I used to make fun of my father for crying. Then I became a parent. Suddenly my tears would fall at the drop of a hat. The impact of reliving experiences I treasured as a child, but this time as a parent, caught me by surprise. (Why am I crying at the children’s symphony?)
Granted, tears of a mother may not be so unusual. By contrast, men and boys constantly hear the message that crying is weak, babyish and for losers. But the biblical story of Joseph proves otherwise and I believe examining his tears might empower boys and men to reclaim their emotions and let the tears flow.
Throughout the narrative of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis, Joseph cries eight times: when his brothers appear before him in Egypt; when he sees Benjamin; when he makes himself known to his brothers; after revealing himself to his brothers; when he sees his father again; and, following the death of Jacob, Joseph weeps three times – first upon Jacob’s death, then all of Egypt joins Joseph in wailing and finally Joseph cries again when it becomes clear that with their father gone, the brothers suspect that he will take revenge on them.
In examining Joseph’s crying, it is important to also look at the instances where he notably does not shed tears. Joseph does not cry when he is thrown into a pit with snakes and scorpions, or when he is sold to a caravan of Ishmaelites who carry him away from his family and everything he has known. When he becomes an indentured servant to Potiphar and is subsequently framed by his wife, thrown in prison and left there to rot when the butler forgets his promise to remember him, he doesn’t cry.
Joseph does not cry when he is afraid, angry or uncertain of his fate, as he must have been in these instances. In times of stress, he remains calm, focused and resolute. Though he might be a victim in these circumstances, he does not play the victim. Instead, he meets his reality head-on with the psychological wherewithal to deal with it. Some people call this “resilience.” Instead, he cries in situations that are not dangerous, but that are of greater personal significance to him. One may even conclude that perhaps what he feared most all along was never seeing his family again.
In the first two instances of his crying, Joseph hides the tears from his brothers: “He turned away from them and wept.” He is not yet ready to share his feelings with them. When he is ready, he allows his brothers, and indeed all of Egypt, to see his tears and feel his emotions along with him. Joseph shows strength in the way he controls who gets to witness his crying and when they are permitted to do so.
In the words of a psychologist friend, “Tears communicate, to others and to ourselves, and we can feel more present and stronger when we attend to, and accept, their message. It would be helpful for all of us, men and women, to accept tears with understanding and without shame. Tears are powerful, affective punctuation.”
Boys learn to stifle their tears early in life. As a mother of boys, I’m happy to introduce them to a biblical hero who shows nuanced emotion, particularly compassion and love. Joseph’s tears are a sign of his strength – he is strong enough to know how he feels and to choose when, with whom and under what circumstances he shares those feelings. I hope my boys grow up to be like Joseph: strong, resilient and sensitive – to himself and to others.