What I Lost When I Stopped Crying
When my tears disappeared, so did any possibility of an honest emotional life.
There was no pivotal moment when I stopped crying. I can’t remember any traumatic incident in which I wept openly, was gruesomely mocked, and swore off tears. Yet by my early 20s, as surely as if I had cauterized my tear ducts, I hadn’t wept in years.
If I wrote this about any other crucial biological process, such as pooping or sneezing, that statement would be remarkable; at the very least you’d suggest that I consult a doctor. But not crying is oddly normative—no matter how much it hurts us when we stop.
Life begins with tears. And though few likely desire sobbing with infantlike frequency, daily weeping is far nearer to our natural state. Growing up, I cried often. A number of these episodes were brought on by bumps and scrapes, but others were incited by my emotions. I remember sobbing at the unfairness of school. Loneliness was another frequent cause, sometimes rooted in actual estrangement from my peers and other times in my own perception. I didn’t hold myself back, and often my tears ended up teaching me something about myself, other people, and the world we live in.
When I was 8, some of my friends spent a couple of weeks building a wondrous little fort in the woods near our school. But I had destructive impulses, so I gathered a crew of other kids to knock it down. After this played out several times, the fort’s original architect got so enraged that he disinvited me from his birthday party. The night of the party, I wept bitterly. It’s tempting to admonish a crying child: “It’s just a party; there will be others.” And honestly, having repeatedly ruined what my friends had made, what did I think would happen? Yet to reflect on this moment with such detachment misses what was happening. Through those tears, I started to understand the value of relationships, how fragile our social webbing can be, and the consequences our actions can have.
In contrast, when I was 20, I broke up with a girlfriend utterly dry-eyed while she wept copiously. It wasn’t because I didn’t care about her; I was genuinely upset at her distress. But in the 12 years between these stories, something inside me had hardened. I may have once cried profusely over smashing a makeshift fort, but I was now able to destroy a months-long relationship without a single tear. In the moment, I didn’t even realize how disturbing this transformation was. It had become normal to skim above the surface of my feelings, never risking confrontation with their depths.
When I decided to attend seminary a couple of years later, I told people it was to “find myself.” That frame suggests that I yearned to forge a new identity and discover my future. But in fact, I went because I yearned for a more honest emotional life—and that type of life, I would later realize, is watered by tears.
I’ll never forget the class that set me on the road to reclaim my tears. We were talking about the biblical destruction of the temple—when the Babylonian army ransacked Jerusalem and forced its people to march to Babylon. To help us explore the grief the Israelites experienced in exile, our professor asked us to share the last time we had wept. One by one, my classmates shared moments of deep sadness. When my turn came, I racked my brain, but I truly couldn’t think of the last time tears had even grazed my eyes, let alone when I had sobbed in earnest. I can’t recall what I mumbled. But I remember sitting at the table with a potent sense that I had lost something fundamental.
I resolved to find it. So after class I embarked upon a decidedly absurd afternoon, determined to spur tears by any means necessary. I threw on a tearjerker movie. I recalled how it felt when I was bullied as a child, hoping some personal trauma might unlock the floodgates.
I set mood music. I read a letter from my Gran in which she told me how deeply she cared for me.
After several hours I was exhausted and beyond frustrated. I began to despair that I might never cry again.
Finally, I did the most extreme thing that I could imagine. I thought about my parents, how deeply I loved them, and then I pictured them dying. I imagined them on their deathbed and thought about all of the things I would say, and what might be left unsaid. All of a sudden my cheeks were wet. Once the threshold had been breached, I began to sob uncontrollably. Years of numbness crumbled into a cavalcade of tears. I had done it: I had abused myself into crying. And it was terrific.
To be clear, I was a mess. There’s that beautiful stereotype we see in movies, of a single tear, meandering down the cheek, scored by a solemn sniffle. And although some people may cry like that, I sure don’t. My body heaved, and my nose became a blubbering mess. I began to worry I might never stop. Even when I did, I lay on my bed completely spent. I was like a man who hadn’t run in years who had inexplicably attempted a marathon. But I felt alive.
The next morning, I embarked on an even more preposterous quest: I decided to cry every day. I would approach weeping as a spiritual discipline, I decided, devoting myself to it the same way I did my morning prayers or my meditation practice. Every day after my classes were over, before I gathered with friends to study or hang out, I would will myself to tears.
In the beginning, I had to delve into imagining the dead-parents kind of pain to prime the pump. I thought back to the final time I spoke with my great-grandfather, standing by his hospital bed. I mourned the death of my parents’ best friend. I watched heartrending short films. Each time I’d find the path toward tears a little better worn. I leaned into the catch in my throat, the shortening of breath, and I became more and more adept at coaxing my body to feel deeply.
Within a few months, my conscious practice was no longer necessary. I was now crying regularly, and with much less provocation. A classmate would tell a moving story, and the tears would well up. Witnessing small acts of kindness would blur my vision, and listening to gorgeous music in a church service could make me weep. My crying habit had recalibrated my emotional baseline, and as I let myself embrace the tears that now steadily fell, I felt more like myself than I had in years.
But crying didn’t just fix parts of me that were broken; it also invited a deeper relationship with the world. Now, as a minister, I’ve cried with parents while their child lay dying, with friends as I’ve joyfully married them, on the streets in protest, and in quiet moments of desolation looking for my own hope so I could offer some to others. The person I’ve become and the connections I’ve formed are inextricable from that weeping. I’ve learned that crying is simultaneously one of our most private acts and one of our most social. It’s made me a better minister, and a more empathetic person.
When I was younger, I thought about tears as a consequence: the emotional sum of previous experiences, evidence of the past cascading down our cheeks. Now, however, I think about tears as a doorway: an invitation to be fully human and to connect with others, in all the complexity that entails. Crying is not always an exclamation point that marks the end of growth or an emotional change; it can be an ellipsis that beckons us toward a more complete life.
This article has been excerpted from Benjamin Perry’s forthcoming book, Cry, Baby: Why Our Tears Matter.
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