I’m a crier. Always have been. When I was very young, I learned the phrase “at the drop of a hat” because those were the words my dad used to express his frustration at how frequently and without warning I would burst into tears. You cry at the drop of a hat!
Part of the hideous baggage that I’ve accumulated with a drop-of-a-hat-crying habit are the coping mechanisms that result from growing up with hair-trigger emotions and a frustrated father. There are three main strategies I’ve enlisted, each one worse than the one before it, and they aren’t on my Things I’m Proud Of list.
My first strategy is to quickly pull it together, stop the tears, breathe deeply, wipe away the bleeding mascara, fake a smilie, and assure those around me that all is well. “I’m fine. I’m fine. Really, I’m fine.” Distract my mind, think of something, anything, to get the crying to stop. Return to normal as quickly as possible. Stop feeling, and do it as quickly as possible.
My second coping mechanism is to apologize. It happens instantly, without much thought. A quick, “I’m sorry!” is blurted out to whomever is being unintentionally forced to witness such a messy event. What I’m really communicating is, “You deserve better than emotional outbursts from me, and I feel like I’m letting you down by letting you see me this way, and for all this unplanned emoting I am sorry.”
And finally, perhaps the worst response on my list, is to feel a profound sense of shame. That feeling where you want to crawl into a dark cave and never be seen again because you believe the lie that you are no longer worth being seen.
There is one vivid episode in particular where I felt a deep sense of shame in response to unexpected, inconvenient tears. The weeping descended upon me in full force, despite my best efforts to hold it back, and it happened in the middle of a song, which I was singing, in front of a sanctuary full of people, all eyes and ears fixed on me…during a funeral service for a friend and motherly mentor who died way too young.
I fell to pieces.
Once I started, I could not recover. It was ugly and raw. The song just sort of went on with me while I gasped for air and sobbed into a microphone. When it was finally over, I did the only thing I could think of. I hid. I flew backstage, burying my face in my hands, now overcome with shame, and crying even harder because of how guilty I felt and how disappointed I was in myself for letting everyone down.
Even as I type those words, remembering the tear-filled experience and others like it, I see the lies creeping in. The lies bring a toxic poison, telling my heart what it is feeling is ugly, unacceptable, unwelcome. And expressing it? The lies say that’s even uglier. Shameful even.
I read a book a couple of years ago that suggested listening to our tears. It wasn’t the main point of the book, but the idea instantly spoke to me. What a concept, to actually honor the emotion that overwhelms us, and try to figure out what our tears are telling us. Sometimes, things are hidden so deep inside our crowded hearts that we don’t even realize what’s hanging out in there until one day, sometimes out of the blue, an emotion gets resurrected and the only space it can find to crawl out into an open space is through our tiny tear ducts.
What are those tears trying to tell us? What’s happening in our hearts? Why am I really crying?
Answering that question has led me way, way back into my childhood. I long for the ability to intercept the lies I heard as a child before I had time to manufacture my arsenal of destructive coping mechanisms.
I want to go back in time to little Katherine, whose dad was frustrated by her crying at the drop of a hat, hold her hand, and ask her, “Sweet one, why are you crying?” I want to discourage in her the instinct to stop the tears for the benefit of an inconvenienced parent or for the comfort of anyone who witnessed her raw emotion. I want to tell her it’s ok to cry, to let it out, and I want her to listen.
I want her to know that she doesn’t need to apologize for her tears. They are beautiful, natural, honest, and those who witness such vulnerability will only find it a point of connection and greater intimacy. I want her to learn to trust others with her tears, to learn to share them freely, and to learn to listen to what those tears want to tell her.
I want to pick her up off the floor backstage at the funeral, hold her face in my hands, and tell her to lean in and listen. I want to tell her that it’s no surprise she wept in the middle of a song at the funeral of such a beloved mentor. To suffer the physical loss of a friend on the heels of the emotional death of her family is more than one heart can bear. To even attempt to sing in the midst of such pain and abandonment is brave and courageous. Not a soul in that sanctuary thought her a failure. They felt overwhelmed by their own sadness, and shared that tender moment with her, wanting to reach out and comfort her even in the middle of the unfinished chorus. Those tears are not a source of shame, but an offering, a precious gift, a tender heart pouring out all it had to give.
These days, I’m still the cryer I was as a little girl. But I’ve stopped apologizing, I don’t feel ashamed, and I don’t try to pull it together and distract myself for the sake of appearing composed. I try to listen to my tears.
Sometimes they tell me of a place I’ve left unattended for too long, an unfulfilled desire, a quiet calling back to things abandoned, or a deep beckoning to begin something new.
Sometimes they call up terribly painful reminders of loss, shedding new light on old wounds whose only comfort and healing can be found in a steady stream of hot tears brimming over from a well of sadness that seems to know no end.
Sometimes they whisper, mysteriously begging me to notice the beauty in broken places, the moments when the shadow of the eternal passes over something common and transforms it forever.
Whether they show up raw and unexpectedly, or slowly and quietly make their way down my cheek, I am learning to listen. They unveil secrets beneath the surface, and tell the truth about all the places where life seems too hard to bear. Tears always speak.