The joy of weeping

Over drinks at the end of a frantic work month, an American friend reflected on a schedule that had seen her weeks away from home. Her diary, she told me, had packed in dozens of meetings, dinners and early starts to follow: she had been on best behaviour for a month. At that point, she was tired, overwrought and fully over it. “I just need to go home,” she concluded. “I need to get on a plane, hug my people and have a good cry and it will all be good.”

As luck would have it, a good cry has been an easy fix. Last week, Ariana Grande dropped Eternal Sunshine, a “concept record” that covers the singer’s divorce from Dalton Gomez and emotional journey as she experiences her Saturn return (which, as well you all know, is a cycle of 29 years). Pitchfork describes Eternal Sunshine as an “emotionally generous collection of music that cycles compassionately through the collapse of one relationship and into the hopeful beginning of another”. It’s also got some banging tunes. In particular, for those who crave the pure emotional release offered by a pop song, “We Can’t Be Friends” is the perfect hit. Heartbreak? The folly of a post-relationship friendship? The bittersweet pain of moving on? Ariana’s got it covered. I’ve been listening to it on repeat. 

I love a good cry. And pop songs are a marvellous placebo for dealing with emotional issues you can’t quite be arsed to face. Why dwell on the superficiality of your existence, your lack of societal contribution or the tragedies of global conflict when you can simply play a song that makes you bawl?

I have a playlist ready for occasions when I feel overwhelmed: I like to channel the spirit of Holly Hunter, the news producer in Broadcast News, who sobs hysterically for precise two-minute episodes before going back to work. 

In real life, I have a very low tolerance for crying: office weeping in particular is a red flag. Rather than shedding tears as an expression of empathy and understanding, I prefer my weeping to be solitary, brisk and ideally exercised in contexts that do not affect me personally — such as while watching documentaries, Crufts, or seeing old men dine alone. 

No one has ever really cracked the code of why humans cry, nor the point of tears. Charles Darwin considered emotional tears as being “purposeless”, and there remains little consensus about their meaning even now. I’m quite fond of the theory, popularised by Dr William H Frey, a self-appointed “student of psychogenic lacrimation”, who concluded in the early 1980s that crying removes toxins that we build up in times of stress. But this theory hasn’t found huge traction within the scientific community, most of which is still unsure about the health benefits of a big blub. 

Clinical psychologist Ad Vingerhoets is a crying expert. The author of the 2013 book Why Only Humans Weep, he has given a TED talk on the subject and has a website on which he shares his thoughts. “Rather than sadness,” he writes, “investigators agree that the key antecedents to crying are helplessness, hopelessness, and the lack of adequate behavioral responses to a problem situation. In addition, there is loss or separation from loved ones. Deaths, divorces, and homesickness are among the most important triggers of crying.”

Even he, however, is unclear about the benefits of crying. He was surprised, for example, to find that only 50 per cent of respondents [to his study about weeping] reported an improved mood following a cry. He concludes that “how people feel after crying is predominantly determined by how observers respond”.

I have no desire to share my tears in public. Or for others to share theirs. Perhaps I am marked by that stiff-lipped culture that still sees crying as something that should be shamed. My grandmother lost almost every member of her family and yet I never, ever saw her shed a tear. But maybe she too had a secret playlist to convulse to, quietly, in some darkened room?

Weeping is a wonderful tonic, some weird alchemy of humours that the body must expel. It’s surely why so many people weep uncontrollably on long-haul flights while watching appalling films. Cocooned at 30,000ft, amid total strangers, one is unencumbered by the proprieties one might feel on the ground. You can bawl your way through mawkish romcoms, such as PS I Love You or Terms of Endearment (still a classic and still my all-time favourite blub go-to).

In no way are these moments social, nor do we seek observers to validate our tears. But, man, it feels good to shed them. Spotify, play Ariana Grande please.

Email Jo at [email protected]

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