I can’t produce tears on demand, but neither can I stop them at will. It is often quite inconvenient when they rise unbidden. Years ago, I found myself at a red light after having run errands which included a pick-up of library books for my children. I glanced through the opening words of Sarah, Plain and Tall, written for the 8-10 year old crowd, which explain that the father is bringing a mail-order bride to his home. Her arrival and the family’s adjustment to this Maine-bred woman provide the theme for a charming book. Quickly glossed over is the explanation that he needed a mother for his children as his wife had died in childbirth. I never got past that sentence at the stoplight and clearly that book is not what a mother in her ninth month of pregnancy should be reading. Crying while driving is not recommended.
Sometimes the spontaneous tears are those of joy. Like many of my friends, my tears often start streaming at hearing of the birth of a baby or even at sentimental and sappy commercials. A women’s bathroom at a wedding reception which lacks copious amounts of tissues available is simply not adequately prepared for its guests.
When I was growing up there was a game show on TV. The host would sometimes come into the audience, pick a female guest and offer a cash prize if she could find a specific item in her purse. He might ask for a corkscrew or a sock, a thermometer or a recipe. Time after time, the oddest assortment of articles would come out of those purses. He never asked for a tissue or a handkerchief. Every woman in the audience would have at least one of those.
Recent studies have shown physiological reasons why women cry more easily than men, but why are tears a common response to joy? Tears of sorrow or anger seem to make more intuitive sense. A Torah teacher of mine discussed this recently, elaborating on an answer to this question given by the brilliant 19th century, German rabbi, S.R. Hirsch. His words frequently sound as if they are written for today, and these were no exception. Rav Hirsch postulated that tears of joy stem from a subconscious realization that the joyful moment is fleeting. Even as we rejoice we know that our happiness is ephemeral.
Women intuitively sense this more than men. An awareness of the passage of time is linked to a woman’s biological make-up. Female bodily cycles force recognition of the ebb and flow of life, which is of a cyclical rather than a linear nature. When we cry “because I’m so happy,” we are indeed happy, but we, perhaps subconsciously, know to mark the moment because it is transitory.
Perhaps the same force explains why women facing disappointment and difficulties often feel better after having a good cry. By the time the tears stop flowing, even if the catalyst remains, we subconsciously know that this situation too shall pass.
I find that the more life experiences I have under my belt, the more easily I cry. Passages in books, newspaper articles and daily encounters that would have left me unmoved as a teenager now touch something deep inside me. Tears of joy, laughter and sorrow are more frequent companions than they used to be. While I certainly don’t want to imply that I walk around sobbing or with streaming eyes, I do know that Rav Hirsch’s explanation resonated with me. Does it with you?