let it all out
Published in Sister Magazine, The Strong issue
A quickie in the office toilets, a stoic single tear while sitting on the bus, or a full-on luxurious 3am sobbing session. Everyone does it – and a good, solid cry can sometimes make the world feel a thousand times better. The Danish writer Isak Dinesen said it best, with her edict that ‘the cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.’ Crying provides an emotional release that, like an intensely sweaty dancing spell or a plunge into cold water, also lends a sense of renewal. By actively choosing to induce a wee cry through Solange’s best sad-gal tunes (or YouTube videos of captive animals going outside for the first time, or watching the documentary Amy all over again from start to finish – whatever pushes your emotional buttons), it’s possible to take a firmer grasp of your own inner baggage. Crying makes you feel worse short-term but often better in the long run, by providing catharsis and a sense of distance from your issues. So why is it that crying in public or at work is still seen as something vaguely embarrassing?
Scientists think that emotional tears are chemically different from the tears caused by chopping onions or getting dust in your eye. They are more viscous and therefore more likely to be noticed, helping them to transmit a powerful social signal. Anonymous areas like public transport can feel like a blizzard of repressed emotions, and seeing someone trying not to full-on weep on the Tube is a fully regular occurrence (I once cried in London Bridge station while feeling a bit hungover, solely because I caught sight of an old man looking a bit hopeful with a bouquet of flowers while checking his watch). Crying helps us to bond and connect emotionally, to feel empathy for strangers and to elicit it for ourselves in other people. Whether your tears are happy or sad or angry ones, they have a powerful effect on yourself and others. The first cry, like the first time arguing and making up, can be an important step in testing the mettle of a new friendship or relationship. If the timing is right, sharing tears can strengthen your bonds with someone new almost as well as a DMC in the smoking area.
Despite the residual distaste many have for it in day-to-day life, crying has been gradually inching towards becoming less taboo in Western society and its mainstream media. Public figures from Jessica Ennis and Lionel Messi to Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin have been variously celebrated and mocked for their on-air tears, but there is still a way to go. The notion of the ‘stiff upper lip’, along with the mentality that ‘boys don’t cry’, is still mouldering away in certain corners of public discourse – in a world where suicide is disproportionately high in LGBTQ+ communities and is the leading cause of death for males aged 20-50 in the UK, it is more important than ever to promote healthy, honest emotional expression for everyone.
The fact is, crying is also a perfectly reasonable response to an increasingly scary world. 2016 was, at least online and in youth-oriented spaces, the year that feeling anxious was no longer something you had to hide away – there are entire subsets of anxiety-based memes for you to scroll through on Insta on a Thursday night after the pub, while lying in bed in the dark. Illustrators like Polly Nor and Filthy Rat Bag, and prominent Twitter users like So Sad Today, turn the fears and worries of modern life, with its student debt and commitment issues and concerns about the environment, into something relatable and dryly hilarious. Staying in, worrying about Brexit and Trump and global warming – it’s like hygge, but with mildly agoraphobic tendencies. Crying is a vital aspect of this long-overdue cultural shift, as the more open we can be about how we feel, the better. Let the tears flow loud and proud, and embrace the cleansing power of the cry. To tackle whatever 2017 has in store, we’re going to be needing some of that salt water.