*I am a man easily given to tears. That is, I cry. I don’t have a problem saying this. To me, crying is not a life event. It’s just something I do. As often as you eat seafood in a week is how often I might shed a tear or two.
It’s not some New Age-y practice, and I’m not unstable. It’s just that on occasion, when an emotion completely overwhelms me, I might cry–out of frustration or disappointment; in celebration or Joy.
I’ve been this way pretty much all my life. When I was a child, Mama’s mantra to me was, “What are you crying about now?” Another of her maxims: “My God, I can’t look at you straight without you crying.”
I wasn’t a crybaby. I wasn’t some spoiled brat whose face tore up on cue simply to get his way. I didn’t cry around other kids, or out of fear of people or monsters. Despite what Mama used to say, my weeping wasn’t casual.
Rather, my tears usually emanated from a deeper place–for the pitiful-looking stray dog roaming the neighborhood; for school mates who were poor, even though, unbeknownst to me, my family didn’t have much more. I cried for children in Africa, who have been starving for as long as I’ve been alive.
You could hurt my feelings if you criticized people and things I held dear. Like the Beatles. Mama or my sister could say something bad about the Fab Four–“Shoot, Stevie, if you like them, you need to visit cousin Rag Doll in McAlester; at night the dogs howl just like that”–and a ferocious debate would probably end with me sniffling. Mostly I cried for the reason all kids cry, I felt misunderstood. As I grew up, I cried less, but when I did cry, it was for the same reasons I cried back then–either syrupy sentimentality or sheer exasperation.
As an adult, I find myself crying more out of elation than pain. A stranger’s personal victory, or an exhibition of compassion does it for me. I can put on old music of which I know every sonic crevice and cry simply because it sounds so damned good. A marching band–either a mighty one or a ragtag assemblage, stepping high nonetheless–can get me going. Something about all that pride on parade hits me in the heart.
In any case, I’ve never honored the absurd notion that crying made me less than a man. The person who first decreed that a man ain’t supposed to cry really pulled one over on mankind. To communicate clearly, to listen intently, to laugh until your sides ache and yes, to cry, is to embrace all that is human. I imagine at one time or another, even God has cried. Lord knows we’ve given Him plenty to weep about.
Those made uncomfortable by tears–they declare those prone to crying “too sensitive,” as if sensitivity were a perversion–are usually afraid of or not in touch with their own emotions.
My willingness to cry doesn’t mean I take for granted the mewling of others. Everyone has a weakness for the tears of somebody. Parents go limp when their kids cry. A loving sibling can break down simply because the other sobs. And nothing tugs at the tender heart of a child, no matter the age, like the sight and sound of their weeping mom or dad.
Crying is good for you. True, no one wants the gloom that usually accompanies the act, but there is nothing more therapeutic than the emotional and physical release that comes with bawling one’s eyes out. It’s a proven stress reliever. When you cry, chances are good you’re weeping for more than just your woe at hand; you could also be boohooing for unrelated stuff that happened last week. Last year. Over time, pain piles on.
That’s why when a famous or influential person dies–a princess, a pop star, a beloved politician or someone else the public never knew personally–it seems the entire world is mourning. And it is, for reasons that often have nothing to do with the event. Humanity has plenty over which to weep. What other reason would a fan mourn after their favorite team loses the big game? We simply need a reason to turn on the waterworks.
So, next time you feel one of those I-hate-my-life-and-the-world-is-a-miserable-place specials coming on, don’t push it down. Find someplace private–in bed alone under the covers or, a personal favorite, in the shower, under the warm water–and let loose. I mean, go for it. Wail. Do the hiccup thing. Cry until you can cry no more. After your emotional enema, you’ll feel rejuvenated, strong and ready to face your situation with an unclouded mind and sparkling tear ducts.
That was the result I sought when I drove into Griffith Park one afternoon a couple years ago. Armed with trail mix and some of the saddest songs known to man, I came to party with my pity for the events of my past week.
I’d been full-on weeping for a minute or so before I noticed the only other human around, a middle-aged homeless wanderer who’d settled at the base of a large California oak tree a few feet away. I’d been in his view the whole time I did my thing. I was embarrassed. But I could see that he was crying, too. In an attempt to save face, I got out of the car, walked over and inanely asked a man with no apparent place to live why he wept.
“Mister, I’m crying because you’re crying,” he said, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. “All things considered, I think I’m doing pretty good. But seeing people cry makes me cry. I figured if you were going on like that, you must really have something to cry about.”
Until that moment, I figured I did, too. I went to the car, retrieved the trail mix and handed it and a ten dollar bill to the man. Back in the car, I headed down the hill, homeward bound with clear eyes and an even clearer perspective.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].