The Real Purpose of Tears

I often ask people why they hate their tears as much as they do. Sometimes they apologize; at other times they might scrape them viciously from their faces. There are a thousand frustrated reactions.

Culturally, we don’t like to experience any kind of crying. We’re embarrassed, and when asked why, many say that it’s a “sign of weakness.” At the same time, working to stop tears can take a massive amount of energy.

But what are tears for, anyway? My experience suggests that tears tell us when we’ve found where grief and gratitude meet.

I reach this conclusion because of the ways in which tears come to us. Obviously, sadness brings them forward. But so does enormous joy. People cry at weddings, or when they win a significant sporting event, or when they see a family member they haven’t seen in decades. These aren’t sad occasions, but in each one, the joyful event evokes strong emotions.

Imagine an 80-year-old man who attends his grandson’s wedding. He watches the ceremony with interest, amazed at how such a young man could be entering into a marriage. Did I look that young? He sees the couple’s nervous anticipation, hears their laughter. And as they recite their vows and near the point at which they will be linked, the older man notes a tear tracking down his face.

Maybe he sees this ceremony through the lens of a 50-year marriage of his own. In that case, he would know the enormous highs and lows of the experience – the effort it has taken to traverse 50 years and somehow grow closer to the woman who stands next to him. He sees a brand-new couple and knows the challenges they’ll face, though he can’t possibly communicate those obstacles before the couple experience them for themselves.

Maybe he sees the ceremony through the lens of a life in which he had never married. In that moment, he may compare his own experience to the one the couple will now have – one that is less lonely than the one he’s lived.

Or perhaps his own wife has died, leaving him inevitably to remember her death even as the ceremony before him is in itself a birth.

In all of these cases, there is a powerful contrast between the positive event that’s occurring and some kind of struggle that the man knows specifically from his own life. I believe that it’s this contrast that creates tears – gratitude at the scene before him and grief in response to his history.

Tears are what’s squeezed out of us when these two powerful emotions meet. And when we don’t allow the tears, we’re trying to deny the presence of one or the other.

The reverse happens when we experience a tragedy. I’ll explain more in a later post.


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