Daring? Do. Manly Emotion Reconsidered

‘Women and children first’ is the law of the sea. It is also the law written in the heart of every man through the natural law.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “The Wedding at Cana,” ca. 1672
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “The Wedding at Cana,” ca. 1672 (photo: Public Domain)

Men are so emotional. 

(You can go ahead and reread that sentence. I’ll wait.)

Welcome back. It is, of course, the case that the vast majority of people believe that women are more emotional than men. A Gallup poll found that nine out of 10 people claimed that was the case. Nine out of 10. I’m not sure you could get nine out of 10 people to agree that ice cream is delicious. (It is.)

Are the vast majority of people mistaken in such a fundamental belief about men and women? 

I think the answer is almost certainly yes.

And no.

As a thought experiment, picture the woman in the following sentence: “She became emotional as she delivered her prepared remarks.” Do you imagine the woman as tearfully speaking to the crowd? I would venture that nearly everyone who reads that sentence would picture exactly that. However, the sentence never mentions what emotion caused the woman to become emotional. After all, “emotional” simply means “pertaining to emotion.” Which emotion is precisely the information we need to know to accurately picture her. The woman may have been experiencing the emotion of anxiety, joy, anger, fear or empathy, among others.

It seems that we call women emotional because we tend not to distinguish between the various emotions. Indeed, more than this, very often we tend to conflate one or two emotions like sadness or joy with the word “emotional” itself. When we see sadness or joy manifested through tears, we claim that person is emotional, as if these are the only emotions that could make someone “emotional.” 

Anyone who has ever watched a professional football game, though, can attest that they are certainly not without emotion. It’s rare to watch a game where there aren’t a few dozen plays that exhibit the players angrily screaming at each other. Aren’t these men being emotional? More than this, on almost every play, men will excitedly clap, scream, jump up and down, and celebrate the triumph and tragedy of their team. In other words, for three hours, they will manifest the emotions of disgust (especially if you are a Cleveland Browns fan), joy, fear, awe, sadness, anger and apprehension.

Sit with a group of women watching Pride and Prejudice, and a group of Boston men watching the Red Sox, and then tell me which group was more emotional.

It seems then that it is not the case that either sex is significantly more emotional, but rather that each experiences specific emotions in greater degrees. If this is true, then we ought to ask the question: “Why?” Why would God design men and women to experience specific emotions to a greater or lesser degree? 

One clue to this puzzle may be found by reflecting on the way that men generally react to a woman’s tears of sadness. 

Many men will tell you that they can’t handle the sight of a woman crying. “All of that emotion makes me feel so uncomfortable,” they tell us. The irony of course is that “feeling uncomfortable” is itself a strong emotion. A man may avoid a woman’s display of emotion because he believes himself above such emotions, but the truth is that any honest phenomenological explanation of his experience will inevitably rest upon the foundation of how this makes him “feel.”

Why should men feel uncomfortable? I think the reason is that men naturally feel that they ought to protect women. In more civilized times, most men believed that their strength was given to them by God so that they could protect those weaker than themselves. “Women and children first” is the law of the sea. It is also the law written in the heart of every man through the natural law. The truth is this: Men ought to feel uncomfortable when seeing a woman moved to tears. This is nothing other than our nature shouting to us: “Her first.”

Woe to us men if we let our emotions overwhelm us, and we thereby succumb to cowardice. For, it would seem that God designed men's and women’s emotions as he did as a kind of single complementary system. Women are generally much more empathetic than men. This in turn leads women to more easily express the pain, sadness and needs that others are experiencing, not simply their own. Men, meanwhile, are generally more prone to the passion — emotion — that St. Thomas calls “daring.” Aquinas notes that “daring results from hope and is contrary to fear: wherefore whatever is naturally apt to cause hope or banish fear, is a cause of daring.” Precisely because men are less empathetic than women, we often need to be roused by a woman’s strong emotion to tell us: “Here is a fear. What will you do to help her banish it? What will you do to bring hope?” 

God’s design is good. Very good. When we men see a woman expressing a strong emotion of sadness or empathy, it is our chance to reply with a strong emotion of our own: either fear, or daring.

In this, we can take the life of Our Lord as our model. At Cana, Our Lady, ever attentive to the smallest detail, knows that the bride and groom would experience embarrassment and shame because “they have no wine.” Mary is, of course, the most empathetic human person to have ever walked the face of the earth. It is her empathy that is the catalyst for Our Lord’s first miracle. 

In the Gospel of John, after Mary and Martha’s brother, Lazarus, has died, his sister Mary comes to our Lord, weeping, and tells him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” John tells us, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” Our Lord, the perfect man, does not walk away from the weeping Mary. Rather, he stands with them in their sadness. In what must stand as a rebuttal to all men for all time who believe that sadness is weakness, St. John tells us, “Jesus wept.” 

But this, of course, was not the end of the story for Lazarus. “Daring results from hope.” Our Lord is our hope. “Lazarus, come out.” 

The raising of Lazarus is the final miracle that St. John records before the Resurrection. In the Gospels, nearly without exception, whenever Jesus works a miracle, it is because of the action of a faithful soul. It is noteworthy that the first and last miracles St. John records are both a result of a woman coming to Jesus with emotional pleas. 

In both cases, Our Lord’s response was daring. 

At Cana, the miracle would begin his ministry. Fulton Sheen notes, “If he agreed to her request, he would be beginning his hour of death and glorification. To the Cross he would go with double commission, one from his Father in heaven, the other from his mother on earth.” In Bethany, as soon as he pronounced the words, “Take away the stone,” he knew that he must take the place of Lazarus in the tomb. As John tells us, “So from that day on they took counsel how to put him to death.”

Water became wine, and stones were taken away, because two women freely expressed their emotions, and one Man listened with daring and then acted with heroic courage. 

So it must be with us.

Therefore, men, don’t be afraid to allow a woman’s emotions to awaken in us daring and the courage to act on behalf of the weaker and those in need. Don’t let the emotions that are proper to us men be dulled by walking away from her, only to then disparage the emotions proper to women. When we do so, we are passing a judgment, but it is not upon the woman — it is upon ourselves. Instead, walk with her. Take courage. Then, with daring, say to her: “Let’s take away the stone.”