In our uptight, under-pressure and in-tense society it is often suggested that one under-utilized antidote for our woeful unhappiness with life is laughter. To wit, we need to laugh more, do it longer and with more gusto.
This argument sells books and drives advertising. In fact, the popularity of laughter as a panacea is showing up these days in an array of new and even unlikely places. We have laughter yoga for those who prefer a formalized approach to increasing their merriment quotient. And the existence of “laughter therapy” attests to the inadequate application of this most basic human function. The health benefits of laughter are touted long and loudly in the mainstream media. A veritable panacea! Is there nothing laughter isn’t the “best medicine” for?
Well as a matter of fact, I can think of a number of things. And while there seems to be general accord that laughing is what we all need to do more of, more often, and more heartily, I nonetheless dare to proffer a different view.
For me personally, while I have no argument with laughter, and heartily support expanding its prevalence, I think it’s crying that’s under-rated, unappreciated, and even vilified in our society, and as a result most definitely under-used.
When have you been encouraged to cry? “Go on, have a big, fat, long, loud, gut-wrenching, soul-cleansing cry. Lucky you! Now isn’t that better?”
Afraid not. At best, crying is tolerated. We allow it may at times be necessary and even therapeutic. But desirable?
At worst, it’s seen as a display of weakness, ineptitude and lack of grace.
Mostly, it simply isn’t done in polite society.
Have you known someone who cries too much? Someone whose tears no longer elicit sympathy? Who interrupts the forward momentum of affairs with a response that seems not only unproductive but counter-productive, and whose absence is greeted by relief?
Indeed if laughing provides a refreshing break from the hard realities of life, crying looks like wallowing in our own muddy tracks on the unpaved and unwashed side is the street of life.
The human capacity to view reality in an agreed-upon way regardless and even in spite of all evidence to the contrary must have an important role in the survival of the species. This ability to ignore the evidence of our own experience because the group views it otherwise is quite uncanny. We do it all the time and resolutely refuse to see it.
We need an expert. Who shall we ask? More importantly what? But back to the main topic, what are the benefits of crying? We find they are almost one for one those same benefits we realize from a good belly laugh, just more so. Yes, that’s right, more so. More endorphins, more serotonin, faster recovery. It’s laughter taken up a level.
They say the definition of a fault is too much of an otherwise good thing. Someone who has the so-called “gift of gab” runs the risk of being criticized for talking too much; the assertive risk-taker may be accused of grand-standing or pushing their weight around. Just think of any strength and turn it over. It’s like flipping a coin.
When I am moved, I generally cry. I cry tears of joy, tears of sorrow, tears of compassion and happy tears. It turns out there are lots of times when I cry, but it wasn’t always this way.
From the age of seven until sometime in my late 40’s I wasn’t able to cry. During those years, the occasions when I did cry were few and far far between. This was a mechanism of survival of course. I was quite sure crying would be the end of me, bringing if not my physical demise then certainly my psychic one.
My father taught me the essential truths about crying at an early age. He underlined his most important points with black and blue marks. And for 10 years while I was growing up I refused to cry and he was determined to make me. Here’s Pop’s list:
1. If you cry, you are a “crybaby” which is to say powerless, stupid and in general despicable to the rest of us. Don’t embarrass us by doing it.
2. If you don’t stop crying I’ll give you something to cry about.
3. Don’t cry over spilt milk. Clean it up and get on with it.
4. You look ugly when you cry.
5. You’re ruining your clothes and you’ll get no new ones if you squander these.
6. Only weak people cry.
7. Don’t let the bastards see you cry.
8. When you cry you almost look human.
And, for my brothers:
9. Boys don’t cry. Crying is for sissies.
It’s easy to see how much crying, a healthy human response to upset, is valued or more accurately de-valued in our society. My father’s list is not so different from what most of us are taught about crying.
But so what? We just need to laugh more, right? Not really. Here’s what not being willing or able to cry costs us:
New York Times reporter Benedict Carey referred to tears in a recent piece as “emotional perspiration.” “I’m not going to apologize … because after a good cry, I always feel cleansed, like my heart and mind just rubbed each other’s backs in a warm bath.”
I found this list of how crying is healthy and positive on http://www.divinecaroline.com who attributed it to Therese Borchard on BeliefNet.
1. Tears Help Us See
The most basic function of tears is that they enable us to see. Literally. Tears not only lubricate our eyeballs and eyelids, they also prevent dehydration of our various mucous membranes. No lubrication, no eyesight. Writes Jerry Bergman: “Without tears, life would be drastically different for humans—in the short run enormously uncomfortable, and in the long run eyesight would be blocked out altogether.”
2. Tears Kill Bacteria
No need for Clorox wipes. We’ve got tears! Our own antibacterial and antiviral agent working for us, fighting off all the germs we pick up on community computers, shopping carts, public sinks, and all those places the nasty little guys make their homes and procreate.
Tears contain lysozyme, a fluid that the germ-a-phobe dreams about in her sleep, because it can kill 90 to 95 percent of all bacteria in just five to ten minutes! This translates, I’m guessing, to three months’ worth of colds and stomach viruses.
3. Tears Remove Toxins
Biochemist William Frey, who has been researching tears for as long as I’ve been searching for sanity, found in one study that emotional tears—those formed in distress or grief—contained more toxic byproducts than tears of irritation (think onion peeling). Are tears toxic then?
No! They actually remove toxins from our body that build up courtesy of stress. They are like a natural therapy or massage session, but they cost a lot less!
4. Crying Can Elevate Mood
Do you know what your manganese level is? Neither do I. But chances are that you will feel better if it’s lower because overexposure to manganese can cause bad stuff: anxiety, nervousness, irritability, fatigue, aggression, emotional disturbance, and the rest of the feelings that live inside my head rent-free.
The act of crying can actually lower a person’s manganese level. And just like with the toxins I mentioned in my last point, emotional tears contain 24 percent higher albumin protein concentration—responsible for transporting small (toxic) molecules—than irritation tears.
5. Crying Lowers Stress
Tears really are like perspiration, in that exercising and crying both relieve stress. In his article, Bergman explains that tears remove some of the chemicals built up in the body from stress, like the endorphins leucine-enkaphalin and prolactin. The opposite is true too. Bergman writes, “Suppressing tears increases stress levels, and contributes to diseases aggravated by stress, such as high blood pressure, heart problems, and peptic ulcers.
6. Tears Build Community
In her Science Digest article, writer Ashley Montagu argued that crying not only contributes to good health, but it also builds community. I know what you’re thinking: “Well, yeah, but not the right kind of community. I mean, I might ask the woman bawling her eyes out behind me in church what’s wrong or if I can help her, but I’m certainly not going to invite her to dinner.”
I beg to differ. As a prolific crier, I always come away astounded by the resounding support of people I know, and the level of intimacy exchanged among them. Read for yourselves some of the comments on both my self-esteem file video my death and dying video and you’ll appreciate my point. Tears help communication and foster community.
7. Tears Release Feelings
Even if you haven’t just been through something traumatic or are severely depressed, the average Joe goes through his day accumulating little conflicts and resentments. Sometimes they gather inside the limbic system of the brain and in certain corners of the heart. Crying is cathartic. It lets the devils out before they wreak all kind of havoc with the nervous and cardiovascular systems. As John Bradshaw writes in his bestseller Home Coming, “All these feelings need to be felt. We need to stomp and storm; to sob and cry; to perspire and tremble.”
So there, I declare with just a hint of triumph in my voice. So there, Pop. I’m not only allowed to cry (without sacrificing my psychic well-being), in fact it is healthy and good for me … and you.