You Big Cry Baby!

Growing up I had brief thoughts about pursuing a career in the entertainment industry either as a stand-up comedian or maybe even as an actor (you can stop laughing now). But I realized quickly I had no real talent and no great looks (which might be much more important than talent). I noticed that one thing great actors could do was cry on command. I don’t mean over-dramatic fake sobs, but letting loose with real tears. I could never do that. Once, during a sad situation with a former girlfriend (at least sad for me), I realized crying would be the right thing to do (or at least the dramatic thing to do). And finally, after about ten minutes of trying, I got a few tears to flow.

But the older I get, the more I find myself crying all the time – not so much the uncontrollable, ugly kind of cry, but I tear up constantly. I cry in movies. I cry reading books. I cry watching the news. I cry listening to music. And sometimes I cry just thinking about life in general. Perhaps, as I have gotten older, I have realized more and more that life isn’t fair, that bad things happen to good people, that the world is full of suffering. Maybe I have finally learned some empathy for others. I cry even more when I see ordinary people (or sometimes less than ordinary people) overcome adversity, stand up for the oppressed, or, being an underdog, beat the odds.

Now when I go to a movie, I tear up more often than not, regardless of whether the movie is supposed to be happy or sad. One of my worst movie-crying episodes came after watching The Perks of Being a Wallflower.[i] My nerves were raw due to dealing with circumstances involving a person I deeply cared about that were largely beyond his control and mine. I felt an overwhelming sadness and helplessness. When the tears started to roll, I couldn’t help myself, and the trickles turned into rivers of tears. Like Charlie in this clip, I couldn’t stop crying:

And that’s OK. Crying is actually good for us. Stephen Sideroff, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at UCLA and director of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Ethics, says, “Crying activates the body in a healthy way. Letting down one’s guard and one’s defenses and [crying] is a very positive, healthy thing.” William Frey II, a biochemist at the St Paul-Ramsey Medical Center in Minneapolis, has found that emotional tears contain an endorphin that helps relieve pain, and hormones that help relieve stress. A study performed at the University of Florida revealed that crying improved the mood of almost 90 percent of those studied, with less than 9 percent reporting that crying made them feel worse. The fictional character, Lemony Snicket, said it this way: “A good, long session of weeping can often make you feel better, even if your circumstances have not changed one bit.”

Death of a loved one brings out the tears in most of us. As Shakespeare said, “To weep is to make less the depth of grief.” When I was twelve, my sister died. She was just 17. I remember that experience as if it happened only yesterday, and it brought about one of my first ugly cries. I heard of my sister’s death from my older brother who had picked me up from baseball practice. I was in shock until I got home. When I saw the many friends and family already there, some in tears, but everyone with sad faces, I gave my mother a hug and started crying uncontrollably, not so much for my sister – I knew she was in a good place – but mostly for my mom losing her only daughter, and for my other brother, who was out-of-town and would not be coming home for the funeral. Some similar feelings came to me when I finished reading The Fault in Our Stars.[ii] I was on a plane, flying to I don’t remember where. What I do remember were the tears repeatedly streaking down my cheeks. I did my best to control the sobs and the shudders (I was in public after all), but I let the tears flow unrestrained. I was anxious to see the movie when it came out a short time later. Gus’s eulogy in the movie touched me:

But the movie did not have the same impact on me as the book had. I went back and reread the last portion of it. I then realized I was crying in that plane not so much over the death of Hazel Grace, as sad as that was, but I was crying over the book’s description of the terrible way we often treat each other:

“Almost everyone is obsessed with leaving a mark upon the world. Bequeathing a legacy. Outlasting death. We all want to be remembered…. I want to leave a mark … [but] the marks humans leave are too often scars. We are like a bunch of dogs squirting on fire hydrants, … marking everything MINE in a ridiculous attempt to survive our deaths…. We’re as likely to hurt the universe as we are to help it, and we’re not likely to do either. Like the doctors say: First do no harm…. You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world but you do have some say in who hurts you.”[iii]

As a sports guy, there is nothing better than watching a good sports movie and having a good sports cry. Who hasn’t felt that sting in their eyes while listening to the crowd yelling “Rudy! Rudy!” in the movie by the same name; or watching Roy Hobbs hitting the home run to win the pennant in The Natural; or cheering for Daniel, as he wins the karate tournament after his opponent’s dirty move to injure his knee in the original Karate Kid.? And every basketball player has felt the emotion of the true story of the 1954 high school basketball team from the small Indiana town of Hickory, led by a coach with a checkered past and the town’s drunk, who find a way to win the state championship against bigger and more athletic teams. Here is the pivotal scene from the movie Hoosiers:[iv]

There is a Jewish proverb that says, “What soap is for the body, tears are for the soul.” The most cleansing cries for me at the movies happen when I’m watching ordinary men and women overcoming almost insurmountable odds of prejudice, hatred, physical obstacles and other forms of adversity. One of my favorite such movies is 12 Years a Slave,[v] the incredible true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York who is captured, sold and kept in slavery for 12 years at the mercy of slave masters and the emotional and physical abuse that goes with it. After seeing all he went through, sometimes with one eye closed, I watched this closing scene where Northup is finally rejoined with his family:

Can you imagine what that experience would have felt like? It would reduce to tears anyone with any feeling at all. This is why I enjoy movies so much. Done right, a movie can transport us to any part of the world (and beyond), at any time in history, and help us live the experiences of others. We laugh, we cry, we struggle right along with the characters, building understanding and empathy along the way.

So let movies help you have a good cry. I certainly do. I close with this fabulous quote from Washington Irving: “There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.”

[i] The Perks of Being a Wallflower

  • Production Company: Summit Entertainment
  • Director: Stephen Chbosky
  • Screenwriter: Stephen Chbosky
  • Starring: Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller
  • Release date: October 12, 2012

[ii] The Fault in Our Stars

  • Production Company: Fox 2000 Pictures, Temple Hill Entertainment, TSG Entertainment
  • Director: Josh Boone
  • Screenwriter: Scott Neustadler and Michael H. Weber (based on the book by John Green)
  • Starring: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort and Nat Wolff
  • Release date: June 6, 2014

[iii] John Green, The Fault in Our Stars, Dutton Books (2012), pp. 310-16.

[iv] Hoosiers

  • Production Company: De Haven Productions, Hemdale
  • Director: David Anspaugh
  • Screenwriter: Angelo Pizzo
  • Starring: Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey, Dennis Hopper
  • Release date: February 27, 1987

[v] 12 Years a Slave

  • Production Company: Regency Enterprises, River Road Entertainment, Plan B Entertainment
  • Director: Steve McQueen
  • Screenwriter: John Ridley (based on the book by Solomon Northup
  • Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Kenneth Williams, Michael Fassbender
  • Release date: November 8, 2013


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