I woke up this morning having spent a good portion of the night dreaming and thinking about tears. Not so much the act of crying, but the wet stuff.
The long thought started with a simple short phrase. An allusion to tears popped into my head. I have since forgotten it, but it was utterly evocative and gave me a great good feeling.
Then I drifted into what seemed like a very long meditation about how visible and invisible tears were. Their arrival elicited direct attention and after a bit of dabbing, wiping and sniffling, they were gone. They were elusive. Was it possible to capture tears as part of an art project? The tangent appeared and I disappeared into it. I started to dream about a crowdsharing website where I could ask people from all over the world to send me their tears in jars. Collecting tears felt so right.
It turns out people have been saving their tears in vessels for thousands of years. Romans used lachrymatory to contain the tearful grief of mourners. What an image: the calcifying cartilage of the deceased laying alongside the rheumy remains of the living.
I thought that after I had collected liters and liters of the stuff I would go somewhere hot and dry and pour all of the tears into a large metal pan where the tears would then evaporate and condense into cloud formations. There was this lovely warm feeling that I’d be sending emotion-laden moisture into the atmosphere and that at some point those feelings would rain down on someone else. Fantastic.
Just before I got out of bed, the last teary inspirations arrived. What if I built a giant tear duct – used computers and a 3D printer to create a huge tear-making sculpture, the kind you see at Burning Man. What if I brought it to a place called Wet Woman? That would be fantastic too. Yes, it would.
The first thing I learned in my wide awake state was that I would not make a tear duct sculpture. These ducts don’t make, but drain tears into the nasal passages. What I wanted to build was a lacrimal gland. It sits just above and off to the side of each eye.
After being awake for awhile I looked or information on tears. I also asked myself a simple question: “Why do we cry? What purpose does it serve?” The first thing I learned? There are some people on the Internet who swear that happiness tears come out of your right eye and sadness tears out of your left. There’s no science to support that but it’s a terrific illustration of how wanting to believe something makes believing in something possible.
Research was making me more unsure about the reason we shed emotional tears though more certain tears were simply wonderful. For instance, tears provide layers of eye protection – everything from slippery surfaces to anti-microbial barriers. And when you shed tears endorphins are released. Tearing up actually makes you feel better. This TEDED video provides a supremely pleasant and brief summary of teary science
During my day long exploration of tears I kept bumping into authenticity. I considered the cultural and pathological expression of crocodile tears. I engaged tears of joy and tears of sadness, and tears of yawning. I even recalled how my Mother once located the genuineness of tears by commenting that a character on television wasn’t really crying because the tears were falling from the center and not the corner of her eye (yet another amazing piece of adult knowledge that my boy-being self dutifully stored and tagged for future reference). I parsed the clinical boundaries that distinguish and extinguish lacrimal well-being. This all suggested that tears are inexhaustible.
But it was only at this point that I considered the woeful, nay tearful use of lachrymators. These agents mobilize volumes of tears and thus demobliize volumes of humanity. First used in the early 20th C as a war technology, tear gas and more recently pepper spray stimulate a blinding blurr of blubbering. What weeping we’ve witnessed as crowds are dispersed, protesters are disabled, streets cleared.
Was my dream now over. Hardly. My twitter feed had just announced a 30th anniversary of Tears are Not Enough – a sloppy well-intentioned ballad that was massively popular in its day.
Me thinks that tears are more than enough. They salt an ocean of so many souls. They join the barely knowable interiority of our Self to the hard shelled enclosures of public empathy. They protect our eyes from disease. They create the material conditions for fundamental human expression. And for some, like me, tears bring forth a sun too bright at times to bear.