The Wonder of Weeping

I’ve been reflecting lately on the mysterious wonder of crying. CD7MI31UEAEJAN6

It started a few weeks back when a book arrived with the ingenious title “Poems that make Grown Men Cry. It’s a selection by a wide variety of men including Stephen Fry, Seamus Heaney, Clive James, Rowan Williams and Nick Cave, the latter of whom adds Les Murray’s The Widower in the Country, with its simple, telling opening lines:

I’ll get up soon, and leave my bed unmade.
I’ll go outside and split off kindling wood,
From the yellow-box log that lies beside the gate,
And the sun will be high, for I get up late now.

None made me cry, but a few got me very ponderous. A good start.

A week later, I happened upon an NPR podcast entitled Songs That Make Us Cry. Noting the common theme, and intrigued, I listened. I loved that they included Bjork’s glorious Hyperballad, which I love, and play for my daughters sometimes.

Then I went to a kids movie.

I’ve been doing a fair bit of writing lately, especially about memories from years ago. But I didn’t expect much when my friend Brad and I took our kids to see the new Pixar film Inside Out. It’s a clever film, which explores the various emotions inside a young girl’s mind, through various characters, such as Joy, Sadness, Anger, and so forth, who together face an adventure to keep the girl on track. It’s a brilliant way of helping young people understand their changing inner world. Sitting next to my daughters, it had extra impact, and I was appreciating and enjoying what they may be learning.

But then as it came to the climax, something snuck under my adult guard. (Spoiler alert) the character Joy suddenly realises that ‘Sadness’ is not her nemesis, but her necessary colleague in guiding the young girls life. She lets Sadness ‘take over’ for a while.

Well, that moment just got me. I cried, and not just a few tears sliding down the cheek. I sobbed. In a kids movie!

Why was I crying?

It was the film, but it was also what I brought to it. It was my daughters, it was my memories, it was the worries of parenthood. It was wonderful.

I generally don’t cry all that often. There have been times of concentrated sadness of course. I cried my way through my father’s eulogy. It was exhausting. I’ve also felt so stressed and anxious that tears have come. And disappointment. Then, also, tears of relief.

Crying is a mysterious wonder in that it feels strangely wonderful, even as we feel awful. Whilst often prompted by sadness, it actually brings a welcome, understated sweetness. It doesn’t resolve things, but it is the natural guest of extreme circumstances. Tears are the best condolence. They say the perfect thing every time.

Crying is the first sound we ever make, and for quite a while it’s our only sound as babies. Hungry? Tired? Awake? Sore? Unfamiliar? Need changing? Want a toy? A cry says it all.

Of course some people, in the face of grief, or deep sadness, cry every single day. But some friends of mine say they’ve not cried for years. It’s a deeply personal act of expression. One doesn’t go looking for it, but it can be avoided. And then, of course, it can catch us out unexpectedly.

Crying is a vulnerable, opening act. You can’t fake anything during a real cry. One feels the inertia of release, of letting go. Whilst we equate the physical manifestations with our watery eyes, it actually seems to come from the chest, with deep breathing. After a cry, we exhale, and often remain strangely still. It’s a special kind of space, those few seconds, as we rejoin real-time.

Crying with others is incredibly precious. The mutual expression bonds us together beyond words, carving room where, for a brief moment, the truly important human things have their moment. A glimpse of time when everything superficial falls away. Sometimes this is profoundly important, as tears accompany the most horrific events.

It seems to be prompted by matters of extreme resonance, sometimes due to our tenderness, and other times because of the sheer significance of the circumstance, be it exhilarating positive or devastatingly sad.  Consider also how the actions of others, both kind and unkind, can make us cry.

Crying can also be incredibly cathartic, which means it maintains our psychological clarity through the cleansing experience of expressing strong emotions, often through art. It gives physical expression to psychological states, particularly when they touch upon our deepest values and longings. Novels, films, music, drama, dance, even paintings, can skilfully speak insightful and universally to many in ways that prompt tears. And these, especially if they just happen to catch us at certain moment, can be a real gift.

The Living Years by Mike and the Mechanics is a common classic for this. It’s poignant but accessible lyric about saying all that needs to be said to our fathers before it’s too late, is universal. Coincidently for me, I first heard it when Rev John Smith came to my high school in 1990 and played it before giving a talk about the value of relationships. I’ve heard it myriad times since, and heard many people say how the last verse is always a kicker:

I wasn’t there that morning
When my Father passed away
I didn’t get to tell him
All the things I had to say
I think I caught his spirit
Later that same year
I’m sure I heard his echo
In my baby’s new-born tears
I just wish I could have told him in the living years

Some songs seem designed to make us cry, but they often sound too wet. Ballads are a tricky genre, locating many, but not all, of the tear-inducing tunes. ‘Power’ ballads, of course, are hideous creatures, audacious, selfish and emotionally corrupt. The difference between a ballad and a power ballad, is the difference between Neil Finn and Celine Dion.

A definite non-ballad that resonates with me is from a 1995 bootleg of Pearl Jam playing the Music Bowl in Melbourne. Their final song in the set is a roaring cover of Neil Young’s Rockin’ in the Free World, of which the second verse reads:

I see a woman in the night
With a baby in her hand
Under an old street light
Near a garbage can
Now she puts the kid away,
and she’s gone to get a hit
She hates her life,
and what she’s done to it
There’s one more kid
that will never go to school
Never get to fall in love,
never get to be cool.

That girl and her baby get me every time.

I do note that there is a difference between songs that are pleasant to listen to whilst crying, and songs that can actually make you cry. There are many that we prefer when we’re in a crying mood, but not many that actually create that moment. Not on their own, anyhow.

Sometimes songs can be moving totally out of lyrical context. I’m thinking specifically of Paul Simon’s Graceland, which has a clever, ongoing kind of wistful rhythmic feel, with several great lines, one of which is:

And she said losing love
Is like a window in your heart

That’s good, but it’s another simple line in the second verse that destroys me:

There is a girl in New York City
Who calls herself the human trampoline

Simon has said that line doesn’t really mean anything, whereas the wider song deals with grieving his failed marriage to Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia – fair enough). But when I hear that lyric it brings to mind a young girl who I’d known years ago who went from guy to guy sleeping around seeking love, and being used again and again, like a ‘human trampoline’. That she would call herself that, was the tragic element I caught. That image has stuck, and breaks me every time I hear it.

Similar is the impact of what is considered the world’s shortest story, often attributed to Ernest Hemingway:

For Sale:
Baby Shoes.
Never worn.

Sit with that. It’s hard.

Sometimes music rather than words does it. Say, for example, Barber’s Adagio for StringsOr the ‘Shine Like Stars’ coda that Bono sometimes throws on the end of live versions of With or Without You. It’s not the lyric, it’s the musical lift.

It’s the same with the glorious and mournful sounds of The Dirty Three, just pure emotion.

Similarly, funnily enough, with dance music, where sometimes the electronic pulse seems to add a dimension of distance, and increases the emotion when it changes. It’s a feeling often shared mutually at a rave, and I feel it when Underworld’s live set Everything, Everything, breaks into the familiar tones of ‘Born Slippy.  

But of course we don’t just cry when we’re sad. We can also cry when we’re overwhelmingly happy. When happiness spills into joy – something true delightful. We can also cry laughing, taking merriment to a whole new level. That’s just the most magnificent feeling. Sitting around a table with friends gasping hard enough to generate tears is bliss itself. I have to take my foggy glasses off, and wipe away the salty water.

We also cry when inspired, such as hearing rhetoric in a speech, or a story of courage, or a moment of incredible grace. There’s a little moment in the television show The West Wing, when President Bartlett is making a speech immediately after hearing of a fatal fire at a State University:

Notice how it’s the starkness of the tragedy combined with the sheer act of the other students who run “into the fire” that touches upon something deeply moving? And then how he makes that act universal in its application, rallying everyone to be better people. The heroic act cuts through to something mysteriously emotional.

Men supposedly cry less than women, depending of course on cultural context, but this reflects a view that crying is a sign of masculine weakness, aptly captured in The Cure’s classic song Boy’s Don’t Cry:

I would say I’m sorry 
If I thought that it would change your mind
But I know that this time
I’ve said too much
Been too unkind

I try to laugh about it
Cover it all up with lies
I try and
Laugh about it
Hiding the tears in my eyes
’cause boys don’t cry
Boys don’t cry

My Dad told me years ago that after his first major heart attack, he cried more often. I’ve heard it from others too.

My wife Sil cries almost every time she sings a hymn. She feels the tender power of the gospel of Jesus so intimately, that almost no matter the tune, the words unfold a connection and gratitude to God through tears.

It’s good to cry. My favourite Old Testament book Ecclesiastes says that “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:…a time to weep, and a time to laugh”.

We’re also told that upon the death of Lazarus, while his heart was greatly troubled “Jesus Wept“. Whether he was weeping for his friend, or for the welfare of those nearby matters not in this instance, either way he cried. Jesus cried.

The power of Jesus has also prompted a majority of my tears, I’d say. Often this has been hearing the Christian gospel carefully explained, singing in worship, or whilst praying with someone. I recall sitting in the back of a lecture years ago, hearing David McGregor teach through the Book of Hebrews, and feeling my heart exploding and eyes tear up with the realisation of the sheer beauty of the grace of God.

I actually feel it sometimes whilst preaching myself, especially when touching upon the gospel’s application to the people’s lives. The central idea of Christianity, that a God of perfect love and justice acts through sacrifice to gift, or propitiate, righteousness, forgiveness, redemption, and freedom to ordinary people, is magnificent and moving. Knowing the genuine lived experience of people around me, it can be overwhelmingly powerful and, yes, emotional.

Likewise participating in the sacrament of communion, I sometimes shed a tear. Receiving the bread and wine as signs of the body and blood of Christ is a profound reminder of the grace of Jesus. More than a reminder, actually, an experience, a gift, a declaration: Jesus is Lord, and so nothing else is. It’s a defiant statement in world filled with brokenness. It touches the deepest aspects of my humanity, my own brokenness, and that moves me deeply. That’s a special kind of crying, filled with joy and gratitude.

Consider how tragic it is when we get beyond tears. Some seasons are so traumatic that it feels more like a cold, empty stone well, than a dam. I’ve know times like that. Crying is far better. What would we do without tears?

Christianity, however, teaches that there will actually be another kind of time ‘beyond tears’. It promises an ultimate, coming reconciliation and renewal of all things, which is the end in view for all creation, where Christ “…will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

In the meantime, I’m glad for crying. Indeed, it’s quite addictive.  My advice is, when you next feel a wave of tears building, let them break, and then ride them all the way to the shore.

Comedian Louis CK seems to be in agreement, if you watch right to the end: