I must confess that I embarrass myself. Any time I attend an event that precipitates applause and I am part of the audience, I cannot contain my tears. I mean, my throat lumps up, my facial muscles contract, and the tears start rolling. If the performance is in a darkened auditorium, I fare better than if I am in a well-lit stadium. If my children are with me, they are always the ones to ask if I’m ok – God bless them – but I’d rather not have to explain why I’m crying.
Tears unrelated to pain or sadness are more difficult to explain anyway, aren’t they? Why do I cry when something strikes my “happy chords” just as easily or as much as when I feel hurt or just plain sad? Of course, curious minds turn to Google. As I researched this question I learned another tid-bit that I could link to my most recent embarrassing cry. This week as I attended (and cried at) Raleigh’s special version of “A Christmas Carol”, I noticed that my right eye cried first. I have since read that when the first tear comes from one’s right eye, it allegedly signals happiness while a first drop from the left eye signals sadness.
For reader-friends who share in my curiosity, it seems that we don’t really know the answers, but we can comfortably relate to some of the facts about tears. Tears are, in general, in three distinct categories: basal, reflex, or emotional. Basal tears simply keep our eyes moist. Reflex tears respond to environmental stimuli such as onions. Emotional tears are the most peculiarly human type – although there is some debate about whether chimps cry emotional tears or not.
Apparently, there has been some “research” (I only add quotes because I did not read the study but only a brief description of the results and do not know how scientific it actually was) to determine if there is a chemical difference between sad tears and happy tears. For the sake of brevity, suffice it to say that happy tears consist of brine and not much else, while sad tears contain hormones and chemicals that are toxic in the body and thereby can be understood as a physical mechanism for protecting the body from negative emotions and their nasty chemical by-products! Others argue that all tears are the same and that so-called “happy tears” are in truth a stress-relief response from built-up negative emotions such as fear or worry.
So, my Googling expedition didn’t really satisfy all of my curiosity, as is typically the case. We can know some of the things that define our humanity, but so much is still speculative. There is a piece of this puzzle, though, that seems to be a pretty solid observation: our tears communicate. They communicate the content of our hearts – what we acknowledge and what we hide. Tears bind us in compassion for one another as we are made vulnerable by their revelation. Tears are a spectacular part of our design!
Tears not only bind us together as people in community, but they serve to bind us in the sense of binding a wound to promote healing. I remember during the years when reaching the milestone age of 100 was just becoming commonplace, centenarians were asked for their secret to longevity. I don’t remember any of them ever attributing their long life to lots of good cries, but I’m betting they shed their share of tears.
I suspect we all have times when we feel embarrassed by our tears. Even my very-young son has sensed the cultural pressure that boys should not cry. I say that notion is hogwash, by the way, and I urge my sons to cry when they feel the need to drain their eyes. Jesus cried, after all: “Jesus wept.” John 11:35. Perhaps we should all just embrace our very human tears and keep the tissues handy at all times, because you never know when you’ll need one, or when you’ll have an opportunity to offer one to a neighbor!
*“Jesus Wept” is a life-size, original clay sculpture by Mike Scovel.