“There is a sacredness in tears,” writes American author Washington Irving. “They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues.”
But how so?
I want to approach this question from three different angles, and the angles will then converge and take us straight to where we need to go.
Start with the scientific angle.
Michael Trimble, a behavioral neurologist with the unusual distinction of being one of the world’s leading experts on crying, begins his book Why Humans Like To Cry with a story from 2009, about an 11-year-old gorilla named Gana, who gave birth to a baby boy. One day, her sweet boy died. Gana was seen to hold the limp body in front of her, staring at him, then taking him into her embrace, hugging him close, stroking him as a way of trying to reawaken him. But he did not reawaken. And as the hours passed, onlookers could tell she was mourning.
Those human onlookers wept tears of grief. But Gana did not cry tears of grief.
Because the only creatures who cry for emotional reasons, as far as science knows, are humans.
This is not, I hasten to add, to say that only humans are intelligent. Far from that. In the past, people have cited such things as sophisticated communication, tool use, and playfulness as capacities only humans have, thus elevating humanity above all other animals. But science has shown people to be wrong in this. Our closest living relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, evince all these abilities.
They are smart. They are creative. Such capacities aren’t, in fact, the rare preserve of humanity as was once thought.
But emotional crying somehow is. This is different, now, from the lacrimal glands nestled in the corners of each eye opening their floodgates and raining tears down in order to keep the eyeball moist, or to maintain eye health, or to respond to physical irritants in the eye, or to combat infection. All these are biological functions, and of course we see this in non-human animals.
But crying as a way to express sorrow, or joy, or outrage? Tears like we might have been crying a moment ago, while watching the video of Dr. King preaching and hearing him say he wasn’t afraid of any man and that he had been to the mountain top? Tears of pride and joy … and tears of sorrow and anger too, knowing that his assassination happened the day after he gave that speech.
Tears and tears and tears.
Only humans are capable of this. Only humans cry emotionally. Somehow, there was a turn in human evolution when tears took on functions that far exceeded the merely biological ones.
That turn in evolution amped up what it means to be distinctively human.
Why the turn happened has been hotly contested ever since Charles Darwin, in 1872, declared emotional tears “purposeless.” Over the years, so many scientific theories have been propounded.
But one thing is for sure: if we are spiritual beings having a human experience, then tears—being quintessentially human—are indeed sacred.
Science gives us our first angle on the topic of tears, and now here is the second: my own life.
Almost ten years ago I started a course of weekly personal therapy. It actually took quite a bit of time to find a therapist that would be willing to see me. I remember taking a trial run with one therapist and, at the end of the session, during which I had quoted Jung, Heidegger, Sartre, Mary Oliver, Dr. King, and Emerson, and she had been doing a whole lot of encouraging head-nodding and uh huh, uh huh, uh huh, but after all this, she concluded our session by saying that I’d probably do better with someone with a Ph.D. who was more conversant in philosophy and religion.
That person was to be my present therapist, Shirley. In my first session with her, I started by saying that things were actually going fine but I just didn’t know what I really wanted in life. Things felt flat. I felt like I was skimming the surface of my world.
Life was generally ok, but there was this restlessness, this feeling there could be so much more….
I probably quoted Jung and Heidegger and Sartre and Mary Oliver and Dr. King and Emerson on the way to getting to the point, but it didn’t faze Shirley in the slightest. She just looked at me and said, “Anthony, what’s really going to show the way to a deeper life is your tears. Your tears will show you the way.”
I remember just looking at her, thinking she was crazy. What did tears have on all the beautiful famous words I had quoted to her, which felt so inspiring to me and goaded me on towards a richer life?
During those early weeks and months with Shirley—the time before the tears starting flowing—a curious thing would happen when we’d be plumbing the depths of my psyche. My eyelids would start getting really heavy. I’d have the hardest time keeping my eyes open. So frustrating! I’d start falling asleep mid-sentence. Against my will!
Something in me was holding back. Something was resisting, holding on for dear life…
And then came the breakthrough. I will never forget. The depths of inner seas that I had never known burst forth, in the form of crying jags where I’d cry all night long and it was all I could do to come in to work and appear functional. But far from making me afraid, I felt like I was coming into the true authentic part of me. Hitherto invisible depths were literally making themselves known by bleeding through my tear ducts and streaming down, down, down, my face.
I remember writing a poem around this time:
… there are also my tears,
each one a homecoming,
each one a
desire just beginning to be known….
Sun rises in my room
and I see my soul for what it is:
spectrum of light
I was referring to the blurring effect that happens when there is sunshine, and tears are in your eyes. The world no longer appears in sharpness. Borders and boundaries blur. Which is exactly what was happening to my sense of self, which needed it, because the old borders and boundaries were not serving me well and I needed all that old stuff blurred, so I could come into a better knowledge of who I really was and what I really wanted.
Which was something rainbow.
But what authenticated that knowledge was the tears. I think that’s a part of what Shirley meant, when she said what she said to me. I could quote Emerson all day long and all the other poets and philosophers but that didn’t prove anything about where my heart really was. It didn’t prove that I was truly living from the inside-out, as opposed to being all on-the-outside, all surface, all just words.
The proof is in the tears. Tears tell the deep truth. It is no wonder that, in religious traditions around the world, tears are viewed as sacred validations of deep spiritual vulnerability. Tears are sacred signs of readiness for total openness, for listening to God. Tears are sacred validations, too, of ecstatic experience—affirmations that heaven, in this time and in this place, has truly has touched down upon the earth.
Ever since my personal revelation of tears, I have pondered two different quotes that are precious to me. One comes from the writer and Unitarian Hans Christian Anderson, in his beloved story “The Little Mermaid”: “But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more.” I had been the Little Mermaid in my life, but Shirley helped open up the door to something better.
The second quote is from the atheistic humanist writer Albert Camus: “People must live and create. Live to the point of tears.”
That’s where sacredness lies.
And it also lies in the space between us. This takes us to the third and last angle on the curious but beautiful topic of tears: its sacred community dimension.
We witness this in so many ways.
Take a rite of passage like a memorial service. Unitarian Universalists memorialize the dead in a unique way that emphasizes the sacredness of all life. Every life has inherent worth and dignity, in spite of meanness, ignorance, greed, and every other kind of flaw. So we focus on the life. We tell the stories. The tears flow: of gratitude, of grief. Sometimes it’s tears of laughter, because the stories aren’t always sad.
During memorial services, I always like to say
Just to be together, to look into one another’s faces,
takes away some of the loneliness
and draws our hearts together
in the healing which we can offer one another.
At such times, the various faiths that sustain us separately
come together in a harmony that cuts across all creeds
and assures us of the permanence of human goodness and hope.
The service is a communion of tears. A coming together bonded by tears, which are healing, and good.
But sometimes the religious ritual is not so much about an individual as it is about a people. We see that in temples and synagogues the world over (and here too at UUCA) in the context of the Passover Seder service. It’s when we remember the enslavement of the Hebrews in Egypt and the meaning of their liberation, especially as it speaks to all who are oppressed today and our role in helping to win their liberation here and now.
As part of the remembrance ritual, we literally bring salt water to our lips to symbolize the tears of bondage.
We do that collectively. We do that together. The tears are in our midst.
And they are definitely so in less organized ways, too. There doesn’t have to be a rite of passage like a memorial service, or a dedicated observance like Passover, to cry in religious community. What Taryn wrote about earlier is what I know very well: people come to church to cry. “Spiritual sweat,” she calls it. The workout is needed. “We cry at church,” she says, “because we are traumatized, because life breaks us down, because underneath our carefully crafted persona there is a firestorm, a whirling hurricane of anxiety, woundedness, unfulfilled need, fear, heartbreak, or unexpressed joy. There is so much we hold within that stays unexpressed. Then we hear the invitation to feel, to connect, to surrender, and once our mind begins to receive the invitation, our anatomical response inevitably follows, and here come the tears.”
Let the tears come. Let the communion of tears bind us even closer together in all our beautiful vulnerability.
Let the tears come. There is sacredness to them, because they make us human; they authenticate what’s really happening with our hearts; they help create a sense of communion, one with another.
Come, tears. Because out there is a politics of vulgarity and racism that condemns entire countries as worthless, unworthy of being immigrants to America. Haiti, El Salvador, countries in Africa.
Every day, every week, it’s always something. But America has just fallen so low.
Cry in despair! Cry in anguish, and shame, that America could fall so far.
But cry tears of resolve as well. Don’t forget the communion of those kind of tears. How we aspire to come together as a community, to build Beloved Community, to fulfill the Dream in our little corner of the universe.
Rejoice! That a man like Dr. King lived, and showed us what a true moral leader looks like.
Dr. King followed his master Jesus, who 2000 years ago looked upon the sad state of Jerusalem, and he wept.
But Dr. King rejoiced because he believed, and so do we Unitarian Universalists, that Jesus saves by virtue of the example of his life. Jesus became divine through moral struggle. “Christ,” Dr. King once said, “was to be only the prototype of one among many brothers.” “We are celebrating the Second Advent,” he said, “every time a man or woman turns from ugliness to beauty and is able to forgive even their enemies.”
Cry tears of sadness and anger. Cry tears of fierce love and resolve.
It is time to celebrate the Second Advent.
Turn from ugliness to beauty in your life.
Forgive even your enemies.
I’m going to try to do that too, though it’s hard.
But Dr. King shows us the way, as did his Master Jesus.
Do justice now.
Love mercy now.
Walk humbly now.
We cannot possibly be obligated to complete the work.
But we can start. We can try.
“People must live and create. Live to the point of tears.”