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City Slickers

In the classic movie, City Slickers, three unhappy men from New York embark on a journey out west.  Part of that journey for the main character, Mitch, was to find his lost smile.  Over time, Mitch had become grumpy and isolated, he lost his creativity, and had strained his relationships both at home and at work. 

Throughout the movie, the three friends go through countless adventures that bonded them, and left them with stories they could tell for the rest of their lives.  In one particular exchange, Mitch befriended an old cowboy, Curly, who Mitch both admired and feared.  Curly claimed he had the answer o Mitch’s dilemma and announced, very powerfully with one finger in the air, that there was “One secret to life”, and if Mitch knew that secret he would be happy again.  The frustrating part for Mitch was that the old cowboy would not come out and say what this one secret thing was, but rather Mitch had to figure that out for himself. 

In a surprise twist, the old cowboy suddenly passed away giving the three friends additional things to process.  To their credit, it did not take long before they started to talk about their own mortality, which then lead to talking about other subjects in an open and honest way.  All three men had been keeping secrets from each other, and all three men had felt a heavy and isolating burden by continuing to keep that information to themselves.  But once Mitch started talking, the other’s felt a sense of comfort to be able to share their struggles.  By the end, each man had shared the information that they had worked so hard to keep to themselves, as well as had the chance to be supportive to his friends.   To summarize, the men started to talk it out and stopped toughing it out.

What lesson can be learned from these “city slickers”?  Dr. Barbara Markway, explains in her article “How to crack the code to men’s feelings”, that young boy’s are pressured by society through both overt and covert signals not to share their feelings.  When these boy’s grow up, they have developed coping strategies that do not include feeling, crying, or using words to describe their emotional experience.  The message of “keep it to yourself”, only perpetuates the unhealthy strategy of, toughing it out through life.

Dr. Markway does point out that when the situation is right, men often are good at sharing their emotions and thrive because of it.  The most obvious example are athletes.  These men are considered to be some of the most admired men in our culture, yet every night on Sports Center we see them hug each other, high five each other, slap each other on the butt, and have some very emotional conversations; many even will cry in front of everyone watching.  As a society we have agreed that expressing emotions, while playing sports, is acceptable, so men take full advantage. 

Men also re-direct their emotions to other pre-approved outlets.  Men are not readily criticized in society for expressing anger, so they will shift sadness or fear towards anger to relieve themselves of the growing internal emotional pressure.  A common example of this occurs when a father comes driving home, and sees his young child playing dangerously in the street.  He will get out of the car and yell at the child.  Even though the father is feeling fear, he expresses anger.  I am sure all of us have countless examples where we have seen men act in anger when really they are hurt, sad, anxious, or afraid. 

Dr. Markway finishes her article by arguing that men are inherently equally equipped to share their emotional experiences, as women are.  Based on how young boys are taught and how men have developed, they lack the understanding and the experiences to share their emotions.  In addition, the rest of the community generally lacks the support towards men needed in order for them to take these chances. 

This brings us back to the city slickers.  After years of toughing it out, the three friends found an environment where they felt comfortable enough to start sharing, and they were supported for doing so.  They also practice this new skill, and the movie insinuated that they would continue this when they got back to their lives in New York. 

The movie ended with Mitch declaring to his wife that he had found his smile.  It took going on an incredible adventure, meeting the most unexpected individuals, and going through many difficult circumstances, for these three men to finally open up to each other.  The result led them to develop a stronger bond and a sense of emotional relief they had been yearning for.

Curly phrased the key to happiness as a secret, and I believe he was on the right track.  The old cowboy knew that there was a skill, which we men don’t know much about, nor do we do very well.  But this skill is incredibly important to our joy.  I believe that the path to living happier, and heather and longer life is by Talking it Out, not Toughing out.  Secret solved.