By Alex P. Vidal
I love going to movies. You can sit in the dark and weep away anonymously. Sometimes I cry over the film, sometimes over anything I’ve needed to cry about in the past few weeks. I use a good sad movie to catch up on all the tears I’ve stifled and held in too long.
Anyone who knows me well has seen me cry. My daughter teases me because I cry over Kodak commercials, over sappy TV dramas where you can predict the ending even before they cue the schmaltzy music.
All my life I’ve been a crier. Every day of grade school I cried about something. If an injustice was done to me or to anyone else, I cried. My siblings teased me for being a baby; so did my classmates and a few teachers. I couldn’t help it. When I felt something, it came out my tear ducts. For years I tried to hold in the tears. My goal was to get through a whole day of grade school without crying. I finally did it–in the eight grade.
I was in second grade when President John F. Kennedy died. The nuns at Immaculate Conception School held the First Lady up as a pillar of strength for not shedding a public tear. Jackie was the perfect widow, the perfect woman, the perfect Catholic. The world watched her in the black veil and saw a noble, dignified, and stoic widow who never broke down sobbing over his casket, not even when little John John saluted as it passed.
The nuns compared her to Mary, the mother of Jesus. They told us that Mary didn’t cry. Not even when she stood at the foot of the cross. Not even when she held her dead son. Not at his tomb. Never. For years I believed them.
Decades later, I read that Jackie Kennedy used to spend time alone on a friend’s boat grieving over her husband’s death. She waited until she was far out to sea, looked out over the vast ocean, and wept over how much she missed him. By the time I was done reading the article, I, too, was crying. How sad to have to hide your years, especially tears of such deep sorrow.
I wonder what those nuns would say about her now. Come to think of it, I don’t know if those nuns ever cried during my eight years of Catholic school. If they did, they never let us see it. Maybe tears were unholy under the old rules of the Church.
Many years after grade school ended, the movie Jesus of Nazareth came out. I love the scene where Mary stands at the foot of the cross in the pouring rain, crying over the death of her son. She’s not crying, she’s wailing and weeping. This Mary weeps like a mother who has lost her son, not a saint bowing to God’s most holy will. She weeps like all of us would want to but are afraid to.
Most of us were taught that tears are a sign of weakness. If you get upset at work, you go into the bathroom to cry. You hide in a stall and muffle the sobs with gobs of toilet tissue. Read any business article about how women can get ahead in the corporate world and they all warn: no tears. Don’t ever let them see you cry.
If you cry out in the open, people try to stop you. It makes them uncomfortable. It’s socially unacceptable. Worse than swearing. In fact, most people are more comfortable with someone swearing than crying. To cry openly shows a lack of control, a loss of power. In a culture that values strength, even tearing up is unacceptable.
All my life, I tried to become stronger by crying less. But whenever I held the sadness in, my face grew red, my cheeks hurt, and the tears escaped no matter how hard I tried to squeeze them back.
Then one day a counselor told me that those tears were an asset. Carol said they were part of me, just like my blue eyes and brown hair. “What a wonderful gift, to feel so intensely,” she said.
The best advice I ever got on crying was to do it with someone. Carol told me that crying alone isn’t as powerful as crying with another person. Cry alone and you’ll keep crying those same tears over and over. Cry with someone and those tears have the power to heal you once and for all.
When I was getting my master’s degree in religious studies, I read a book about a saint who nearly lost his vision because he cried so much and so often. Saint Ignatius, who founded the Jesuits, considered his tears to be a great gift from God. He inspired me to write a 22-page paper on the gift of tears.
Ignatius was a macho military man bent on knighthood and the pursuit of happiness through women and power until a cannonball shattered his leg and he found God. He mentions tears 175 times in the first part of his spiritual diary and speaks of tears in every single entry in the second half. They weren’t a few drops here and there, but great torrents so intense they left him speechless. Those tears brought him great gifts–humility, intimacy with God, greater devotion, peace, and strength. He considered tears to be a mystical grace.
Too bad so many men and women refuse to cry and boast of not doing it. I remember someone telling me after seeing the movie Schindler’s List that he almost cried. Almost? Why did he hold it back?
Why did Jackie? Or the nuns? Why does anyone? I coudn’t even if I wanted to. I let the tears flow and make sure all my mascara is waterproof.
One of my favorite verses in the Christian Bible is the shortest one of all: “Jesus wept.” He showed his humanity. He shed messy, unmanly tears. He didn’t do it in private. He did it in front of his friends and followers. In front of a crowd.
We need to stop hiding our tears and actually share them. It takes a strong person to cry. It takes a stronger person to let others see those tears. We need to be tough enough to be tender, no matter who is watching.
(Lesson 7: “God Never Blinks” by Regina Brett)