This past week I watched a video on Bigthink.com with poet Sarah Kay, who spoke about the importance of being present and having fun when performing. This simple advice made me think about the concept of letting go and how important it is in daily life. In order to be present and have fun, we must let go of our assumptions and expectations, not only of the crowd’s reaction to our performance, but also of ourselves. This might mean letting go of our societal roles, such as father, husband, African American, or any other label that we use to define ourselves in relation to others.
Last night while out at dinner with my family, my nine-year-old son got upset by something that his fifteen-year-old brother said to him. Instead of allowing him to experience his sadness and openly cry at the table, I told him to not reveal when others say things that bother him because it will simply encourage them. Growing up, I can remember seeing my father cry at times. He never made me feel guilty about crying or made me feel ashamed to display emotion.
However, that freedom to be vulnerable changed when I entered seventh grade. The expectation of coolness and masculinity drastically shifted. Boys who displayed emotion were labeled ‘little bitches’ or “pussies’ and became targets of violence, taunting, and harassment. I was one of those boys. To survive, I learned how to 'mean mug,' to stare down an opposing male and show no sign of fear or sadness. My attire changed, I went from Khakis and sweaters that fit, to baggy jeans that read boss along the leg. I walked through the hallways looking angry, unwilling to smile, laugh or show any emotion that might be considered weak. I refused to participate in class discussions, as I did not want to draw the wrong type of attention to myself. To display intelligence and be academically engaged was to run the risk of being accused of acting “white.” As a result of my newfound bravado, my grades plummeted, I got into fights and ended up going to summer school that year.
Upon reflecting on the memory of my own trauma, I realized I was passing along a painful legacy of emotional aloofness to my son. While my intention was to protect him from hurtful words, I realize that my approach was misguided. In our society, boys are taught to be tough, non-emotional, and aggressive. We are constantly bombarded with messages, both overt and sublime, that it is not okay for boys to be emotional, that it is a sign of weakness. This made me wonder, if it had been my five-year-old daughter crying, would I have given her the same advice? I think it is safe to say that I would not have told my daughter to suppress her feelings, but would have attempted to soothe and comfort her.
While I consider myself to be progressive and open-minded, I realize that I am still a product of the patriarchal society that exists in the United States. In order to allow my son to be fully human, I have to let go of the idea that being a strong and resilient boy means masking one’s true feelings. I must allow him to fully experience his grief and express it in a way that is true for him.
When we allow ourselves to be present, we can fully appreciate the diverse range of emotions and experiences that define our humanity. We must let go of expectations, fear, and other things that prevent us from experiencing the reality of a given moment. If we are sad, let us be sad fully. If we are filled with laughter, let it resonate throughout our entire being. I believe this is what Kay meant; it is not the culmination of any single experience, but rather all of the little moments that create the experience. In this sense, life is not something to be lived with tunnel vision set on an end goal, but rather, a series of experiences that when lived fully allow us to construct purpose and meaning.