Humans are the only creatures capable of shedding tears in response to emotional stress. That is what differentiates us from animals. But due to social, cultural, or parental influence, crying makes us feel embarrassed and uncomfortable. How many times have we heard the warning “Big boys don’t cry”? It is engraved in the minds of children that crying means weakness. An advertisement on television showed how a child who was reminded throughout his growing years that ‘children don’t cry’ became an emotionally repressed adult and became moody, sad and short-tempered. Later in life he became a tyrant and abuser of his wife and was convicted of domestic violence.
In ancient literature we read about great heroes who were not afraid to cry. Achilles wept over the death of his friend Petroclo. Aneas wept over the loss of his friends and fellow soldiers. In Egyptian mythology, Isis wept for the dead Osiris. In the Bible we read that Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. In recent times, presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Regan, Clinton and Bush (Sr.) have been known to shed tears in public. So crying is not just a prerogative of women. Men also shed tears in public, disputing the belief that ‘children don’t cry’. Of course, women cry more easily than men. But girls who burst into tears at the slightest provocation are called “cry babies” and are even suspected of having emotional instability. Neurotics cry easily and alexithymics do not cry at all.
God has endowed human beings with a range of emotions: feeling, crying, being happy, sad or angry. Crying is a healthy response to some of life’s problems. We shed tears of joy when we are happy. People who receive unexpected awards or recognition are overwhelmed with tears of joy. Some people cry in frustration. Children, who cannot get away with or retaliate against their elders, show their frustration through tantrums. But usually crying is associated with pain. The loss of a loved one, a job, a business, or even a pet are painful psychological experiences that generate a lot of stress. Tears are a way to relieve tension and start the healing process.
Crying is a normal response to grief. When the sadness reaches a peak of intensity, the tears bring with them a therapeutic release. Once you stop crying, your body relaxes, your heart rate slows, your breathing becomes regular, and your blood pressure returns to normal. So crying is actually a transition point between stress and feeling better. It won’t make problems go away, but it will help put them in perspective so that one can approach them sensibly.
Even 2000 years ago, the Greeks and Romans were aware that the shedding of tears relieved tension. “It is a relief to cry. The pain is satisfied and the crying takes it away,” said the poet Ovidio. Aristotle believed that crying “cleanses the mind” of repressed emotions. Freud and Breuer considered crying as “an involuntary reflex to relieve tension and allow blocked negative emotions to be released.”
Professor William Frey of the University of Minnesota in his study said that chemicals that accumulate during emotional stress are removed through tears. Tears associated with emotions have a higher level of certain proteins and chemicals such as magnesium and potassium. Manganese, which affects moods, was found to be thirty times higher in concentration in tears than in blood serum. Therefore, unrelieved stress could cause heart attacks or even damage certain areas of the brain.
The presence of the hormone prolactin in tears explains why women cry more easily than men.
Alexander Fleming (discoverer of penicillin) did a chemical analysis of tears and discovered that they contain an enzyme Lysozyme that dissolves the outer layer of many bacteria. By suppressing tears, we can suffer both physical and emotional consequences.
Crying is not weakness. Those who get brave and repress their emotions simply internalize their pain and suffer symptoms such as headache, peptic ulcers, high blood pressure, irritability, or depression. The inability to cry can make a person dysfunctional. Men who give vent to tears is now acceptable in society. In Japan they call it the ‘crying boom’ that encourages people to express their emotions.
God has put a natural provision in our bodies to relieve tension and pain. Everyone suffers differently depending on personality, coping skills, faith, nature of loss, and tradition. In some cultures it is okay to cry loudly without inhibition and show your pain. I witnessed a death in a Khurdish community in Iran. It was scary to see women tearing their hair out, scratching their cheeks to draw blood, and rolling on the ground and screaming. They believed that the soul of the deceased would rest in peace knowing how much they loved it.
Therapeutic value of tears:
• Crying is personal. It is not an exhibition of pain, but a physical manifestation of internal emotions.
• It is the beginning of a process of dealing with sadness. “We are cured of suffering only when we fully experience it,” said Marcel Proust.
• Crying helps to visualize a new scenario for our lives. It helps us accept that our loss is real and even as we continue to suffer, we begin to consider a life without the person we have lost.
• Crying is cathartic. It releases toxins and pent-up emotions, helping us manage our loss instead of being afraid of it.
• Crying is effective in starting the healing process. “It is not just a human response to pain and frustration, but also a healthy one,” says William Frey. According to their study, 85% of women and 75% of men felt less angry or sad after crying. In the Ancient Middle East, mourners collected their tears in wine skins and placed them on the grave of their loved ones.
• Crying can also be a call for support from family and friends. “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted,” says the Bible. Friends and family should allow the bereaved to vent their pain and help validate their pain.
Our pain can change dramatically when we accept God’s unconditional love and provision for our lives. Our tears are never wasted when King David said, “You have collected all my tears and put them in your bottle. You have recorded them in your book.” (Psalm 56:18)
We need to be thankful for the Gift of Tears.