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On crying

The other afternoon I was doing something entirely mundane – driving to the ShopRite to grab some milk and grapes and eggs – and a song came on the radio that made me burst into tears for no discernable reason. It wasn’t a song from when I was growing up with my brother, or a song he used to play on his guitar, or a song that reminded me of something we did together. It had an old-school vibe to it that may have reminded me of my childhood with Frank, but that is the only possibility that comes to mind.

Whatever the reason, I continued to sob in the car and it just got worse and worse as I drove. By the time I turned into the lot at the store I had to pull into a parking space as far away from the rest of the cars as possible and sit and scream and cry until I could get a hold of myself. I think it was a good 15 minutes before I felt calm enough to walk slowly to the store, put a few items in a basket, and check out (albeit with sunglasses on the whole time).

Later on I wondered: Why don’t I ever notice other people crying in their cars or elsewhere? I can’t be the only person around here who gets sad. At any given moment there must be many other people who are bereaved, or terrified about a serious illness, or facing a or frightening life change. Are they crying? If so, when are they crying? Where are they crying? If people are crying it doesn’t seem to be happening where I can see it.

For years I have noticed those photos that appear periodically in the New York Times, the ones in Asia or the Middle East with a group of people wailing at a funeral, and thought about how I have never seen anything like that at funerals in the United States. I have been to more than a few funerals in the last ten years, and have observed mostly stoicism and controlled emotions. Even the small amount of crying I have seen at those events was mostly muffled and contained. We humans in this society generally seem compelled to hold it together in public.

I’ve been to two different services for my brother. At the funeral in Austin, I don’t remember crying at all. At the memorial service in Maryland, I spoke without crying, and then sobbed silently in the pew on my cousin’s shoulder as others spoke and my husband sang and the celebrant offered prayers. The next day, I drove alone to Charlottesville for a work trip and spent a good part of the journey crying (not silently) in the car.

Sometimes, for a stretch of days, I cry every day. Sometimes I go for a few days, or a few weeks, without crying. But I almost never cry when I am with other people. I tend to cry when I am alone, in my car or in the house or walking outdoors or sometimes even when I run. I wonder if the mail carrier ever walks onto the porch and hears me howling and crying and wonders what on earth is going on in the house. When I am home with my family and suddenly something hits me hard, I’ll cry in front of my children or my husband, and they get it. But I don’t like to do it very often, especially in front of my kids, because I don’t want to worry them. However, I also want them to know how I feel and to understand that this is real life. It’s a quandary, and I probably puzzle over it all the time in my subconscious mind.

I don’t often cry with my parents, although sometimes that happens. Sometimes I’ll cry when I am talking to them on the phone. When I’m with them I sense the presence of a sort of boundary, and we mostly stay on the functional side of it. To be honest, if we crossed that boundary more often than we do, I’m not sure we’d find our way back very easily.

I'm not judging myself and my parents for not spending most of our time together sobbing on a couch, and I’m not judging anyone in this society for not crying more at funerals or in the frozen foods aisle. But I do wonder what mental and physical effects might result from the ways in which we hold things in. I wonder if people living in cultures that accept open public weeping are experiencing benefits from it – and if we would perhaps benefit from letting our guard down a little more often.

Over and over I return to this clip of Louis CK, in his appearance on Conan. He discusses how we avoid painful emotions by addictively turning to our phones, escaping ourselves by looking for a quick dopamine shot of attention from a text. He relates an experience of feeling sadness coming on while in his car alone, and deciding to pull over and let it “hit him like a truck.” Only after he cried his heart out on the side of the road did he sense true happiness coming in to, as he says, “meet the sadness.”

This summer’s film Inside Out makes a similar point – that a full experience of life demands finding a way to accept and manage a wide range of emotions, and ironically if we focus on happiness and exclude more uncomfortable feelings, we are likely to find ourselves far from our desired result.

I don’t plan to force myself to cry more, or deliberately bring up intense topics with my parents, or gather my children around me when I’m feeling wrecked. But I am working to be present. I am paying attention so I can meet emotions as they come up and react to them in whatever way feels right. If you park next to me at the Shoprite and I’m not getting out of the car anytime soon, know that I’ll be ok. And if I see you crying in public somewhere, I’ll be there for you, no judgment.

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