Recently, I have seen more and more people crying. I noticed it last year as I sat in Angell Hall looking at the pictures of the 100 Americans killed in one week of combat. When I saw the ages of these men and women — 18, 19, 21 — tears came to my eyes. I realized that the war was, and is, being fought by our generation.

Jeff Cravens

And it’s not just the war. Many of us have mourned for the thousands of people killed by the tsunami and the thousands who died in the aftermath to curable diseases. For the generation of orphaned children that might have been saved by an advance warning system. For the people suffering around the world, whose plights we do not know because they don’t have the media appeal of a tsunami. But for every person that cries or sympathizes, there are many who cold-heartedly say, “Not me, not my problem.”

The things that make us cry reveal something essentially human about us. Allen Ginsberg, the renowned beat poet, seemed to agree in this statement: “I (weep) when I write something that I know is the truth.” During a film last semester, I watched a mother, the victim of social and economic inequity in this country, be executed: she was screaming in anguish, strapped to a body board, had a black bag forced over her head and was hanged. As soon as I left the film I burst into tears. I am not ashamed to admit it, because I literally had no choice in the matter. What I saw and felt in that film betrayed my deepest sense of humanity, and afterwards I knew I would never be able to support the systematic killing of our fellow citizens by our government, period.

By now you may think I’m just a big crybaby; probably you’re feeling a little uncomfortable. That reaction is understandable. Somewhere in childhood most of us learned to stop crying, especially us boys, but I am convinced that becoming a man or woman is directly linked to our emotional revival. Dry eyes are just a symptom of the real problem, which is moral numbness and a lack of compassion in this country.

Last month I went to the first church service outside of Christmas Eve I’d attended in years. The minister, Kenneth Phifer, suggested that we have enough wisdom and compassion as children. He read gems from “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”: share your possessions, don’t take more than you can use, don’t hit people, say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody and hold hands. We all know these moral virtues, as do our leaders, but why aren’t we acting on them?

Jonathan Kozol argues in “The Night Is Dark And I Am Far From Home” that schools contribute to our moral numbness. Children are given watered down, impersonal accounts of the poor and oppressed. Atrocities such as slavery, war and genocide are taught as cold facts, located in a historical context, explained with statistics. Kozol says, “Numbers can explicate — but numbers cannot make us cry.” We must show children the hard truths about suffering and show them opportunities to alleviate it. Perhaps a few tears will be shed, but maybe then children would wish to be social workers and not rock stars or athletes when they grow up.

But schools and rigid ideas of masculinity are not the only culprits. Here is what I wrote in my journal about a high school friend I saw this summer: “He never before wanted to kill someone until he met his drill sergeant. Once he got his ass beat by his drill sergeant. He had to hide his emotions and now has a problem showing his emotions or being touched or pointed at. He broke a kid’s finger for pointing at him. He worries what he might do if provoked drunk, because he’s a deadly weapon now. He already beat up a couple dudes. This is a guy that used to sing with me, who got accused by our friends of being effeminate. He said being in Marines has brought out a different side of him … He told me he doesn’t necessarily believe in the Iraq war, but he believes in supporting the commander in chief … He expects to possibly be called to action in December but as we spoke he knocked on wood. I did the same.”

He got shipped off a month ago.

That our government does this to our men and women enrages me. That potential teachers and healers and friends and lovers are being manufactured into emotionless killing machines is tragic. And yet, if we’re going to fight wars, this conditioning is necessary. How else do you convince humans to kill other humans?

Whether the government, media, schools or our families are responsible for our emotional numbness, we need to begin reversing the process. Only when we feel the injustices and suffering of others will we be motivated to act. For the real work comes, and I have done far too little, when all the tears have dried up.

 

CORRECTION: In my last column I mentioned “James” Brown, but the man I intended to reference was “John” Brown — the abolitionist.

 

Cravens can be reached at jjcrave@umich.edu.

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