Childen's voices soared above me in a grand Fifth Avenue church, and I was grateful I had my husband’s hand to squeeze. The girls’ choir sang familiar hymns, songs I’ve mouthed the words to hundreds of times, but there was something in their voices that seemed, almost, to take flight.
They moved me out of that crowded, hard-backed pew and into that place where God dwells inside me. Tears pooled, salty water mingling with the mascara I’d so meticulously applied just an hour before. This time I would let them come.
For a long time I’ve lived in that moment of deciding, ashamed by my propensity for tears. I’ve been what my girlfriends and I call “an easy crier” my whole life. As a child I remember sitting at the foot of my parents’ queen-size bed, wiping tears away as my mother read Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree aloud, then tearing up for days at the thought of it.
In middle school I became so overwhelmed that once I had to leave a Girl Scout badge ceremony. I wasn’t even a Girl Scout; I was simply proud of my friends. I cried on every last day of school and during every Hallmark movie. I teared up as I witnessed the airport farewells of lovers who were strangers to me. And Casey Kasem’s cheesy long-distance dedications? Forget about it. I was done.
Years later as a new mother, tears often came without warning. I held my son and wept during television coverage of Hurricane Katrina, and images from Haiti after the earthquake are still too painful to recall. I’ve cried hearing stories of near misses and rescues and miracles involving children with eyes as big as moons. I’ve cried listening to speeches, reading news stories, being at weddings, and hearing a coworker’s lunchroom account of saying a final goodbye to a beloved pet.
In each of these incidents I tried to fight back the tears. It just wasn’t appropriate, I reasoned, to be a public crybaby. Would people think that I was unstable? I attempted to contain my emotions and distract myself by talking to friends or thinking happy thoughts, but I was rarely successful. For me, crying seemed as much reflex as reaction.
I couldn’t help but ask myself why. Was it hormones? Was I just too sensitive? Did I have no boundaries? What on earth was wrong with me? In a culture that tells us that crying is for the weak, the overly emotional, or the immature, my questions were valid. Yet as I’ve gained more insight into my spiritual and emotional makeup, I’ve learned to look for the lessons in what moves me to tears.
As a social worker, I had the privilege of walking with hundreds of people through some of the most difficult experiences in their lives. While telling their stories—of pain, loss, heartache, or fear—many of my clients cried. I was never an uncomfortable witness to emotion, but clients occasionally were. They’d gotten the message from the culture at large, too: that crying shouldn’t be embraced but fought. If there’s ever a safe space to cry, I told them, this is it.
I began to wonder why I wasn’t giving myself that same gift.
My first step toward understanding why I’m an “easy crier” was to simply pay attention. By becoming more in touch with my emotions, I started to anticipate the tears before they came. This helped me brace myself and avoid embarrassment if the situation called for composure. I knew, for instance, that the preschool play would likely be a tearjerker. I anticipated my reactions to gain a sense of control.
Besides looking for themes from my own experiences, I asked others what moved them to tears. Surprisingly, their answers came easily, as though they’d been just below the surface, waiting to be revealed. Patterns emerged: music, sensory details such as the smell of a long-forgotten perfume, pomp and circumstance, and moments of emotional or spiritual transcendence were often noted.
My father cries each year watching the Kentucky Derby: the chorus of “My Old Kentucky Home” reminds him of his childhood on a tobacco farm. A friend who grew up in apartheid-era South Africa cries each time she hears the voice of Nelson Mandela. For others, it’s the natural world that moves them—seeing the ocean for the first time, perhaps, or taking in the majesty of giant redwoods.
My second step was a bit more reflective. I looked for the meaning in what makes me cry. I asked myself if there was something in each of these scenarios that I could learn.
This inward searching led me to some surprising conclusions. I often cry when I look at another person and see myself, the scared little girl or the unsure new parent I once was. I cry when the beauty of what I’m witnessing is just too powerful to behold. And, as in the instance of hearing the girls’ choir that day in midtown Manhattan, I cry when I feel the presence of God.
Could it be that crying is a form of worship? In my case, yes. Instead of running from it or trying to suppress it, this process has taught me to embrace it. When we pay attention to the things that make us cry, they give us a rare glimpse into who we are at our core.
Sometimes tears mean beauty. They signal recognition. They connect the body with the soul in a way few things can. Sometimes, crying is our only contribution when we have nothing else to give. For these reasons, tears are a gift.
I no longer interpret crying as a sign of weakness or vulnerability. I’ve come to learn that tears mean just the opposite: that I am present and truly alive. And like the soul-piercing voices that soared above me in church, tears stir me. They’re tangible evidence of God moving in me, in swirls and rushes, in whispers, in song. They’re lessons for the everyday, and my arms are spread wide now, just waiting to receive them.