I have to admit — watching Joe Biden’s tears during his brief farewell speech to Delawareans the day before his presidential inauguration, I did a fist pump.
Ours is a culture that fears displays of vulnerability, especially among men, castigating them as utter weakness.
During his heartfelt tribute at the Major Joseph R. “Beau” Biden III National Guard/Reserve Center in New Castle, Biden lamented the loss of his eldest son, the site’s namesake. He also gushed with gratitude for all the locals who supported him and his family through their successes and suffering. (Biden’s first wife, Neilia, and their infant daughter, Naomi, were also killed in a 1972 car crash, which his sons, Beau and Hunter, barely survived.)
Biden’s cheeks remained tear-stained throughout the six-minute talk. He never apologized for this vulnerability, and, save for one gentle swipe of a finger, he let his cheeks glisten with a clear, briny war paint.
I’m not a guy who usually celebrates or honors with fists. The only time I pump my fist, in fact, is when I’m alone and something that feels urgent and necessary occurs (such as when the rare athlete wins with humility). So it was out of character when I pumped my fist in front of my nine-year-old son Tuesday while we watched this news clip.
“Why are you doing that?” my son, Macallah, asked.
“This is the kind of emotional honesty we need from our leader,” I asserted. “This is a torch we need passed down from our president. Especially from another man.”
I have no illusions that Biden’s emotional address Tuesday is going to rewrite the script of normative masculine identity overnight. Ours is a culture that fears displays of vulnerability, especially among men, castigating them as utter weakness.
And there are people out there, especially those who oppose the new president’s politics, who will scoff at a grown man’s public display of tears — from a commander in chief, no less. No doubt some viewers who want a much younger president who looks and thinks exactly like them will view his vulnerability as another excuse to dismiss his competency.
Make no mistake, though. This display of vulnerability was a show of resiliency and strength from a leader who is modeling both. This is no small thing. American masculinity is rooted in the belief that any display of emotional transparency, beyond anger, is akin to the feminine and, therefore, is verboten.
The traditional masculine script we follow now ultimately detaches many boys and men from most of their deeper feelings, as I found in researching my new book on masculinity and emotional resiliency. The men and boys I spoke to didn’t realize that because of this, for most of their lives they had been taught to think of themselves as beings apart from — not a part of — the full spectrum of their humanity. As a result, many of them suffered crippling anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and attempts, as well as alcohol and substance abuse.
As the father of a boy, I’m still haunted by the story a young man named Will told me of his time in boarding school. While there, he was depressed to the point of barely attending classes, but none of his teachers or his lacrosse coach paid attention or offered help to relieve his obvious suffering. Every day after practice, he snuck off to a nearby cow pasture to be alone and cry. And cry. “It felt so embarrassing but it was so necessary. This was what kept me going, just letting it all out. It actually helped.”
Another boy I interviewed, Nico, a middle schooler who was part of a boys’ group that explored a new, healthy masculinity, practiced what Will had had to grasp on his own. “Learning how to understand and talk about my feelings doesn’t make me weak. Just the opposite. It makes me stronger. I feel it.”
This is the secret that Biden is sharing as he unwittingly pushes back against prevailing stigmas: Emotional honesty makes us more resilient for ourselves and for the people who count on us. It makes us more competent as men.
Obviously, emotional honesty isn’t central to the new president’s policies, nor should it be. It wasn’t, and shouldn’t have been, mentioned in his inaugural speech. Ultimately, though, it can create a better political agenda.
Compassion and empathy pervade his platform of recommitting to science, the environment, racial and gender justice, and to instituting coronavirus protocols. Doubling down on these plans, especially the last three, reflect an awareness of and sensitivity to the grave injustices nature and humans have suffered when politicians have willfully ignored them.
The traditional masculine script we follow now ultimately detaches many boys and men from most of their deeper feelings.
Biden was always a scrapper who fought for the working class, and it’s clear that he has been deeply affected by the profound suffering and plight brought on by the coronavirus and the violent racism the Black Lives Matter movement has faced. In Biden as president, we have a leader and a model of a healthier masculinity whose empathy and compassion inform his wisdom.
At the end of the Biden news clip, my son, who loves contests, asked me to see who could make and hold a tight fist the longest. While our fists turned red and quivered, he said, “I know you’re always telling me to talk about my feelings, but sometimes it’s really hard.”
I relaxed my fist, red and warm as a flame, and unfurled his fingers. “I know it’s hard,” I said, passing my hand into his. “Inner strength requires a lot of work and courage.” For the second time that evening, a much-needed torch had been passed.