Thursday, February 13, 2014

On Crying

Something has to be done about this perception of crying as some ultimate expression of being human or, perversely, as some ultimate statement of praise for an artwork. It is wrong.

I’m not trying to diminish genuine human pain, which is very real and acutely felt at various times by everyone. And crying can be a natural expression of this pain. But, oftentimes, public crying, or freely telling someone that you cried, has an aspect of performance to it, which makes us feel queasy at first, and then angers us. At some point in our lives, we have had (or continue to have) meaningful bouts of crying, where something has struck us so profoundly that crying is the only option. It’s almost an out-of-body experience, crying for real. It’s sacred. And seeing this done in public can feel like an affront to our own pain, a parody of our own grief. And that angers us.

Again, this is not meant to diminish the pain of others. If someone is hit by awful news in public, an open display of grief might be unavoidable. But oftentimes it’s a choice. Grief is sacred. To do it in public can diminish it. I’m not saying you shouldn’t cry in public out of consideration for the other people. I’m saying you shouldn’t because you should have too much respect for the act of crying. It’s sacred, treat it as such.

Too many people use it as a way to show everyone they are more human than other people, as a way of guilting them into sharing some of their very subjective pain somehow. Take Project Greenlight, season one. Pete Jones frequently threatened to cry in front of the producers of his movie in order to get what he wanted. This calculated way of using crying is all too common, and by the definitions I’ve set forth it is literally profane. Go back and watch everyone around Pete cringe every time he threatens to cry publicly. There was an extreme uneasiness about someone crying over funding for a movie, and this was before 9/11. I’m trying to illustrate that people felt uneasy about calculated crying even even before what most Americans now consider to be the profound sadness in their lives.

I’m not trying to minimize others’ pain. I am a big believer in everyone has pain, whether you’re homeless or Justin Timberlake. Everyone feels their individual pain just as acutely as the next person. But cry about your own pain, not as a way of showing your empathy for something you perceive as a universal sadness. You are not more human because you’re showing everyone you can cry. We all know we live in a universe of omnipresent sadness. There is something to be crushed by every day. If you take the whole world, the top 1% of wealth belongs to the average American ($35,000/year puts you in the top 1% if you consider everyone on the planet). The heat death of the universe hovers like a shroud over everything. The point is, no one is truly and completely empathetic, because if one were, that person would be an incapacitated puddle every day. So to decide to let one thing affect you so traumatically, and to advertise this to others, evokes an uneasiness because it’s like you’ve decided that everything else that’s sad about life doesn’t matter. Public crying is, in a way, minimizing everyone else’s pain. Plus it has an aspect of arrogance to it. It seems to be a way to say “I’m more human than you.” You are not. There is pain everywhere.

I’m not trying to dismiss other people’s individual pain. Pain is real, crying can be unavoidable. Very young people cry too freely, though. They have yet to cry before someone who they want to share their pain, and have that person look back at them impassively, with a dry, hard stare. It is at that point that everyone realizes that their pain is too sacred to be put out where anyone can sneer at it or diminish it. We respect our pain too much to do that.

The other thing people do that is wrong is think that the movement to tears is the ultimate approbation of a work of art. If a work of art makes you cry, it is a great work of art, this line of thinking goes. This is wrong. To be clear: It’s not a directly causal relationship. Some great works of art make you cry, but not all works of art that make you cry are great works of art. We live in a day and age of ultimate manipulation. People don’t even know when they’re watching an advertisement anymore. I posit that you can’t watch The Notebook (and I mean really watch it, not just have it on and be doing something else while it’s on, but watch every single frame of that movie) without being moved and misty-eyed. I’m not even going to rhetorically ask if The Notebook is great art. It will never be considered such by the hipster, film snobbish critics who (currently, but maybe not for long) decide these things for the culture at large. Yet these same critics will cry at some obscure Belgian black-and-white film (or whatever), and fine whatever maybe that Belgian black-and-white film actually is great art, but they will use their tears as evidence of the art’s greatness. Well, I stand before them, dry-eyed and unmoved. Great art is so much more than your public declaration that you are more human than someone who isn’t moved to cry. Great art is more than you. Get over yourself.

I am not minimizing anyone’s pain. Pain is felt by each individual person and no one’s pain is greater than anyone else’s. I respect the freedom of everyone to feel their individual pain and to cry about that pain. This is just a response to those who use a public display of crying, or declaration of such, as a way to position themselves as better or more human than others, because they are not.


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