The greatness that is crying.
Women do it, on average, forty-seven times a year; men just seventeen. Politicians and actors do it on demand. I do it quite freely, in response to a sappy commercial on television or sad song on the radio or argument with a friend or after trying on a pair of jeans that no longer fit.
I'm talking about crying.
I've wanted to write a post about crying for a long time, mostly because I do it with such frequency and vigor that I often think there's something wrong with me. I have mastered the multiple types of crying - the silent heave that leaves my shoulders shaking and lungs gasping for breath; the shed of tears in response to that wrenching Sarah McLaughlin commercial for shelter animals; the extended wailing sessions after a discussion with my soon-to-be ex-husband; the trickle of tears while watching my kids perform in a school play. I've cried at work, in elevators, in my car, in bathroom stalls and at the airport. I even cry when I laugh. It's confusing and somewhat embarrassing, this propensity of mine for tears.
We are born to cry. Literally, our first action outside the womb is crying, a response to feeling cold, hunger, wet, or lonely. The sound of newborn tears reassures our doctors and family that we are healthy babies, and our audience responds with expressions of relief (perhaps even tears themselves), and eagerly reaches out to us, positively reinforcing our action. From this early age of approximately one minute, we begin to realize the efficacy of our crying. People rapidly respond to any physical and emotional discomfort that we're experiencing, offering us blankets, a bottle, and the security of our mother's nurturing arms. In this moment, a mother celebrates her capacity to attend to her child, relieved that she has the power to bring an end to his tears. Therefore, crying may serve a reciprocal function, providing both mother and child with assurance of their bond. Throughout infancy, we continue to cry when faced with some physical or emotional discomfort, whether it's wanting our diaper changed or to be nursed or feeling fearful when left alone in our crib. Infants have different types of cries - acute shrieks of pain or steady cries of separation of physical discomfort, for example - which together form a kind of vocabulary.
It is not until we develop the capacity for speech that crying ceases to be our primary means of communication. As a child moves through toddlerhood into adolescence, crying becomes less frequent and more of a sign of emotional distress than physical discomfort. Children, like many adults, lack the capacity to understand and express their emotions clearly, so they use crying to articulate a general state of distress.
As we get older, crying begins to get a bad rap. Perhaps that's because it's seen as a sign of weakness, that we don't know how to manage our emotions, that we're as emotionally unstable as a five year-old throwing a tantrum for a lollypop. It's reassuring to accept that crying is something we all need to do from time to time. It's a spiritual and physical cleanse, an emotional release valve that lets us clear out all the stress we've been bottling up. New York Times reporter Benedict Carey referred to tears in a recent piece as “emotional perspiration.” Tears really are like perspiration, in that exercising and crying both relieve stress. And we all know that stress, left unchecked, has negative physical affects on the body, including increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease and other stress-related disorders.
In the interest of full disclose, I'll be perfectly frank: I don't mind crying. Sometimes I feel the need for a good cry, and I'll put on some Tori Amos or watch gut wrenching YouTube videos of soldiers reuniting with their kids after a long deployment in Afghanistan and have a nice sob for forty-five minutes or so. Personally, I think we'd all be happier if we let ourselves have a little cry every now and then. I'm not embarrassed to have emotions and none of us should be embarrassed to give in to them.
How do you feel about crying? Do you do it often, like me, or prefer to hold in your tears and maintain a brave front? Where's the most unexpected place you've cried?