In high school, I hated pep rallies — but I wasn’t sure why.
I just knew I felt uncomfortable when the band was playing and everybody was excited and cheering. I felt oddly out of place. I never told anybody this, but I felt embarrassed of myself. I didn’t clap or cheer or whatever else the crowd around me was doing.
I felt horribly conflicted, although I didn’t understand that at the time. Part of me was excited by the music and cheering and chanting — but I was afraid to let myself go. I was afraid to feel anything. And that made these public displays of emotional frenzy seem very dangerous to me.
I felt coldly numb as I grew up. In middle school, some kids laughingly called me “Spockelroy,” which was someone’s clever mixture of “Spock” and “McElroy.” I was the brilliant rationalist who didn’t feel anything — and who never expressed emotions.
I understand why now.
The loss of my mother had hurt me more than I understood. My fear of my father’s unpredictable narcissistic rage was constant. I had learned that I got into trouble if I expressed my unhappiness.
I learned to remain numb. Not to feel. It was how I survived.
The photo above is from my high school senior yearbook. It’s a greatly enlarged portion of a full-page photo at the beginning of the football section of the book. At some important and happy moment of a football game, the photographer snapped a photo of the crowd. And over on the side of the page — there’s this tiny image of me cheering. That’s me in the middle and my best friend, Larry, is on the left.
Even though I was just a tiny part of that photo, I was mortified by it when it came out. I hated it.
I actually think I know the night it was taken. My Walker Vikings were in the semi-finals of the state football playoffs on our home field against the Decatur Red Raiders. The thrilling game went to double-overtime — and we won on the last play. I suspect this was from that victory.
I really was excited. I was happy. I cared a lot about us winning, so I was really emotionally invested. But even with something as common and understandable as my high school winning a big game, I was ashamed and uncomfortable afterward to realize that I had been so openly emotional.
I didn’t understand any of that at the time, of course. I just knew that anything about my emotions — or public demonstrations of emotions — made me horribly uncomfortable.
When I was a young newspaper editor, it made me very good at my job. Shortly before my 22nd birthday, I became the youngest managing editor of a daily newspaper in the country at the time. Everybody in that newsroom was older than I was. Many resented me getting the job, but I was in charge simply because I could set all emotions and stress aside — and get the job done, no matter what was going on.
Running a newsroom was stressful and a lot of people couldn’t emotionally handle it. At a small daily, you were the focal point through which all news stories, photos and page design went. You made assignments. You edited copy. You decided which stories went where. You designed the pages, wrote the headlines, selected and sized the photos, and even supervised the people who physically constructed the pages. You did all of that while more than a dozen people were shouting questions and shoveling information at you.
In that environment, I thrived. I was completely calm. I felt nothing. I just got the job done — and that’s why I was never late getting an edition off the floor to production. Not even once.
But I didn’t always connect well with people back then. I didn’t experience music and film and other art the way most people do. I had no idea why, but my numbness made it difficult for me to feel normal.
I’d like to tell you that I know exactly when that changed, but I don’t. All I really seem to know is that the more psychologically healthy I got over the years, the less numb I felt. My emotions were raw for a long time, because I slowly experienced all sorts of hurt from the past that I had buried in shame. But I also experienced amazing things that I’d never felt before.
Today, I am an emotional man.
I can tear up easily at movies, but I still hope nobody notices. Songs can hit me so hard that I cry softly. And when I experience beauty and the joys of nature, I can feel powerful stabs in my heart — feelings of painful happiness — that would have been foreign to me as a child or as a young man.
I understand now that feeling emotions and sharing them are central to the human experience. Sure, emotions can get in the way at times. They can make us say and do things we’ll regret later. But they can also lead us to express things that are beautiful and loving and transcendent to the people in our lives.
I never understood how to really love someone else — or how to let someone else love me — until I dropped the mask of numbness and learned to be vulnerable with my feelings. It’s a tradeoff.
There are a lot of men in our culture (and certainly some women, too) who never learn to get in touch with their feelings. They suffer and the people around them suffer, but those who are stifling their emotions are no more aware of their numbness than I was as a young man.
And having lived that way for so long, I can say they’re missing out on one of the most joyful parts of the human life.
I love my brain and my reason, because they can be amazing tools to accomplish some of what I want in life. But I love my heart and my emotions even more — because they seem to be the core of what brings meaning to my life.
Getting past the numbness — getting in touch with my feelings and learning to express them — allowed me to experience life in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible when I was young.