The Wisdom Of Tears

The Wisdom of Tears

By Morton M. Hunt

Tears are much more than the outpouring of sorrow, for they may also start forth in the presence of beauty, in moments of great joy, at times of sudden relief from worry. In such situations, they seem unreasonable and inappropriate. Yet a significant lesson of contemporary psychology is that such unexpected actions stem from the most powerful but best-hidden needs and secrets of our own hearts. Unaccountable tears can therefore be a means of self-revelation, personal wisdom and deeper happiness.

Not long ago, my wife was leafing through our photograph album – a vivid reminder of our life when we were a poor young couple clinging to each other in the big city, full of fears and hopes. When I came to the living room I found her brokenheartedly crying for the lean and frightening days that were no more. We are happier and better off today in every way than we were than; yet she cried for those days all the same.

Illogical? No, for behind her tears there lurked an important truth. She wept not only because a part of life and youth were gone but also because deep down she realized that no one lives as intensely and as warmly as he would if he were only aware of the pathetic shortness of our years, of the dreadful finality of the past.

My wife was crying for the days – no matter that they were hard and anxious – in which we were in such a hurry to get on with life that we neglect to suck the full sweetness out of each blessed hour. And to realize this, it seems to me, is a very high form of wisdom. The unreasonable tears of nostalgia can teach each of us that truth, if we but use them as a stimulus to reflection.

So, too, with other kinds of tears. One afternoon when the people in an old folks’ home were treated to ice cream cones, a palsied old man in a wheel chair dropped his ice cream on the floor. His smile of anticipation faded, and big soundless tears rolled down his cheeks. A volunteer aide stared at him for a moment, and then fled to an anteroom where she bawled like a baby. When I asked her why, she told me:” Because he was so old, so pathetic – oh, you know!”

But I think there was more to her tears, if she could only have found words for it. Man is a fragile thing, she might have said, and death hovers over him; let us have compassion for one another. But alas, most of the time we fear our own impulse toward sympathy, and clear our throats gruffly and laugh at what we call “sentimentality.” Only when tears burst forth in spite of ourselves do we realize the universal need of all human beings to pity and sympathize with each other.

An army colonel I once knew was riding through southern Germany in a staff car shortly after V-E Day. Along the sides of the dusty road he saw long lines of ragged German soldiers who had just been released by our own forces, plodding homeward across the land with their packs on their backs.

“I hated their guts,” he told me. “A few weeks earlier they had been shooting at us, and I presumed that many of them were confirmed Nazis. Yet suddenly I saw them there in the sunshine and the dust as human beings, hopefully hurrying back after long years of absence to the job of mating, rearing children, tilling the soil, living out their own joys and sorrows. And I found myself crying before I could help it.”

In one astonishing moment, tears had let him glimpse the universality of human desires and feelings, and had begun to wipe out in his own heart the bitterness of war.

Insights like this lie waiting for us behind the tears that mysteriously catch us by surprise at the unlikeliest times. A visit to a great medieval cathedral has left many a sensitive traveller moist-eyed and choked with unnamed emotion. Why tears? Why not simply smiles of pleasure and appreciation for the cathedral’s majesty and rich detail?

The answer, I would venture to guess, lies in a dazzling vision of the kinship of all men, a momentary revelation of the labours, hopes and achievements of unknown men who lived long ago. The traveller looks at the incredible detail of the mighty carved facade, or gazes up at the soaring buttresses with their exquisite carving; and he thinks of the millions of careful blows of hammer upon chisel, the calloused and aching hands that held the tools, the weary muscles and tired backs, the satisfied proud faces of the craftsmen and designers. And so he weeps, because if man is often little and mean, he is also occasionally lofty and noble.

Like these tears of sympathy or identification, tears of joy can teach us about our hidden selves. Can such weeping come from pure happiness? Psychiatrists think not. In one study, Dr Sandor Feldman, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester, concluded that no one ever weeps for unalloyed joy; such tears always tell of a hidden element of sadness. At a wedding, the purely happy bride does not cry. But her mother, who is also happy, weeps for the sorrow that may come to one who until that moment was her child–and also, perhaps, because she, the mother, feels she has lost part of her function in life.

Some of us are moved to tears by the purely beautiful. Once when Charles Laughton visited the University of North Carolina to do a reading, he went walking through the Chapel Hill flower gardens. Coming suddenly upon a bank of massed daffodils and narcissuses, he promptly burst into tears. Other people have wept at the first sight of the Rocky Mountains, or a blue lake nestled in the hills, or the perfection of a Mozart sonata.

If you study the physiology of weeping, you discover that it seldom occurs during a state of complete tension, or one of complete relaxation–but during the ‘transition’ from the tense toward the pleasant. I suspect the principal reason beauty can bring forth tears lies within the nature of the one who weeps. He may be one who is more easily hurt than most, or more bottled up, or more tense. In the course of everyday living he is bound to gather many a minor wound and unexpressed sadness. Then the sudden sight of beauty brings pleasure, release and the flooding forth of gentle emotions–and with the barriers down, there spill forth the accumulated tears of mingled joy and sadness.

Anger, fear or the shock of sudden sorrow brings physical changes in our bodies. The digestion is shut down, the blood pressure is raised, the heart speeds up and the skin becomes cold. Maintained over a prolonged period, this emergency status makes the body–and the personality–tight, dry and rigid. In people who are afraid to let themselves pour forth their painful emotions, doctors find the suppressed tears can trigger such ailments as asthma, migraine headaches and many others.

Weeping, on the other hand, comes as part of the reversal of conditions of alarm, shock and anger. Tears do not, therefore, mark a breakdown or low point, but a transition to warmth and hope and health.

This shows up clearly in bereavement. Dr Erich Lindemann, psychiatrist-in-chief of the Massachusetts General Hospital and a pioneering investigator of human grief reactions, cited this remarkable case: A young nurse tended her father, to whom she was deeply devoted, through the long months of his terminal illness, always fighting back her tears. When he died, a well-meaning person sternly forbade her to show any grief, so as to spare her mother’s feelings and weak heart. Within a few hours she began to suffer from intestinal distress, and after a few days had a raging case of ulcerative colitis. Her body, denied its native access to relief, was slowly corroded away from within by the disordered impulses of her nervous system. She eventually died, killed by an emotion she would not permit herself to express.

In contrast, many a patient with complaints as dissimilar as a painful shoulder or recurrent nightmares has been dramatically relieved of them by the beginning of real weeping. Lucy Freeman in her book, Fight Against Fears, tells how she suffered for years from chronic colds and sinus trouble; when she learned to vent her feelings by crying, the colds and sinusitis disappeared.

Philosophers once thought that our emotions interfered with the ability to think and that one had to eliminate his emotions before he could attain understanding. Modern medical science holds that the ‘repression’ of our feelings may be more damaging to our ability to think clearly than anything else.

So there is a genuine wisdom in tears; in the tears of grief, or remembrance, of sympathy, or aesthetic pleasure, of the appreciation of grandeur, of poignant joy. They all express deep-seated needs – the need to love and be loved, the need to cast out anger and hate, the need to wash away trouble and tension. In permitting ourselves to weep instead of manfully repressing the impulse, we help ourselves to health. And wisdom; for in the state of physical release which tears bring, our thoughts can flow freely, and bring us insight and understanding we never knew were within our grasp.

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