Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. – Charles Dickens, 1861
Many of us were raised in a society where crying was publicly shunned. Unacceptable. To be shared in times of privacy or hidden altogether. Whether it was overtly through the act of bullying, or subtly through society, the media, our parents, teachers and other figures of authority, we learned that crying was something to be ashamed of. Those who we trusted compelled us to hide our tears, appear strong and reinforce how important it is to be socially acceptable and desirable for the company of others, beyond our own natural expression. Yet, maybe beyond the cultural veil, behind tears, are some of our greatest healings and discoveries?
By and large, we have forgotten how the seeds of emotional suppression were sown. I know in my case I was extremely quiet and withdrawn as a child. Hardly speaking at all through my schooling days. Now as a 30-year-old, as I rediscover the courage and begin to cry again, old memories begin to be unearthed.
Visions of ‘un-belonging’ rooted in the playground. As all the other kids played basketball, I would walk off to the far corner. Feeling unwelcome, tears welling up under my eyelids, I held them back dare anyone see I was sad and question me if I was okay. I didn’t know what was worse; to cry or to be seen crying and have to deal with the sympathy of others and, through sobs, convince them ‘I am okay.’
These memories were lodged within me, and now only unravel as other events in my life prompt the tears to rise and I allow them to move through me.
It was uncanny to watch present events in my life bring up sadness, yet feel unable or unsafe to let it out. It was only with my partner pointing out the obvious and saying, “Miroslav… you’re really sad… It is okay to cry,” that my tears began to flow. And as they flowed, old memories began to surface, washing away with them self-imposed judgments I had carried for years. I began to feel lighter. I began to discover that even though the tears were prompted by events happening currently in my life, they were connected to experiences from my past, when my body first felt the sadness.
There is a pervading idea, especially in Western culture, that ‘big boys don’t cry’–a social attitude which has been instilled into boys to hold back emotion in hope of ‘upholding’ the masculine image. Tom Lutz, a University of California professor, says that the male reluctance to shed tears arose as recently as the late 1800s when factory owners discouraged men from crying because it reduced productivity. It is interesting to note on the opposite end of the spectrum, according to a study published in the journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity, footballers who cried reported higher levels of self-esteem. They were less concerned about peer pressure and didn’t mind crying in front of their teammates. This lends interesting perspectives as to the effects of holding back emotion; it is as if men put up a front, to appear outwardly one way while suffering on the inside. So, how is this possible? How is it tears can carry so much more with them than just water? Which brings us to the question: What are tears? What is within these balls of liquid, and why are they important?
The 3 Different Types of Tears
Although we think of tears as being all the same, there are in fact three different types of tears with different chemical makeups.
1. Reflex Tears or Eye Watering
If you’ve ever cried while cutting an onion you probably have a fair idea about what reflex tears are. Reflex tears protect our eyes from irritants and acidic fumes (such as onions). These tears wash away the irritants to clean the eyes.
2. Basal or Continuous Tears
Basal tears are the protective tears which cover our eyes from moment to moment. They contain a powerful and fast-acting antibacterial and anti-viral agent, lysozyme. Lysozyme is also found in human milk, semen, mucus and saliva and can kill 90 to 95 percent of all bacteria in just five to 10 minutes. As the eye is a moist environment, without lysozyme we would suffer enormous amounts of bacterial attack and could potentially go blind.
3. Emotional Tears
Emotional tears are often the ones we refer to when we speak of someone crying. They are composed differently and include an endorphin and natural painkiller called enkephalin. “Emotional tears contain higher concentrations of proteins, manganese, and the hormone prolactin, which is produced during stress-induced danger or arousal,” says Dr Carrie Lane of the University of Texas.
The Health Benefits of Crying
Dr. William H. Frey II, a biochemist and director of the Psychiatry Research Laboratories at the St. Paul-Ramsey Medical Centre, conducted a study which found like other exocrine processes, including exhaling, urinating, and sweating, toxic substances are released from the body when we cry.
A 2008 study from the University of South Florida found crying can be self-soothing and elevate mood better than any antidepressant. Only 8 percent of participants reported crying made them feel worse, while almost 90% of criers reported improvement in their mood. Judith Orloff MD, psychiatrist, intuitive healer, and New York Times bestselling author writes as follows:
Crying is also essential to resolve grief… Tears help us process the loss so we can keep living with open hearts. Otherwise, we are a set up for depression if we suppress these potent feelings. – Dr Judith Orloff
Although emotional crying has been proven to have therapeutic benefits associated with it, what does this mean for our cultures and societies?
What makes tears unique for humans is that although animals make distress calls in times such as being separated from their young, humans are the only ones that audibly sob during crying. Crying creates connection and empathy between humans which in itself can be largely healing–to know that in a period of hardship another person cares for us.
As Dr Hasson of Tel Aviv University writes:
Multiple studies across cultures show that crying helps us bond with our families, loved ones and allies.
This is seeded all across the history of our cultures, from tribal people coming together to cry in unison ceremonies, to the ‘keeners’ of Ireland and Scotland who were usually a woman, or a group of women, who would do vocal lamentation at funerals and wail in a way that would invite others to release their tears.
Tears and Spirituality
What soap is for the body, tears are for the soul. – Jewish Proverb
Many of our mystical and spiritual traditions also point to the healing nature of tears. This is probably best captured by poet Kahlil Gibran in his piece On Joy and Sorrow, from The Prophet. He beautifully describes the oscillation between crying and joy, and how the depth of our ability to feel sorrow becomes our container for joy.
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
He goes on to suggest that it is not just a metaphoric symbolism, but that our sadness and joy are related. We experience sadness when we lose something we love, or are deeply disappointed by something we held in high regard.
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Apart from being beautiful poetry, he invites a powerful self-inquiry to examine the roots of our sorrows. In doing so, it opens the possibility to fully appreciate whatever it was we held dear and release the depths of our sorrow.
The Bible also points at the necessary journey one must undergo through crying:
For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime! Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning. – Psalm 30:5
Coming Together as a Culture
What if what holds our grief back is not individual but collective? And the way forward is sharing it with the people closest to us to create a society of deeper feeling, healing, and transformation?
… in some cultures, as in Japan, the concept of emotions that are only in the individual seems foreign. For the Japanese, individual identity is a function of social harmony. Emotions are part of family or community membership, sensed among the members so as to create a harmonized atmosphere.
In Japan, people have found that by coming together to cry they can ease stress levels together. Although this seems a bit avant-garde for Westerners, we can begin to cultivate safe spaces together within our closer circles.
Imagine having shared safe-spaces with others, whether family circles or with strangers, where we could be seen in our vulnerability and our tears if necessary. It could be largely beneficial in not only allowing ourselves the emotional outlet and freedom that comes with crying but also to receive a deeper bonding experience and understanding of the other.
This takes great courage in a relationship where it is a new expression, especially with family or those closest to you, and can take effort to break the old social narrative. When we allow ourselves to be seen, however, we allow the other–a father, sister, lover–into our worlds more fully, and in being witnessed we experience the release, healing and connection that only tears can create.
Maybe being a true warrior in today’s culture means bearing our whole hearts in the grounds of everyday social life. And yes, there is a risk, in a tongue-in-cheek way. This is the ultimate workshop–we are changing it in real time. In doing so, we allow for mystery and spontaneity. Turning the everyday into the sublime. The mundane into spiritual. Water into wine?
So consider, how would some of your closest relationships look if you were to both open yourselves to deeper expression? Especially the ones which have been habitual.
…. What could be possible?