There have been a lot of tears on Radio 4 today. I don’t mean that James Naughtie has pinched Winifred Robinson’s dinner money or somebody has dug up the snowdrops in Peter Gibbs’ garden. No, the focus has been on what makes us cry. First of all we had the obligatory clip from Barber’s Adagio for Strings (which apparently is under a moratorium in Hollywood for overuse) on the Today programme (just mistyped that as the Toady programme – Freudian?). Then we had a whole half hour with Geoff Watts investigating why we cry. I am getting out my hankies before Saturday Live tomorrow, goodness knows what they will come up with and Broadcasting House will no doubt be awash with tearful and emotional anecdotes. I don’t think I’ll even bother with Desert Island Discs, the guest is a developmental psychologist. Bound to be bucket loads there.
What I found really interesting (apart from the Barber ban) was that apparently when people were asked what made them cry they tended to say a loss of a loved one, something bad happening to their children etc. All very noble and predictable. But when asked what had made them cry most recently they answered, loneliness, rejection, fear.
So we like to think that we cry over the misfortunes of others, but in fact we cry over our own. Actually I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that. Our loved ones do not die on a regular basis, at least not for most of us. Bad things do happen to our children, but again it is more likely to be that they didn’t get the part of Mary in the Nativity Play rather than they lose a limb in a landmine accident. In other words, whilst we do cry over such things, they don’t happen very often.
On the other hand, we suffer personal setbacks on a daily basis. Most do not reduce us to tears. But we all understand the concept of the hair that broke the camel’s back. And we all have a particular Achilles’ Heel, the situation that brings us down no matter what.
I cry easily at films and music (very common apparently, to be brought to tears by visual art, buildings etc is very unusual). I can bring myself to tears very easily for dramatic effect in a play. I cry at funerals, even those of people I am not very close to, certain hymns I find almost impossible to sing without sobbing and the opening solo of “I waited for the Lord” reduces me to tears in seconds, although that is perhaps because I am taken back to the moment I heard my daughters sing the duet at Evensong in Durham Cathedral.
However, wound me and I will do all I can to hold back my tears. Vulnerability is all very well if it is not mine but on behalf of somebody else. A case in point is anger and frustration. I am easily brought to tears by anger brought on by frustration. Many, many years ago (over 30) when just beginning my A-levels in Biology, Chemistry, Maths and Physics we had to sit exams at the beginning of the Michaelmas term to confirm we were doing the right subjects. I went from A student to failing every single one. I had never failed an exam in my life. I was shocked, so were my teachers. I was called in to see Dr Carpenter who railed at me for not revising. I had revised, I had revised endlessly and I got angry. Unfortunately I cry when I’m angry and poor Dr Carpenter was faced with a 16 year old girl wailing her eyes out in his office and his anger quickly turned to sympathy, which obviously made me madder and the tears got worse. Viscious circle. (For the record I should never have taken science A-levels, but the shock of failing an exam meant I worked like a Trojan at subjects I loathed in order to get the grades that had originally been expected).
Apparently there is not difference between the amount that girls and boys cry as toddlers. As they grow up boys cry less and girls take the crying lead. Is this nature or nurture? We will probably never know, but as we age we control our tears. We consider some to be acceptable and others not. Some to be allowed to be public and some only to be cried in private. Where do we learn this? Is it cultural or is there some personal, unique to only us, guideline that we put in place?