiera worked with some of the best dancers at this prestigious school.  After the workshop, the dancers said they wanted to learn from her.  They lined up behind her and she taught them a dance she had choreographed herself.

Kiera danced for her school last week.  Her dance was full of heart, and she danced as though she had no limbs missing at all.  Students began clapping in time to the music, first one, then others, then everyone.  When her dance was over, they rose up and gave Kiera a standing ovation.

I thought about this extraordinary young woman and her personal accomplishments.  I mused upon what had made it possible for a child with such a difficult beginning to live with such verve and confidence.  The story has a lot to teach all of us:

–When we are little, we learn who we are by how others perceive us, especially our parents.

–The eyes of love are a powerful antidote to fear and hopelessness.

–We can all do some things well–we need to find those things and give our gifts to the world.

–We need to dream always.

–We need to voice our dreams, no matter how outlandish they may seem.

–All of us, no matter how much of an “expert” in our field, can learn from others.  A truly great person is always characterized by humility.

–Giving makes a person feel strong and valuable.


Twenty Years Ago Today Nelson Mandela Walked Free

On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela left a South African prison after being imprisoned for 27 years.  He had been given the option to leave earlier, but he refused to leave until his people were made free.  Can you imagine it?  Prison is supposed to break the prisoner’s spirit, change his resolve.  But here was a prisoner who dared to dictate the terms of his own release.  Mandela said in effect to his captors, “I will leave only when you change, when you transform.”

Mandela’s release was celebrated by freedom-loving people everywhere.  But not doubt his witness meant the most to those who, like himself, were held captive in various dictatorships around the world.  The NY Times last Sunday (Sunday Opinion, p. 11) printed statements from six of these individuals.  I will summarize three of those accounts here.

Jack Mapanje was in Mikuyu Prison in Malawi when Mandela was released.  The news was whispered to him by a daring prison guard.  President Banda, a fervent support of apartheid, was shamed, says Mapanje, and almost immediately afterward, the prisoners’ food improved, the strip searches happened less frequently, and political prisoners held in isolation were allowed into the general population.  By the end of 1992, Mapanje writes, there were no more political prisoners at Mikuyu, and multiparty elections were initiated.  “Nelson Mandela’s release changed permanently the politics of Malawi . . . .”  JACK MAPANJE is a visiting fellow at Newcastle University Center for Literary Arts in Britain.

Wei Jingsheng was one of the Tiananmen Square demonstrators.  In August of 1989 he was sent to Hebei Prison for “incitement to overthrow state power.”  Those imprisoned with him were pessimistic about China’s future and wondered why they should bother to persist.  But then they read newspaper reports and saw TV news about Mandela’s release.  Jingsheng writes, “He had never lowered his noble head in front of his enemy, and eventually his enemy had retreated.”  Jingsheng told his guards, “This guy is just as ‘silly’ as I am, but he reached his goal.”  He ends his statement by saying “it is important to bear life’s setbacks, and maintain unbending confidence in eventual success.”  WEI JINGHENG  was in jail in China from 1979 to 1993 and now lives in Washington.

It was during Ko Bo Kyi’s second term as a political prisoner in Burma that an article on Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, was smuggled into the prison, and he had a chance to learn of Mandela’s refusal to give up his witness.  Mandela became an inspiration to all of the other political activists confined there in Rangoon’s Insein Prison.  The Burmese authorities pressured Ko Bo Kyi to co-operate with them, but he was able to resist.  When he was released, he escaped to Thailand and got a copy of Mandela’s book, where he read the words, “The challenge for every prisoner, particularly every political prisoner . . . is how to emerge from prison undiminished, how to conserve and even replenish one’s beliefs.”  KO BO KYI spent nearly 8 years in prison in Burma before escaping to Thailand and co-founding the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Not everyone is a Nelson Mandela, called by history and place, and given the courage, to make social change.  But never forget that each of us lives as a witness every day, in word and in deed, and others are watching and listening.  Something we say or do we may see as inconsequential, but it may have a lasting influence on another’s life.  To understand this is to walk in the world with more grace, courage, and compassion.




Excerpt from “Way Beyond Time”

I have just written a rather lengthy essay on the subject aging and death.  So my blog this week will consist of an excerpt from that essay, “Way Beyond Time.”

                                                                      . . . . .

Death somehow always comes as a surprise, as an aberration, though it is the experience that we surely hold most in common with all living things.  We learn that we are “terminal,” as they say of the place where you get off, the last stop, and we feel misjudged, even betrayed.  Won’t I be the exception?

We know others die.  And we think, it’s too bad isn’t it.  But it’s always someone else.  A woman says to her husband, “Sweetheart, if one of us should die first, I think I’ll go and live in Paris.”

Years ago one of my minister friends told me a story about a pastoral visit he had with a man who was 89 years old.  The man had been told that he had cancer, and that the disease was advanced.  He was “terminal.”  When my minister friend approached the man’s hospital bed to bring him some comfort of whatever kind can come when there is nothing to be said, the old man looked at him, incredulous, and asked, “Why me?”

Five years later I am visiting that same minister friend.  His name is Dan.  Before he became a minister, he was a postman.  Now he has brain cancer, and he is dying.  The ministers of his acquaintance have pooled their money to buy him and his wife a new washing machine and dryer so they won’t have to go across town to the laundromat.  I was one of Dan’s closest friends when we were seminary students, and I love the man, so I have flown down to say good-bye.  His head is shaved from his surgeries, and he is thin.  A Buddhist who has meditated for years, Dan is calm and quiet.  On the other hand, I am frustrated and angry, and tears edge out in spite of myself.  I want to rant and rave.  Dan says, “It’s all right.  I’m all right.”  And I see that he is.  He died a few weeks later.  Every time I dance to “Three Dog Night” I remember how Dan used to leap into the air, dancing to their music: “Joy to the world, all the boys and girls, joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea, joy to you and me.”