Shreya Sen-Handley | Keep calm and carry on crying

Columnist  | Shreya Sen-Handley

Opinion, Columnists

Crying gets a bad rap, doesn’t it?

Breaking societal taboos, shedding light on the therapeutic benefits of emotional expression through tears, fostering empathy and mental well-being.

Crying over spilt milk is futile. Crocodile tears are fake and manipulative. Crying wolf too is false, and dangerous. Indulging in any of the above would be a ‘crying shame’; the most reprehensible behaviour. And those blubbing Everly Brothers? Leave ‘em to their cryin’ in the rain! There’s no place in polite society for exposure that private.

Nothing good’s ever said about shedding a tear; our intrinsically human emissions of joy, sadness, and frustration. Because nothing good can come of it, or so we’ve been convinced.

The patriarchy comes down hard on weeping. ‘Big boys don’t cry’ they command, insisting lads‘ man up’ and plough on amidst upheavals, without examination or even acknowledgement of their emotions. Our dammed-up waterworks then trickle into every niche and crevice, not just of our bodies but the body-politic, poisoning it like slow-acting arsenic. Didn’t large-scale, pent-up resentments result in two World Wars, don’t they even now trigger mass turmoil?

When ‘celebs’, especially male, break down in public, such as Cristiano Ronaldo or Novak Djokovic, derision is generally rained down upon them, as if Charles Dickens hadn’t reprimanded, “Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth…” or Justin Timberlake wailed, “Cry me a river”, unequivocally encouraging his brethren.

Yet, strong women too are exhorted to never give in to such ‘womanly’ infirmity, or be forever stereotyped as ‘the weaker sex’. Growing up in a house full of stern women, I was taught not to snivel (even the sound of words that denote crying repel!). Learning to walk in infancy, I already knew I should hold back the tears when I fell and scraped my knee. My formidable foremothers intended to build character, but I wonder now if they would have stood me in better stead by allowing me to express anguish.

Cultures around the world stubbornly uphold the stiff upper lip, particularly those with a puritanical streak. WASPs (White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestants) are famously emotionally repressed, and having previously colonised large parts of the planet, their frigidity is still considered the benchmark for propriety.

Have you noticed, on Anglo-American channels, the unmistakable scorn that creeps into their coverage of other people’s tragedies? When the bereaved from other cultures beat their breasts or rail at the heavens, somewhere in the voice of the western reporter is an undertone of contempt. The English language itself is loaded with ugly words for lamentation, a few of which I’ve had little choice but to use here!

But not all western nations eschew expressions of grief. The Irish ‘keen’ at their funerals, a sustained high-pitched lament dredging the depths of their heartache. Mediterranean societies also approach loss with less restraint and more savoir-faire. Bright yellow is believed to have been the colour of mourning in Spain, in celebration of lives well-lived.

If I have to dwell on my death at all, a vibrant memorial is just what I’d want. I think those close to me now know I’d want a quirky, colourful send-off, as it’s these very people who have taught me to loosen up and express emotions at long last.

When my beloved great-grandfather died in Kolkata, I was growing up in Manila, and able to tell myself for months afterward that he hadn’t gone at all. When my grandfather passed away in my early twenties, I found it difficult to cry despite my grief — yet another instance of the emotional avoidance integral to my buttoned-up Ingo-Bongo upbringing. I was also the only one dry-eyed at my wedding and not because I wasn’t deliriously happy!

It wasn’t till my children were born that I learned to unburden my heart. I cried when I held them for the first time. Oh, ok, my tears sprang from the pain of delivery and the 33-hour labour preceding it initially, but then, they flowed freely down my cheeks from the joy of beholding my beautiful babies.

Over the years, I’ve misted up at their tentative first steps, determined first words, and comic turns in school plays — my three-year-old son cast as a penguin in the school nativity when penguins had never inhabited Bethlehem, and my little girl the year after as Mother Mary, whispering the words the toddler Joseph had forgotten, because she’d learnt not only her lines but everyone else’s!

With the floodgates finally open, I now shed a tear over nearly everything, from the fate of polar bears in the Arctic to films sans a single tear-jerking moment! And that’s good for me.

Good for us all, because science has demonstrated that it’s hugely beneficial to our health to vent our feelings, especially when long-suppressed or intense, and spring-clean our inner space. Releasing oxytocin and endorphins, a satisfying sob floods our systems with feel-good chemicals and flushes out stress hormones and other toxins, washing away both physical and emotional pain.

Plus, a ready rush of tears is undoubtedly better than the alternative — an inevitable lashing-out. If men could openly cry over their troubles and not be humiliated for it, mental health would improve and so would public safety, studies prove. Besides, showing vulnerability helps us relate to diverse groups, re-establishing the common ground so worryingly eroded in recent years.

So, in this Vale of Tears, I say, let us give vent to them frequently and freely, embracing the emotionally secure, expressive, empathetic and mature ‘cry baby’ in us all!