Where did the stiff upper lip originate? According to Wikipedia…
“One who has a stiff upper lip displays fortitude in the face of adversity, or exercises great self-restraint in the expression of emotion. The phrase is most commonly heard as part of the idiom ‘keep a stiff upper lip’, and has traditionally been used to describe an attribute of British people (particularly upper-middle and upper class), who are sometimes perceived by other cultures as being unemotional. A sign of weakness is trembling of the upper lip; hence the saying, keep a stiff upper lip. When someone’s upper lip begins to tremble, it is one of the first signs that the person is scared or shaken by experiencing deep emotion.” *
So anyone with British ancestry might be able to evoke a genetic reason for one’s own stoic posture. But what about members of American society? Why do eyewitnesses often feel uncomfortable when in the presence of someone whose face is distorted due to the seeping of fluid from lachrymal ducts? What is there about it that is disturbing to witness?
Probably it relates to a societal condemnation of behaviors that exemplify loss of control. And perhaps sublime appearance is so coveted that any threat to composure must be suppressed. In the case of a woman, is it objection to facial collapse and unconcealed slime disrupting the pretty mask of cosmetic perfection? Emanating from a man, the overt shedding of tears may simply imply reduction… an impotency of demeanor that potentially mars the image of “manliness.”
Doesn’t the death of a beloved companion warrant crippled disorder? What’s wrong with a sloppy face and flaccidity of spirit? Why can’t people wear grief on sleeves that are more akin to disheveled weekend attire than crisp workday starchiness?
Maybe more attention in this regard should be directed toward the onlookers rather than the mourners. Certainly, plenty of literature and bereavement facilitators attest to the value of grieving in whatever manner suits the individual griever. So maybe it’s the guarded observers, the more peripheral mourners, who need psychological evaluation and remedial therapy. If conditioned, even as children, to the squelching of raw emotions and splashes of sadness, what might be done to help folks tolerate and even promote such announcements of sorrow in others?
Perhaps the most poignant drift toward attitudinal change is derived from personal loss. When we experience the death of a loved one, through our own experiences we realize the healing power of tears. Though crying for some folks isn’t a necessary mourning component, for many it is unavoidable and can’t be stifled – in spite of what stern and stoic “Uncle Rigormortimer” might think about such visibly perceptible utterances.
“When someone cries as he speaks publicly at a funeral service, people in attendance are apt to produce their own tears of empathy. Intimate awareness of the raw, excoriating disbelief and despair creates a stirring or awakening of humanity in the midst of death’s darkness. Such moments are apt to cause an instantaneous peeling away of the insulating layers of protective coatings. The potential for reactivated anguish with recollections of one’s own loss remains close to the surface, probably especially so for people whose own prior grieving has remained static and incomplete. This transparency of psychic exposure among mourners engenders a human bond, a sense of connectedness that is rarely matched in other situations throughout life. This occasion when perhaps nothing is hidden, artificial, or contrived… this conspicuous state of emotional nakedness when feelings are unleashed… this purely humane disclosure can be a poignant affirmation of authentic convergence, a ‘tie that binds.’ It prompts folks to reach out to the bereaved and touch them physically, verbally, and through non-spoken gestures as well as through acts of kindness and compassion. Their intimate involvement enables individuals who may be feeling emotionally abandoned by the loss to feel reassured that they are not alone.” *
In the absence of a personal loss, however, therapeutic support might be rendered more effectively if individuals examine their ingrained attitudes – beyond those they contrive for the sake of public display. Consider how one might help offset the emotional “Botox effect” so that grieving faces can sag. Recognize that just as mourners must take in nutrients for physical sustenance, for psychological sustenance they need the freedom to let out expressions. Allow anguish to be seen. Let unrestrained contortions be exposed. Embolden a flowing of the grieving mind’s rivers. While honoring the dead, honor living faces drenched in heartache.
As humans, we are supposedly of a higher order than other creatures on earth. That is, we have greater capabilities that enable us to accomplish complex functions. Have you ever seen a squirrel cry? Or a kangaroo or a cow? In many ways we are blessed by our human potential. So let’s revel in our ability as homo sapiens to channel and release our feelings through tears. As a mourner, or when in the company of bereaved individuals, let the floodgates open without attempting to impose a dam of resistance. Instead of permitting our internal waterspouts to get rusty, let’s open up these mechanisms that are ever ready to spring into action and cleanse our souls.
*Stiff upper lip reference: Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stiff_upper_lip)
modified on January 25, 2015
*Quoted passage from the book, Pondering Leaves: Composing and Conveying Your Life Story’s Epilogue,” Page 22.