When I was in college, my roommate at the time introduced me to a challenge that was being spread around Reddit. It was called the No Cry 19 Challenge. It was a playlist of videos that was guaranteed to make people cry. They weren’t all sad, though many were, but were just extreme from an emotional sense. Extremely sad, extremely happy, and just a whole range of emotions. The comments were fun to look at as you saw a wide range of individuals detailing out how far they made it, with many falling off within the first ten videos.
The challenge was fun but it also made me realize two ideas. The first, is that it’s a universal thing to need to cry, and through empathy we’re able to share in those emotions other have. This sounds super philosophical, like some hoity-toity shit, but the fact of the matter is that it is one of the most human things to cry. Many other animals don’t even have tear ducts that enable them to do so. It’s been shown that elephants can grieve but they still cannot physically cry like we do. Humans are able to express in such an extreme physical manner what we feel emotionally. That shit’s ours. We own it.
The second is that the challenge made me think about how society is built in many ways to not let us cry. It’s become a trope unto itself that men need to “man up”, to repress themselves emotionally. “Boys don’t cry” isn’t just something we say to kids, it’s something that’s ingrained in our culture. Men are seen as powerful if they never express themselves except through either stoicism or violence. Women are told to not cry as it’d only let the person who hurt them see weakness, and especially to never let men see them cry as they won’t take them seriously. We see expression itself as weakness. It’s a No Cry Challenge because we should strive to not wuss out through the most emotional and empathetic moments.
I learned this second idea very young. My mother taught me early that it’s okay to cry, something that came in handy when I was the youngest of three children and the easiest to pick on. I weaponized those tears. Not only could I get comfort from my mother but I could then get my older sisters in trouble. However, I learned pretty soon after that society didn’t work the same way. When I cried on the playground, no one stopped to ask me what’s wrong. No one comforted me and the bullies would move on to keep playing. When I cried in Middle School because of bullying, I was taken out of class. The teacher listened to my reasons and figured I just needed to socialize better and so forced me to communicate with those around me that made fun of me. I learned quickly that it may not be worth it to cry all the time. I learned that a lot of times, no one cared when you cried and even when someone did, it didn’t mean they would help you.
I learned young and the hard way not to cry.
I tried not to cry a lot. Being a part of a big extended family, I’ve been to several marriages, but because many of my family are much older, I’ve been to more funerals. I didn’t cry for my grandfather on my mother’s side because I was too young to understand death fully, at the time. But when an aunt died of cancer young, I realized I still wasn’t able to cry, even when I wanted to. And then after more and more funerals, I realized I wasn’t crying at all. I specifically remember in early high school when I cried and suddenly realized it was the first time in years. It’s not that I couldn’t cry. I’d have the occasional moment when something upset me but I never cried when it mattered and couldn’t see the point of crying over anything if it wasn’t going to help me fix it.
It was the middle of high school when I finally learned how important it was to cry.
I still can’t remember the exact words that my mother and father said. All I remember is my middle sister and I on the floor, holding onto our father’s legs in tears when he and my mother explained to us that the decades of love they had was no longer there. I lived with my mother and visited my father occasionally so that we as a family didn’t have to move, just my father. After the fact, I never said anything to my friends at school and I remember it was a full semester before I accidentally let slip my parents were no longer together.
Why would I say anything, though? Unlike other families, this was tame. No one cheated on the other. No one packed up and left the state. I still went to the same school and lived in the same house. I had friends who were abused by their parents and lived with others. I had a friend who had to argue their mother’s insanity in court to stay with their supporting father. Those are sob stories. By leaps and miles I genuinely had nothing to cry about in comparison. And those friends didn’t even cry around me. It’d be weak to cry about it and it’d be unfair to them to push that onto their already heavily burdened shoulders.
My own No Cry Challenge had begun. I was destined to fail.
Before the divorce, I couldn’t understand why I’d cry, sometimes. At the time, I remember thinking I was still that annoying little kid, crying over stupid things, whether it was spilt milk or my sisters being mean. That changed very soon. The first realization was when my mother and I visited her family just days after the divorce. In her drunken state, the aunts and uncles, gone for the night, my mother sat me on her lap for the first time in probably a decade. I felt awkward sitting on her knee, being closer to my adult years than my diaper ones, but then she smiled at me, and through that warm smile and slightly slurred speech she said to me,
“You know… I am so sad right now.”
It was such a short circuit to my brain. My mother was possibly the saddest she had ever been and for some reason, she was smiling. That stuck with me. I’m sure that the alcohol had something to do with it. I mean, she was bouncing me on her leg like a toddler at the time. (Plus, she also told me the alcohol was a factor herself.) But it also occurred to me that sometimes, it is insanely difficult for others to cry, too. To be able to express that sadness. Right then, through her coddling and smiles, she was reaching out to me for comfort.
I wanted to cry.
For the first time since I was much younger, I realized that I honestly wanted to cry. But I still had so much trouble getting the tears to fall. I was hardwired at this point. However, that mental short circuit started connecting a few other pathways back together. I began to cry randomly. I couldn’t force the tears to fall but by God they were coming. My body didn’t know what to do between my own emotional issues dealing with my parents’ divorce and the slowly breaking dam of societal pressure so it just let off some of that pressure at random intervals, hoping to keep the dam intact.
But that baby was bustin’ down. And fast.
Occasionally, I would walk by my mother’s room, or the porch outside, or anywhere else that I wasn’t, and find her crying by herself. She didn’t want me to see her like that. She wanted to seem strong around me. I didn’t let her. If I found her crying, I would be there with her. She was my mother, I already knew she was strong. I wanted her to know I was there for her. I was guilty of it, too. Multiple times, I would go to the garage or outside in the yard to cry so she couldn’t hear me. But no matter how much we tried to avoid letting the other know, we both finally gave up the charade.
We were sad. But we were together. And we both were stronger for sharing these moments together. We weren’t afraid to share our sadness with each other and we helped each other out. It wasn’t sunshine and rainbows. I was a moody teenager and she was still trying to put her life back together, particularly career-wise and financially. However, even if we were different, we shared this.
Through that, I found that I could cry again. My first movie I cried to was Seven Pounds. When I turned to my left and right and saw both my sister home from college and mom crying, I didn’t feel ashamed about my own tears. Not too long after I had multiple sessions in the middle of Toy Story 3. I mean I grew up with these films and Andy was the same age as me! The day I saw Andy leave and go to college was my 18th birthday in the summer right before my own time to leave.
When I moved to my new home at university, I actually found a good group of friends relatively fast. After almost a full semester of being a loner, I found my nerdy people and hunkered down. Within a year, I was rooming with someone that I still consider one of my closest friends. They were the ones who showed me the No Cry Challenge. They were also the ones that in very paraphrased words taught me another lesson:
“Fuck what others think. If people think it’s wrong, fuck them. I will express my love and I will express my sadness.”
They’d go on to be one of the best friends for helping me through terrible times and one of the strongest people I knew, emotionally. They would physically stop their own crying and put away their own issues just to make sure I had a shoulder to lean on. I wanted to do the same. As I learned more about them, I found out that they had attempted suicide before. It was my first time hearing someone I knew had gone through that. They sadly were not the last. They explained their depression and I learned a lot about mental health from them. Something that would come in handy later. But most importantly, they taught me some of how they dealt with that depression in a healthy way.
I still had trouble crying about serious matters in my own life. For some reason, crying to media came much more natural to me. After my first cry at movies, I had my first cry at a video game within the first twenty minutes of The Last of Us. This came so naturally to me by now. However, the dam was still there in some ways. I was comfortable with crying to media, but when my father called me in tears, something he has never done, and told me his sister and my loving and wonderful aunt had died, I didn’t cry.
I don’t know if it was because I wanted to be “emotionally strong” or something, but I couldn’t convince myself to get any tears going. However, two of the strongest people I know were at that funeral. My grandfather was a war veteran and one of the founders of his own church and a pastor at it. He was a leader in his community and started up a massive food drive for those in need. He also had been sick for twenty years, spending half of his life at that time attached to a dialysis machine, but still fought. My grandmother was a powerful woman. She stood toe to tip with my grandfather and her Appalachian heritage taught her to not take lip. Between her very clever practical jokes and her strong will to support my grandfather through decades of illness on top of her own issues, she would not stop for anyone. I look up to both of them. However at my aunt’s funeral, they fell to the ground as their daughter lay there. My grandmother called out to God and the world that, “No parent should ever have to bury their child.”
I genuinely had a hard time standing as everything welled up and finally burst. It was the first time I can remember that I cried at a funeral. Grief from seeing my grandparents like this. Grief for my father. Grief for my aunt, who had always been a wonderful person to me. I felt so much sadness to such a degree. These were people who I had loved and not only meant something to me, but had meant just. So. Much. To so many people.
If there was a single piece of that dam that had held previously, it was crumbled cement washing away with the torrent.
It became much easier to cry, then. I would like to think that in its own way, I think that saved me. University was not easy for me. I failed to graduate when I wanted to, being held back by a teacher who abused her position and was only fired long after I left. I also in general spent a lot of time stressed by all of the workload. Even after graduation, thanks to living in a state with zero opportunity, I found myself stuck working dead end jobs and finding my degree useless. I also recently discovered then that I did in fact have depression, anxiety, and a couple of disorders, namely OCD. Sure, being able to name my demons is nice, but they’re still the demons I’m stuck with.
So I had nowhere to go, nothing to do, and no hope this was going to change. I started to have a lot of darker thoughts and there would be weeks where I was depressed and couldn’t find the energy to even feel an emotion. When it finally broke for a bit, for the first time in a long time, I cried for myself. After a panic attack one night, I began to cry uncontrollably. It was the first time since in almost a decade that I couldn’t stop crying about something. I didn’t know what to do. However the fact that I could cry at all helped me so much to have a brief break from my depression. And a quick call to one of the few people I feel comfortable crying around, my mom, helped too. I still wasn’t out of a shitty situation in my life but I felt better for the first time in days.
And it took all of that to understand how to cry for myself. The final thing I needed to learn how to cry about.
There have been numerous times that I have cried now. In fact, every now and then I go back to the No Cry 19 playlist when I need an easy cry. It’s no longer a “challenge” for me but rather, a collection of videos that allow me to experience all kinds of emotions when I’m feeling emotionless or when my life seems so stressed and fucked up that I just need to let it out. In fact, I’ve even created my own playlist, primarily of the original videos but some more personal ones for me as well.
It took most of my life but I learned that crying is necessary and the emotions that allow us to cry are just as important to let out. To express.
I cry at movies. I cry when I’m extremely happy. I cry when someone leaves my life. I cry so hard from the laughing fits my friends give me. I cried when I thought about committing suicide. And I cried in the relief much later when I realized I no longer did.
It isn’t a “manly” thing to not cry. It’s inhuman. Because crying is one of the most human things there is.