My dog died. I just got engaged. An earthquake leaves thousands homeless. “Time in a Bottle” comes on the radio. I passed my college physics exam. My best friend has leukemia. My daughter just gave birth to twins. Another senseless terror attack takes innocent lives. Jimmy Stewart’s friends and neighbors all rally to his defense at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
It would be hard to compose a more random grouping, would it not? Taken individually, the items on this list seem so far removed from one another that anyone having the same emotional response to every one of them might reasonably be diagnosed as schizophrenic.
Well, maybe schizophrenic is what we are, since any of them could send any of us into a spell of sniffles, if not outright sobbing.
Which has to make us wonder: why do we cry?
We all know when we cry. We cry when we’re sad, and we cry when we’re happy. We cry when we’re lonely, when we’re in pain, when we hear bad news, and when we hear good news. We cry when we’re so overwhelmed with work or debt or family or life in general that we can no longer cope, and we cry when we’re so filled with joy that we want hug the world.
But what do all these highs and lows have in common? And why is crying our natural, involuntary reaction to emotional intensity?
THE BODY KNOWS THE MIND
There may be a biochemical reason behind why we cry. Lauren Bylsma, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, theorizes that crying may release stress hormones or toxins from the body, which would explain why we cry when we’re sad, frustrated, or overwhelmed.
On the other extreme, people cry in response to unusual positive impressions, like swelling music or objects of beauty. “I use the word melting,” says Dr. Stephen Sideroff, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry & Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA’s School of Medicine. “They are letting go of their guard, their defenses, tapping into a place deep inside themselves.”
It’s fascinating to note that crying may have as much to do with feelings as feelings have to do with crying. Studies indicate that people with Sjogren’s syndrome, which inhibits tear production, are more likely to have difficulty identifying their own emotions.
According to Dr. Judith Kay Nelson, a psychotherapist and author of Seeing Through Tears: Crying and Attachment, research suggests that crying is an attachment mechanism, through which we bond with others by eliciting or showing empathy. This would explain why insecure people are most likely to cry inappropriately, why people who avoid close relationships cry less often, and why women cry more than men.
The benefits of the proverbial “good cry” are somewhat more complicated. According to Dr. Bylsma’s research, crying can make us feel better when we’re in the company of a supportive friend, if it’s in response to something good, or if it helps lead to some new insight or resolution.
But when crying causes embarrassment, increases feelings of vulnerability, or does not lead toward any positive outcome, then crying will leave us feeling even worse than we felt before.
THE TRUTH WITHIN THE TEARS
But all of these observations are just that — observational. We’re really no closer to understanding why we cry, or why crying is common to both joy and sorrow.
Let’s start with the most basic function of tears: keeping the eye clean. According to the American Optometric Association, “tears provide lubrication, reduce the risk of eye infection, wash away foreign matter in the eye, and keep the surface of the eyes smooth and clear.”
In other words, we need our tears if we want to be able to see.
What if we consider vision on an allegorical, or even on a metaphysical level? Terms like inner vision, foresight, insight, outlook, lucidity, transparency, and perception are all staples in the lexicon of human psychology. So are mental impairments such as myopia, tunnel vision, and moral blindness.
Just as crying is the function through which the body removes obstructions and restores balance so that the outer eye can see, perhaps crying similarly restores a sense of emotional clarity so that the inner eye can recover healthy spiritual perception.
We all know how we can lose objectivity, clarity, or good judgment in moments of emotional intensity. We get swept away — sometimes literally — regardless of whether we are overcome by elation or by despair. Indeed, when positive emotional intensity takes us soaring to the heights of ecstasy, our sense of abandon can lead us to places just as dangerous as when we plummet into the darkness of depression.
In either case, by shedding hormones and toxins with our tears, we can recover some of the psychological balance that protects us from the self-destructive impulses of both misery and giddiness. In this way, our physical tears enable the mind’s eye recapture clarity of insight, providing a kind of emotional reset that helps us better recognize the consequences of our actions and better see our way through the highs and lows we have to navigate along the course of our lives.
THE BIG PICTURE
If we reflect upon Dr. Nelson’s understanding of crying as an attachment mechanism, we might take these ideas a step further.
True happiness comes from feeling part of something greater than oneself, from working toward a higher purpose with a sense of positive, forward motion. True sorrow comes from feeling stymied in the attainment of one’s potential and held back from fulfilling the reason for one’s existence. Crying is a response to these extremes: we cry when we feel absolutely connected, or absolutely disconnected, from the part we are destined to play on stage of eternity.
Remember how Dr. Sideroff described crying for joy as melting? When we cry in response to great beauty, the barriers that separate oneself from the outside world disintegrate and we lose our own identity within the vastness of creation. By the same thinking, we cry from despair because we feel detached from that ideal, isolated and unable to connect. We cry from pain because of the sense of injustice the makes us feel all alone in a universe that is cold and unforgiving.
The divine pleasure of feeling part of the harmony of the universe, and the profound agony of feeling lost in chaos, each produces the same reaction. Both conditions come from a heightened awareness of one’s own existence and a sharpened sense of purpose; and each requires a recalibration, whether to regain hope and a sense of direction or to recognize that the purpose of my existence is not yet fulfilled and that there is still work to be done.
The masters of Jewish mysticism describe a state they call hisbatlus, literally, nullification — the complete elimination of ego. This can manifest in one of two ways: either from the sense that I have found my place in the universe and have been swallowed up into the totality of Creation, or that the universe has forgotten me and left me to fend for myself. The first fills me with a sense of divine majesty, awe, and love; the second with a sense of chaos, injustice, and pointlessness.
No human being can expect to survive for long at either of these extremes. We have to come down from the emotional and spiritual high, just as we have to pull ourselves up out of the emotional and spiritual abyss. The start of either process may begin with a good cry.