What makes crying taboo in the modern world?


What makes crying taboo in the modern world?

This writer blows her nose and attempts an explanation

By Mitali Saran  December 14th, 2015

There’s a quite nice Italian wine called Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio, or Tears of Christ on Vesuvius. According to one story, the beauty of the Bay of Naples made Jesus weep; in another story, he wept when Lucifer fell from heaven. In both stories, his tears landed on the slopes of Vesuvius, and where they fell grew these inspired vines. The story is probably better than the wine, though the wine is no slouch. It’s a beautiful story because we know from experience that tears can carry visceral, sometimes exalted emotion.

Apparently we each produce something like 80 litres of tears in a year. Most of that is a constant saline secretion from the lachrymal ducts that keeps corneal membranes wet and free of irritants and bacteria. But those aren’t the tears we notice. The tears we care about are those that come with a painful lump in the throat, blur our vision and leave either a shine on the cheek or a messy mascara track. The tears that express rage, sadness, joy and everything in between.

It is this force of naked emotion that makes people uncomfortable around other people’s tears; they recognise that something powerful is going on, something humbling, something against which they feel helpless. But we all know that tears are a release, not just for physical toxins, but for psychological ones too. Eighty litres of the stuff a year isn’t an accident of nature. So why do people make crying out to be a bad thing? What does it mean if you cry, and why do we so often struggle not to?

Weeping is about losing control of your emotions, after all, and losing self-control is seen as a kind of sin in this increasingly anti-human world. Not all kinds of self-control, though. I’m not sure when we got to this point where throwing a drunken punch at someone in a bar is kind of cool and entertaining, while sitting in a corner of the same bar and having a quiet drunken cry is just pathetic — but here we are. The former is about machismo; the latter is seen as a display of weakness. Witnesses to tears generally just want them to stop, to ‘fix’ them by wiping them away, by imploring the weeper to get a grip and take back self-control. But you can’t ‘fix’ tears. I know, I’ve tried.

When I was a kid, I had a kind of idiotic machismo nurtured on notions of honour, valour, strength, toughness and self-reliance. None of those are bad things to have or to work with, but without the balancing and softening effects of vulnerability, they fail to recognise their own limits. At some point, your body will find some apocalyptic way to remind you of all the things you’ve been neglecting to do, like unburdening yourself to your friends, and recognising that you feel anger, pain, fear and existential horror just like everyone else.

So what did my body do to me, who refused to cry? It administered a long period of panic attacks. If you’ve ever had one, you’ll know it’s an uncontrollable and overwhelming physiological fear response that sends adrenaline shooting through you and makes you feel like you’re having a heart attack, or stroke, or some unnamed physical catastrophe. I’m pretty sure that it is the most unpleasant thing next to actually dying. In my case, it came on top of a brimming depression.

Panic attacks dug up all my suppressed negative emotions and laid them across the very surface of my being in place of my skin. Suddenly, just living was like being poked in the most hurtful places. Everything made me cry. Reading the newspaper, hearing about someone else’s pain, a kindly glance thrown my way. I couldn’t do a thing about it. The more I tried not to, the more I cried. There is nothing quite as humbling to a self-identified macho personality, than having it turn so mercilessly against itself. But the endless tears that came out of those panic attacks sculpted all sorts of much more rich and interesting gullies and folds into what had been a worthy but rather bleak landscape. 

Kids have the sort of intemperate, unfiltered relationship with their emotions that produces exhilaration as well as tantrums. When a kid skins her knee, or isn’t allowed to play on the iPad any more, it’s perfectly normal for her to bawl as if her whole world has ended. As she grows up, she’s expected to master those emotions with rationality and social poise. This is particularly weird because as you grow up, life only gets more difficult and painful and incomprehensible. It’s a useful skill, no doubt — people who never master their emotions all seem to end up on the far right of the political spectrum.

Now, I’m a big fan of a good cry. I cry most often when I’m furious, particularly if I’m furious about an injustice. Rage sets off my waterworks easily, which is a real bummer when you’re trying to make a coherent case for that injustice, but managing only angry sobs and hiccups. The first time I had a serious run-in with an employer, she chewed me out in public over what I considered to be an entirely unfair, unjust point, and I barely heard what she was on about because I was shaking with the grim effort of not melting down. It was entirely pointless — everyone in the room knew I was bawling — but I was only worried she might mistake my righteous Kali-like rage for helpless snivelling.

I also do lots of helpless snivelling. I cry at movies both happy and sad; I cry when I’m lonely, or when I think about losing family or friends. I cry when I’m reading, and when I’m bone-tired. I cry when the world feels too big, and I too small, when everything in me is screaming to be held and there’s nobody to hold me, or when I hear poetry about loss and longing. I cry at weddings and at funerals. I cry when I’m unspeakably happy, or looking at something unspeakably beautiful. I wept like a baby when Barack Obama was elected president, and when Narendra Modi became prime minister, for exactly opposite reasons. I cried when someone asked me to be a godparent to their child (I’m giving them a chance to change their minds, but even if they do, I’ll still tear up at the thought that they asked).

All this crying, could I get away with it if I were a man? There are situations in which crying is seen as unacceptable for both sexes. The work environment is one such. If you’re a professional, apparently, you do not cry. If you do, however, you’d better be female. If a man does break down, it is seen as a disturbing aberration; if a woman does, she faces the double whammy of being considered not just weak, but naturally, almost comfortingly, so. Hillary Clinton wept on national television during the 2008 presidential campaign and it humanised her in the eyes of viewers.  If Barack Obama had pulled a Hillary, chances are that John McCain would have been president.

In relationships, women are expected to weep unashamedly over their faithless lovers, men to maintain a stoic silence while taking to drink and self-destruction. Women are constantly telling each other that the creep isn’t worth the tears; but love, however imperfect, usually is worth tears. If you won’t acknowledge and honour your shitty choices, who will? The truth is that unhappy or unrequited love reduces both men and women to snotty messes. 

It’s not all for nothing. Even if you’re not the greatest artist or writer, you can ride your tears to a kind of catharsis. I know this from my baby steps in song writing. When I am heartbroken (not just romantically), I find that playing and singing a song written about it can take all the dark and twisty stuff inside me and put it out in the world in a form that would be beautiful if I were any good at playing and singing. I’m convinced that almost all art is a form of weeping.

I’m not suggesting that everyone has to, or can be, a melancholic artist. But when you feel tears welling up, respect the fact that they’re performing some kind of psychic service, and let them out. Crying opens doors that are crucial, and half our lives are in there. So don’t listen to those people who tell you that your tears are a sign of weakness, that they’re unprofessional, that they mark you out as incompetent.

Having said all that, if it’s vitally important for you to stem a rising tide, here’s how to do it: relax your jaw, open your eyes wider, do not blink, and exhale slowly. Those brimming tears will sink back into the wellspring they came from. On no account should you listen to ‘No Woman, No Cry’ by Bob Marley & the Wailers. That one will do you in.  

There’s a quite nice Italian wine called Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio, or Tears of Christ on Vesuvius. According to one story, the beauty of the Bay of Naples made Jesus weep; in another story, he wept when Lucifer fell from heaven. In both stories, his tears landed on the slopes of Vesuvius, and where they fell grew these inspired vines. The story is probably better than the wine, though the wine is no slouch. It’s a beautiful story because we know from experience that tears can carry visceral, sometimes exalted emotion.

Apparently we each produce something like 80 litres of tears in a year. Most of that is a constant saline secretion from the lachrymal ducts that keeps corneal membranes wet and free of irritants and bacteria. But those aren’t the tears we notice. The tears we care about are those that come with a painful lump in the throat, blur our vision and leave either a shine on the cheek or a messy mascara track. The tears that express rage, sadness, joy and everything in between.

It is this force of naked emotion that makes people uncomfortable around other people’s tears; they recognise that something powerful is going on, something humbling, something against which they feel helpless. But we all know that tears are a release, not just for physical toxins, but for psychological ones too. Eighty litres of the stuff a year isn’t an accident of nature. So why do people make crying out to be a bad thing? What does it mean if you cry, and why do we so often struggle not to?

Weeping is about losing control of your emotions, after all, and losing self-control is seen as a kind of sin in this increasingly anti-human world. Not all kinds of self-control, though. I’m not sure when we got to this point where throwing a drunken punch at someone in a bar is kind of cool and entertaining, while sitting in a corner of the same bar and having a quiet drunken cry is just pathetic — but here we are. The former is about machismo; the latter is seen as a display of weakness. Witnesses to tears generally just want them to stop, to ‘fix’ them by wiping them away, by imploring the weeper to get a grip and take back self-control. But you can’t ‘fix’ tears. I know, I’ve tried.

When I was a kid, I had a kind of idiotic machismo nurtured on notions of honour, valour, strength, toughness and self-reliance. None of those are bad things to have or to work with, but without the balancing and softening effects of vulnerability, they fail to recognise their own limits. At some point, your body will find some apocalyptic way to remind you of all the things you’ve been neglecting to do, like unburdening yourself to your friends, and recognising that you feel anger, pain, fear and existential horror just like everyone else.

So what did my body do to me, who refused to cry? It administered a long period of panic attacks. If you’ve ever had one, you’ll know it’s an uncontrollable and overwhelming physiological fear response that sends adrenaline shooting through you and makes you feel like you’re having a heart attack, or stroke, or some unnamed physical catastrophe. I’m pretty sure that it is the most unpleasant thing next to actually dying. In my case, it came on top of a brimming depression.

Panic attacks dug up all my suppressed negative emotions and laid them across the very surface of my being in place of my skin. Suddenly, just living was like being poked in the most hurtful places. Everything made me cry. Reading the newspaper, hearing about someone else’s pain, a kindly glance thrown my way. I couldn’t do a thing about it. The more I tried not to, the more I cried. There is nothing quite as humbling to a self-identified macho personality, than having it turn so mercilessly against itself. But the endless tears that came out of those panic attacks sculpted all sorts of much more rich and interesting gullies and folds into what had been a worthy but rather bleak landscape. 

Kids have the sort of intemperate, unfiltered relationship with their emotions that produces exhilaration as well as tantrums. When a kid skins her knee, or isn’t allowed to play on the iPad any more, it’s perfectly normal for her to bawl as if her whole world has ended. As she grows up, she’s expected to master those emotions with rationality and social poise. This is particularly weird because as you grow up, life only gets more difficult and painful and incomprehensible. It’s a useful skill, no doubt — people who never master their emotions all seem to end up on the far right of the political spectrum.

Now, I’m a big fan of a good cry. I cry most often when I’m furious, particularly if I’m furious about an injustice. Rage sets off my waterworks easily, which is a real bummer when you’re trying to make a coherent case for that injustice, but managing only angry sobs and hiccups. The first time I had a serious run-in with an employer, she chewed me out in public over what I considered to be an entirely unfair, unjust point, and I barely heard what she was on about because I was shaking with the grim effort of not melting down. It was entirely pointless — everyone in the room knew I was bawling — but I was only worried she might mistake my righteous Kali-like rage for helpless snivelling.

I also do lots of helpless snivelling. I cry at movies both happy and sad; I cry when I’m lonely, or when I think about losing family or friends. I cry when I’m reading, and when I’m bone-tired. I cry when the world feels too big, and I too small, when everything in me is screaming to be held and there’s nobody to hold me, or when I hear poetry about loss and longing. I cry at weddings and at funerals. I cry when I’m unspeakably happy, or looking at something unspeakably beautiful. I wept like a baby when Barack Obama was elected president, and when Narendra Modi became prime minister, for exactly opposite reasons. I cried when someone asked me to be a godparent to their child (I’m giving them a chance to change their minds, but even if they do, I’ll still tear up at the thought that they asked).

All this crying, could I get away with it if I were a man? There are situations in which crying is seen as unacceptable for both sexes. The work environment is one such. If you’re a professional, apparently, you do not cry. If you do, however, you’d better be female. If a man does break down, it is seen as a disturbing aberration; if a woman does, she faces the double whammy of being considered not just weak, but naturally, almost comfortingly, so. Hillary Clinton wept on national television during the 2008 presidential campaign and it humanised her in the eyes of viewers.  If Barack Obama had pulled a Hillary, chances are that John McCain would have been president.

In relationships, women are expected to weep unashamedly over their faithless lovers, men to maintain a stoic silence while taking to drink and self-destruction. Women are constantly telling each other that the creep isn’t worth the tears; but love, however imperfect, usually is worth tears. If you won’t acknowledge and honour your shitty choices, who will? The truth is that unhappy or unrequited love reduces both men and women to snotty messes. 

It’s not all for nothing. Even if you’re not the greatest artist or writer, you can ride your tears to a kind of catharsis. I know this from my baby steps in song writing. When I am heartbroken (not just romantically), I find that playing and singing a song written about it can take all the dark and twisty stuff inside me and put it out in the world in a form that would be beautiful if I were any good at playing and singing. I’m convinced that almost all art is a form of weeping.

I’m not suggesting that everyone has to, or can be, a melancholic artist. But when you feel tears welling up, respect the fact that they’re performing some kind of psychic service, and let them out. Crying opens doors that are crucial, and half our lives are in there. So don’t listen to those people who tell you that your tears are a sign of weakness, that they’re unprofessional, that they mark you out as incompetent.

Having said all that, if it’s vitally important for you to stem a rising tide, here’s how to do it: relax your jaw, open your eyes wider, do not blink, and exhale slowly. Those brimming tears will sink back into the wellspring they came from. On no account should you listen to ‘No Woman, No Cry’ by Bob Marley & the Wailers. That one will do you in.