Why The Tears?

Posted: April 18, 2014

Rural Pen

Chances are, if you spend any time on the Internet, you have seen many statements such as, “Heart-wrenching video guaranteed to make you cry,” and subsequent responses, reading “This made me cry.”

TV interviews these days often focus on people crying, while the camera remains fixed on a person’s private moment.

My question is, what’s with the fixation on crying?

Crying does have benefits. A good cry releases pent-up emotions and toxins. It helps us confront our feelings, express our grief and connect with others.

Apparently, we are not the first culture to glorify tears. In his book, “Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears,” Tom Lutz describes numerous ancient societies in which crying was considered to be a pleasure.

In “The Iliad,” for instance, Homer talks of the “desire for lamentation” and “taking satisfaction in lament.” Lutz discovered that the function of poetry in Homer is to give pleasure to the listener, even if the story is painful. Odysseus weeps in pleasure when the bard Demodokos tells the story of the Trojan horse, despite the pain he feels when he remembers lost comrades and lost time.

Perhaps this helps explain the response some have to these voyeuristic videos and shows. It is not a response of pain, but pleasure.

Later, Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Now tears and groans are actions befitting a man who is in sorrow or pain; and consequently they become pleasant to him.”

Tears were considered sexy by the Latins. Lutz says Virgil, in “The Aeneid,” contended that tears are a mark of beauty, suggesting that lacrimaeque decorate — or decorative tears — make the crier more beautiful to a lover. Ovid advised young men to use tears as a form of seduction. And he told women who cannot cry easily to fake it because of its persuasive power.

That would be me. I don’t cry much. To all the women who post “This made me cry,” I respond, “So what? You always cry.”

Crying does get people’s attention. I have been in small groups where a woman who cries gets everyone over to her side of the room, fawning and cooing. And of course, politicians have learned the value of the appearance of wiping away a tear.

William Wordsworth’s first published poem, “On Seeing Helen Maria Williams Weep at a Tale of Distress” (the equivalent of crying over a YouTube video?), contains these lines:

She wept. — Life’s purple tide began to flow

In languid streams through every thrilling vein;

Dim were my swimming eyes — my pulse beat slow,

And my full heart was swell’d to dear delicious pain.

Real or not, Ms. Williams’ tears wielded a great effect upon the poet.

Genuine tears come for different reasons: grief, gladness, grace, regret. My deepest weeping has been for grief and regret, neither of which produce any pleasure. It comes from the same place in me that birthed my children. Perhaps joy has come later, though of a bittersweet nature.

 “Lamenting,” wrote Isidore of Seville, “is the food of souls.”

Crying is not idealized everywhere. When an American friend in Ireland had a miscarriage, she cried for days. Finally, her Irish mother-in-law told her she should learn to suppress her tears. There, it’s the tough women who get high marks.

Don’t get me wrong. I do occasionally get tearful at sad and happy stories, movies and books. But I don’t announce it on my Facebook page or tweet or tell people about it.
Should I?

Luanne Austin lives in Mount Sidney. Contact her at RuralPen@aol.com, on Facebook or care of the DN-R.