When was the last time you cried? What caused it? More generally, what is it that tends to make you cry? A recent study looking at how much we cry found the average person in the United States cries about 40 times a year. The average American woman cries 64 times a year; the average American man, 17. Interestingly, just about everyone participating in this study underestimated how much they wept in a year.1 Life is emotional and some measure of crying is perfectly normal. Even probably necessary.
The last time I recall wiping away a tear was while viewing the popular Netflix show, The Crown, about the life of Queen Elizabeth II. In the show’s finale, the Queen, having recently lost her sister then two months later her mother, is now facing her own mortality. As the Queen is required to consider her own state funeral and to choose music for it, a royal bagpiper suggests then plays for her a devastatingly sorrowful tune called Sleep, Dearie, Sleep. A servant nearby begins to sing the song’s equally mournful lyrics, and for me at least, the waterworks began.
Maybe for you, like me, it was a television show. Or a movie. Or a poignant passage from a cherished book. Or the words of an old hymn. Perhaps it was a nostalgic thought of one’s children growing up. Or the loss of a close loved one. A sad memory or an awful regret. Maybe someone hurt you. Or perhaps it’s a stubborn depression, or an accumulation of stress, or just pure exhaustion. Life is emotional.
Alternatively, maybe you last cried in the midst of a good experience. A moment of relief—a disaster averted, a medical test result you’d hoped for after some troubling symptoms arose. Perhaps it was an occasion of pure joy—a baby’s birth, a beautiful wedding, or a long-delayed reunion. Maybe what brought tears to your eyes was something sublime—a view from the top of a majestic mountain. The wonder of the sky at dusk. A morning on the beach before the vastness of a rolling sea. Or, perhaps recently, you just felt that curious welling up in your eyes and didn’t even know why. Then, of course, there are onions.
So why do we cry? A needy infant’s tears always catch the eye of a dutiful parent—so there’s clearly a survival aspect to it—but why would we keep crying as adults? There are lots of theories. Some say it’s an ancient physiological response from when our ancestors cremated their deceased kin, and—overcome by both the emotions and the smoke of the funeral pyre—our brains, in some replicative way, began to link loss and weeping.2 Perhaps…but it sounds a little far-fetched.
Others surmise that our sobbing releases toxins from our systems when we’re over-stressed. Crying, these folks say, acts as a pressure valve, flushing away what’s biologically unhealthy in our bodies.3 Maybe…but that doesn’t explain it all, does it?
A University of South Florida professor named Jonathan Rottenberg posits another theory. “Crying,” he says, “signals to yourself and other people that there’s some important problem that’s at least temporarily beyond your ability to cope.”4 He and others suggest that with our tears—in an almost unmistakable way—we’re making it known that we could use a little help. This seems more plausible, but again, it doesn’t explain, for instance, my tearing up while perfectly happy at home watching a Netflix show on TV.
Not in the final episode of The Crown but one in the last season, there’s a scene in which Queen Elizabeth consults Archbishop Rowan Williams of the Church of England about a thorny problem involving both the monarchy and the Church. Bearded, wise, the real Archbishop Rowan Williams, in addition to being a respected clergyman and theologian, is also a playwright of some renown who definitely has a way with words. “If you don’t shed some tears while you’re here,” he once said, “you’ll have missed the point.”
We all have different temperaments and different thresholds and reasons for our tears, but in the end, I think the Archbishop is right. Life is emotional, or at least it should be. The fact that we cry, that we are capable of tears, helps us to feel and know we are alive—sometimes in pain, other times in joy, and sometimes even in ways we don’t understand.
God—Help me to remain emotional. Emotionally engaged. And not to miss the point while I’m here. Amen.
1 How Crying Works, Alia Hoyt, www.howstuffworks.com, June 9, 2023 https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/emotions/crying.htm
3 The Science of Crying, Oaklander, Mandy, www.time.com, March 16, 2016, https://time.com/4254089/science-crying/