What do This Is Us, Adele’s Someone Like You, The Notebook and a bride walking down the aisle have in common with Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, a National Geographic documentary on elephants in mourning, Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, and a TikTok of a soldier returning home to surprise his family? For most of us, each one provokes a sudden, unbidden detox of tears.
I don’t cry often but I have my triggers. Wedding ceremonies, when everything is possible with the promise of forever love, get me every time. Stories where someone gives up something they love for someone they love make my eyes sting. And if I’m witness to just about anyone crying in person, it takes seconds to turn their tears into my own.
Small children have no shame or compunction about bursting into tears. Their distress at having so little control over what happens around them sets off waterworks all the time. Boys and girls cry the same amount until they’re about 12. By the time they’re 18, girls cry four times more often…that’s a pre-Taylor Swift statistic. Women cry for six minutes; men, for two to three. Growing up, the only time I saw a man cry was on TV.
Although frequently feeling the same emotion, women aren’t saddled with taking it like a man.
It feels unkind to ignore even a stranger, crying in front of us. Seeing someone in pain or going through a sad situation instinctually stirs up our empathy. We spend much of our lives feeling separate. Maybe God gave us crying so others could see when we needed help, and help us. We say “Are you all right?” ” Do you need a tissue?”
“Can I help you?” We know that feeling of vulnerability, when tears won’t keep till later.
I don’t remember ever seeing my grandmother cry. She grew up in a time and place when compassion was in short supply. There’s no weeping about a bad day at work or a missed flight when you’re fighting to survive pogroms and long winters. Crying doesn’t help a person live It’s no surprise that those in privileged societies shed more tears than those living amidst poverty, war, and starvation.. It’s as if a life that hard takes everything, even your tears.
My sister cries when good things happen or when she feels extraordinarily grateful, which she does all the time. She’s open, authentic and accessible. The fact that my husband cried at the movies when we dated was one of his selling points. Many are moved to tears by an opera or a piece of art, their team winning… or losing… a championship. A friend whose eyes well up frequently explained that it’s not the physical act of crying that brings relief; she just feels better having cried. (That’s exactly how I feel about exercise.)
My first experience with breath-gulping, face-crumpling ugly crying was when JFK was assassinated. I sobbed on my bed so hard, for so long, my father came in (in my memory, more exasperated than worried) and said, “Marcia, jeez it wasn’t me. Enough.” In my memory that’s the only time I ever cried my eyes out. I’ve never found crying the cleansing, cathartic release some report. I avoid books described as tragic and movies where the hero dies. Don’t wrench my heart. Don’t jerk my tears. When I cry it signals that I’m emotionally overloaded and for me, like screaming at horror movies, it’s not a sensation I seek out.
The last three times I did cry were provoked when facing problems beyond my ability to cope. Tears of frustration appeared one night when I got lost twenty miles from home, circling the same roundabout I’ll say six times before finding the correct exit ramp. Last month my computer taunted me, refusing for absolutely no reason to download a document crucial to go on with my day, then not recognizing what I’d bet a thousand dollars was a correct password when I tried another way around the problem. And recently electrifying sciatic pain set off tears whenever I attempted to drive…or bend… or lie down.
When life happens, tears have never been an accurate measure of my grief. It’s not like I fight them back… my sorrow just doesn’t escape that way. I didn’t cry when my mother died, when I faced life and death health issues, when I learned of an earth-shattering breach of trust. Would I have been better off if I released some oxytocin and endorphins? I’m not sure. I think we’re all just wired differently.
My six year old, seeing her nine-year-old sister sobbing upon hearing their grandfather died, tried really hard to squeeze out a few tears. After giving it an unsuccessful go, she looked at us apologetically, shrugged her shoulders, and said, “my heart has tears.” I get it. Whether shed or not, that’s where tears come from.