I have to wonder about myself nowadays. I used to be a typical, societally conditioned male who seldom shed tears; I kept my grief tightly wrapped, and only unexpected pain, or major anguish was able to wet the cloth. Nowadays, though, I find myself weeping at the strangest things -and not all of them sad. Compassion or forgiveness from strangers often makes me well up. The other day on the TV news, the sight of the head of state hugging a woman, who only moments before had been screaming invectives at him from a crowd was enough to have me sobbing. The trusting eyes of an injured dog is too much for me to watch; even the minor key of a Rachmaninoff prelude is often enough to make me wipe my cheeks.
Apart from being oversaturated with years, I’m not sure what has changed in my life; maybe I’m just top-heavy with the time, I have been allotted. And yet, I don’t mean to speak of tears as undesirable, or somehow a weakness. In fact, if anything, they make me feel more in touch with… well, with things out there -things outside my body. Things that were not obviously linked to me -until, that is, I realized they were. To paraphrase, the work of the 17th century poet, John Donne, ‘Nothing is an island entire of itself; everything is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… the death of anything diminishes me, because I am involved in the world.’
Anyway, it seems to me that’s how I feel, and it manifests itself in tears of recognition with some long-lost connection I’ve stumbled across; I am an old man finally digesting his years, cataloguing them and putting them in some semblance of order, finding meaning in the never-ending chaos of Life. So, yes, it is a sweet sorrow, but how, or why, the feeling is connected with tears has remained as much a mystery to me as the relief -or is it satisfaction- I experience from the episode.
I happened upon an essay the other day by Thomas Dixon director of the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University in London whose title seemed to promise some answers: https://aeon.co/essays/read-it-and-weep-what-it-means-when-we-cry
He starts by suggesting that ‘Since ancient times, philosophers and scientists have tried to explain weeping as part of a shared human language of emotional expression. But, in fact, a tear on its own means nothing. As they well up in our eyes, or dribble down our cheeks, the meanings of those salty droplets can only be tentatively inferred by others, and then only when they know much more about the particular mental, social, and narrative contexts that gave rise to them.
‘We cry in sadness, grief and mourning, but also from joy and laughter. Some are moved to tears of pity by human suffering; others have wept the enraged tears of the oppressed. A tear-streaked cheek might be produced by nothing more than a yawn or a chopped onion.’
But, he soon gets waylaid by other, less noble ways of viewing them: ‘Theories of tears have always struggled to do justice to their threefold nature, as secretions, symptoms and signs. Are tears to be treated like urination, like a rash, or like a work of art? Does their interpretation require the expertise of the physiologist, the physician, or the metaphysician?… Those who object to public weeping often refer to it as a kind of ‘emotional incontinence’.’ I find it hard to view tears that way; I have to hope it’s more of a cultural thing -and yet it explains nothing to me.
Nor am I particularly enamoured with the mid 20th century psychoanalytical approach, attributing tears to either ‘repression [or] regression. The first implies that tears are a kind of overflow or discharge of previously repressed emotion, while the second presents the phenomenon of adult weeping as some sort of return to infantile, even prenatal, experiences and emotions.’ A bit too contrived, I think.
Darwin had a similar penchant for the laboured explanation of tears: ‘Tears, for Darwin, were never more than a side-effect of some other, useful behaviour. He started from the observation that the reflex secretion of tears was initially caused by ‘the irritation of any foreign body in the eye’. He then hypothesised that in cases of loud infant screaming, during which the eyes were closed tightly, that same reflex could be brought into action by pressure on the lachrymal glands. Over many generations, Darwin speculated, the association of tears with infant screams of pain and hunger gradually became extended to painful mental states of all kinds, so that tears could be produced even in the absence of irritating foreign bodies, or of screams.’ Uhmm…
Nobody seems to have come even close to a consensus, and as in previous considerations of the inscrutable, I am reminded again of St. Augustine’s likely apocryphal observation about Time: What then is Time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.
And, despite the autumn of my long list of years, I’m not sure I know what to make of tears, either. I suppose I’m not even certain what questions need to be asked, but then again, maybe I’m looking in the wrong place. Asking the wrong people.
I remember when my daughter was still very small, and largely innocent of the ways of her elders. One summer’s evening, while I was reading on the porch, I saw her sitting quietly on the grass behind the house, just staring at the trees that guard us from the traffic on the distant road. The wind was riffling roughly through the leaves, and a robin was complaining about another bird that had just flown onto a neighbouring tree. Catherine seemed to be listening intently, rocking her body this way and that, obviously enjoying the branches swaying in the wind as if they were conducting an orchestra.
She looked so at home out there, so totally enmeshed in the moment, it seemed removed from time; the yard was an enchanted faerie ring. I put my book aside, swept up in the awe of the scene and walked over to feel her magic.
At first, she didn’t hear me, but when she turned her head I saw her face was streaked with tears.
I put my arm around her and hugged her. “Cath,” I whispered, so as not to break the spell. “Are you all right, sweetie?” But her eyes were calm, and her expression was enraptured. Beatific, almost.
She looked at me for a moment before answering, and I could see a puzzled look slowly forming on her face -as if she could not quite understand the question. Then she smiled, as if she suddenly realized my confusion.
“I wasn’t crying, daddy,” she said, stroking my cheek with her little fingers. “I was just emptying my eyes…”
I should have known, I suppose…