We came crying hither

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…

Cry Baby

Every once in a while on my journey through the years, I stumble over something that is so commonplace it is invisible -well, not invisible maybe, but at least so common we ask the wrong questions about it, if we ask at all. Crying, for example; why do we cry? Is it a way of diverting our own attention? A catharsis? Or, to be crass, a manipulative device? Whatever the reason, it’s sufficiently universal, that I would have thought we would have discovered whether or not it serves some physiological purpose by now.

Not that everything is attended by a purpose, of course, but we do feel better when we find one… Okay, I feel better when I think something is doing it to keep me healthy, or at least has an evolutionary explanation, however atavistic. So it was with great expectations that I jumped into an essay in the Conversation by  Leah Sharman, a PhD candidate in Psychology at the University of Queensland (Australia). She, I hoped, was going to answer a question I never thought to ask before: why do we cry? https://theconversation.com/no-crying-doesnt-release-toxins-though-it-might-make-you-feel-better-if-thats-what-you-believe-106860

I mean what would prompt me to ask? I laugh, I cry -I seem to know why it happens, but do I? Or am I just extrapolating from the circumstances when it occurs -making the all too easy assumption that association is the same as cause? I entered the article with my hat in my hand and my breathing held in reverent abeyance as I might on entering a grand cathedral. Unfortunately, I heard no organ playing, and whatever echoes reverberated through the nave, were produced by disparate voices, not the stirring lower registers of majestic pipes.

For example, the rather banal observation that, ‘Studies show, on average, adult women  tend to cry two to three times in a given month, and men only once. Although research is limited, it suggests crying frequency is highly influenced by social and cultural factors, our beliefs about the value of crying and how it is evaluated.’ Followed by ‘This is particularly exaggerated in many Western countries, where women report crying more often than those from non-Western countries. And in non-Western countries the difference in crying frequency between men and women is smaller. In some instances, it’s non-existent.’ Imagine that.

Then, a hint of teleology: ‘Scientists have long speculated why we cry and what happens in our bodies when we’re doing it. Some have suggested crying may be expelling chemicals that are built up during feelings of distress, or that crying causes a  chemical change in the body that reduces stress or increases positive feelings.’ But again, a hush: ‘But we don’t actually know that much about crying and most of the studies out there are based on self-reporting.’

‘The most pervasive idea about crying is that we do it because it’s helpful in some way; perhaps it provides relief or catharsis. But the research on this is mixed, with crying sometimes showing an improvement in mood and sometimes a worsening… Despite the overwhelming perception crying is useful at a personal level, most research suggests crying is more of a social phenomenon. Crying is an extremely effective signal to others that something is wrong and that you may be in need of help and comfort.’ Not terribly surprising, I suppose, but it seemed to be getting into more of the meat of the process.

That is, until I read further: ‘But before you go crying in front of others for support, just remember other studies show doing so may actually lead to feelings of shame and embarrassment.’ Okay, then, pick your study…

But in fairness, the article did get better -did attempt some evaluative science. ‘Crying seems, at best, to do not much at all, and, at worst, to increase our physiological arousal.’ For example, in the author’s lab, they ‘attempted to test whether crying reduces or interferes with the levels of the stress hormone (cortisol), and whether it may be able provide some other physical benefit, such as numbing, which could explain why we cry when we are in either emotional and physical pain. We found crying had no effect on stress levels and people weren’t able to withstand pain more readily than those who did not cry. But those who cried were more in control of their breathing rate. This suggests people may hold their breath during crying in a bid to calm themselves down, and perhaps use the crying behaviour to initiate the calming strategy.’

For the most part, though, it strikes me that the article merely ran through a checklist of unremarkable sociological parameters that left me no further ahead than I would have been had I confined myself to the confirmation biases on my Facebook. As an example, she says, ‘Crying is a personal process. Whether you cry, and how often, may be related to your culture, gender, and emotional expressiveness.’ Uhmm… well, yes I suppose so, eh?

Now that Sharman has raised the subject, however, I would still be interested to know if other mammals -primates, say- do, or even can cry. In other words, is crying an evolutionarily derived mechanism to serve some purpose, or is it an exaptation of something else, now exclusive to homo? Sadly, I did not find out, despite my suddenly piqued interest.

Fortunately, there is Google, and after scouring -sort of- the entries on crying, I did find a naively non-academic one that seemed to cover most of the bases -a 2013 article by Amanda Smith in The Body Sphere: https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/archived/bodysphere/features/4837824 It’s titled ‘Why are humans the only animals that cry?’ I’m not sure it even answers its own question, but at any rate, it did attempt some interesting explanations of why humans cry that I hadn’t heard before. It included this rather innocent and dewy-eyed one: ‘Darwin’s own theory of tears claimed that ‘in our evolutionary past, babies would close their eyes very tightly to protect their eyes when they were screaming for their mothers,’ says Dr Thomas Dixon, director of the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London. ‘The closing of the eyes very tightly would squeeze the lachrymal glands and bring out the tears,’ he says. By a process of association thereafter, any kind of pain or suffering became connected with tears.’

I know, I know, it’s a sort of kludgey explanation, but in a touching way, it’s kind of uplifting, don’t you think? Soothing, almost…