Tears are a language we use when words fail us
There is hardly a day that goes by that I do not see tears. There are tears of pain, tears of grief, and tears of relief. I will see a woman in labor with tears of agony, but a few minutes later tears of great joy are streaming down her face at the sight of her newborn. A tear is the language we use when words fail us. Gerard Way put it this way, “Tears are words the heart can’t express.”
Humans are the only animals that shed emotional tears. In fact, we make about 30 gallons of tears a year, which are useful for cleaning and moisturizing the eyes. The cleansing tears are called basal tears. Reflex tears are similar, welling up to get a foreign object out of our eyes like onion vapors or dirt. We have also learned tears rid the body of toxins and stress hormones like cortisol. Weeping and sobbing are great ways to express the shock of death or the discovery of a life-threatening disease. Wailing helps us express emotional pain and can be quite cathartic. I well up after watching my daughter’s ballet performance. For all of these reasons crying is an important human function.
Sadly we hear people, mostly adults, say things like, “Don’t cry about it,” or “I’ll give you something to cry about.” As kids we might have said, “Don’t be such a crybaby.” It’s really rather inhumane when someone is hurt and then told they are not allowed to express their agony.
I have long thought there is hope for people who can be heart broken. If we can cry it is because we are yet alive and feel passion. We can feel the pain of others, the betrayal of some, the desperation of the immigrant, and the anxiety of the poor. Hans Christian Anderson said of The Little Mermaid, “But a mermaid has no tears and therefore she suffers so much more.” How truly desolate are those who cannot weep.
We live in a time when we think that it is not healthy to feel pain and we try to numb it with alcohol or drugs. We want to only feel good and have happy thoughts and we avoid those who are broken, or what is broken in us. The problem with trying to keep a stiff upper lip is that you can never smile, or kiss, or utter a kind word.
Maybe we are afraid if someone sees us cry they will think that we are weak, or cowardly, or unreliable. I think it is just the opposite in most cases. Those who cry are the ones strong enough to take their compassion and rescue the perishing or leave not one soldier behind. Those who weep are those who can gather in the frightened children and read them stories while the storm gales outside the house. Those who weep know what death has cost them and what the future looks like without loved ones. Those who can sob one minute can reach out another time to those who are adrift in loss and tow them home. I have watched young ballerinas cry through one rehearsal after another, blister after blister, to turn in the performance of their lives. You see, the rhythm and movement of their bodies will rise superior to the pain and frustration of the choreography. They will rise up on their toes and their faces will beam with accomplishment. And as they are showered with flowers they will remember the tears that brought them so far.
Chaplain Gary Blaine, D.Min., provides Pastoral Care at Susan B. Allen Memorial Hospital. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.