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Crying and Laughing

“Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” Psalm 30:5

Yes, things can often look much better in the morning, and the verse from Psalm 30 is part of an encouragement to be patient. Time may not heal all wounds, as there are, indeed, wounds that can leave one crippled, but it does heal a lot. Part of the perspective we don’t always have on our own sorrow or grief, is that “this, too, shall pass.” I never tired of encouraging students to think back to a crisis, or a tragedy that occurred a few years ago, to read an old journal or an old message, and see that from the perspective of the present, it may seem like much less. “I thought that was a crisis?” And I remember the beautiful color photo I once put on my young daughter’s bulletin board, of a girl spilling ketchup on a white blouse, which says “Not a tragedy.” When my son was at his lowest, he used to often say “well, at least it is not snowing,” until he finally realized that most all of his problems and difficulties were “first world problems” paling in comparison to famine or war, to abject poverty or repressive governments. The punch-line in the student exercise, of course, is to ask “What will you think about your current crises five years from now?” How despicable they look in retrospect.

Our trials can seem light and momentary afflictions; so even when the night seems ever so dark, the morning cometh. Much as I love Kris Kristofferson’s wonderful ballad of “Me and Bobby McGee,” especially when sung by Janis Joplin, or performed by the Grateful Dead, one line always stuck in my head “I’d trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday,” because how can one ever know that there will not be even more wonderful tomorrows? That way lies suicide, the worst shrinking of temporal perspectives ever possible. Even the depths of one of the saddest movements of Mozart’s Requiem, Lacrimosa, is followed by Qua Resur Get Ex Favilla, “when from the ashes shall rise.” A Phoenix rising from the ashes is one of my favorite images of all time. I even have an “Alamogordo Phoenix” tattoo to commemorate rising from the atomic devastation of the desolate ending of my worst unrequited love, after too many mornings of waking with a “razor blade in my heart.” I was always one of those not anaesthetized.

Crying and laughing can mark some of the most primal and important of our human connections, from the “tear test” Hallmark moment I use when picking out a birthday or holiday card, to discovering the meaning of the word “keening” after my father’s death. Births and deaths, weddings and reunions too long deferred are among the most powerful. “We laughed, we cried, we cried about our laughter, we laughed about our tears.” Tears and laughter are mediated by proximal areas in the brainstem, the oldest part of the brain. Think about how close a laugh is to a sob, and maybe equally contagious. I remember my father’s SRO funeral service, when a moment wouldn’t go by without hearing a sob from somewhere in the congregation.

Can one really have a “good cry”? It may be that crying does reduce the neurochemistry of distress, as long as it doesn’t just lead to rumination (which will prolong it), and I’m certain enough of the potentially cathartic effects of crying that I can understand why people will sometimes play music that produces it. There is a segment of Beethoven’s Eroica that does it to me every time, and I well remember emerging as a young adult and crying to Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain,” including the line “you can’t be 20, on sugar mountain,” and I did feel like I was leaving there too soon. Odd that Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence, though spawning a whole industry, mentions crying only once (his Social Intelligence does a better job), and Andrew Solomon’s immensely wise Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, not at all. I know depressives cry more easily. I always dreaded days my depressive father preached, as I knew he would cry, though I think the sympathy elicited made his sermons that much more moving and effective. When introducing a lecture on hunger, I often read a section of Elie Weisel’s concentration camp memoir Night, and only when doing so no longer elicited my own tears did I decide that Prozac wasn’t for me. OK, that and the libidinal side effects.

Sad facial expressions, because they usually involve a sad person looking down and to the side, are much easier to detect if we see that someone is crying, so sometimes even a catch in the voice or a change in vocal expression is sufficient. I actually found that some emotionality during a lecture was even more effective if I had to pause demonstrably to collect myself. Our natural and automatic mimicry of others’ faces in the first quarter of a second is one source of shared emotion. Infants cry from birth, and newborns cry to express distress at anything uncomfortable or aversive, a cry which has powerful effects on nearby parents, who want to make it stop. Crying generates attention and care. Newborns also show sympathetic crying. One infant crying in a nursery is highly contagious, but only the cry of another newborn will suffice, and it disappears in the first year. Mostly we learn to control and mask our responses, but again, the first few hundred milliseconds of initial mimesis are telling. Seeing an angry or fearful face produces physiological changes in us that don’t disappear, even if our consciousness of that face has been masked with another face.