constellations #71: crying
Did you know humans are the only animals that cry? A uniquely human thing, as it turns out. “Though some other species shed tears reflexively as a result of pain or irritation,” says this TIME article from 2016, “humans are the only creatures whose tears can be triggered by their feelings.”
And those types of tears are different, too. The tears we produce while, for example, chopping an onion (reflex tears) are materially different than the tears that result from feelings (psychic or emotional tears). There’s more protein in emotional tears — probably, researchers say, so they stick to our faces more, so there’s more of a chance of them being seen by another human.
As humans go, I am a big-time crier. I am generally not ashamed of this at all, for the record. (C.f. the great Charly Bliss: “I cry all the time / I think that it's cool / I'm in touch with my feelings.”) And when I meet people who say they never cry, I find it a little suspect.
(To be clear I’m not ashamed of being a person who cries regularly but there are certainly situations in which I have been embarrassed to have cried. For example the other day I was exhausted and emotional and I watched this TikTok of a really sick puppy at a vet hospital, and it really made me start to tear up, and then about 80% of the way through the video I realized that the puppy was just really stoned, and the video was meant to be a little funny because of that, and then I immediately felt very stupid for crying. The puppy ended up being totally fine, for the record.)
One time for work I was asked to put together a playlist list of “Tiny Desks concerts that will literally make you cry.” I’ve cried at the Tiny Desk a million times but I mostly crowdsourced this playlist from my colleagues rather than taking it from personal experience. For example, I left out that I cried at the Perfume Genius Tiny Desk because it felt like such a beautiful, tender, quintessentially queer experience and I felt so grateful that art like that exists and I get to witness it, to be in its presence.
In a recent interview, the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle was asked how he feels about being known “as a guy who writes songs that make people cry.” He said it’s fine; sometimes people want that from music! But also, he said, invested Mountain Goats fans recognize that his music is “sad and emotional” but that there’s “also a lot of humor” in it. (I agree!)
But then he said, “For me, it’s only the Get Lonely album that kind of doesn’t have an exit.” I laughed when I read it. That record is so close to my heart, definitely my favorite in the band’s discography (I even wrote about it for this newsletter once). I guess I just love the outlier; the ceaseless-crying, nothing-funny album — that’s the one for me!
There isn’t a solid scientific consensus on why humans cry. I had a psych professor in undergrad who researched it. (I just looked him up on the school website and apparently he recently taught a course called “Apocalypse Now: Finding Agency and Hope in a Deteriorating World.” Sign me up!!!)
Some researchers say crying is an evolutionary adaptation to helplessness: to signal to other people that we’re facing a problem that’s beyond our control (and that maybe they could help, or that they should fear it, too). Other researchers are more interested in crying as a chemical means of fostering empathy; they’re looking into how there’s this substance in tears that might reduce aggression in the people around us.
Here are some things that have made me tear up lately: the documentary Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine and then, the next day, an exhibition of Bourgeois’ paintings at The Met; the videos of Joni Mitchell at Newport Folk Festival; kind words from a stranger on a particularly hard day; a photo from my friend of her and her newborn twins; the last two episodes of the Women Who Rock docuseries, especially the part about Hole, because it made me think about how, back when I was a teenager who worshipped Nirvana, no one ever told me to listen to Hole or Sleater-Kinney or Bikini Kill or any other ’90s rock bands with women in them, and how angry and sad that makes me now.
That Mountain Goats interview reminded me of a description I heard of Julien Baker’s music, which I also deeply love, last year on the Popcast episode about the best music of 2021. Critic Jon Pareles named her album Little Oblivions as one of his favorites of the year, and described her music like this: “This is an album totally without self-pity,” he said. “It’s like: ‘I am so messed up, I’ve done so much harm, I don’t forgive myself, I don't expect you to forgive me.’ It’s an amazing series of songs. Most songwriters give themselves an out and she does not; she closes off every exit.”
I was so struck by that description — the idea of her not giving herself an out — that it lodged itself inside me; I remember exactly where I was when I heard it. (Unfortunately, it was the Starbucks drive-through in Foxborough.)
I saw Julien Baker live last week (yes, I cried during her set) and, afterwards, I tried to quote that description from memory to my sister, who said she felt off-put by the pervading sense of sadness in the performance. How can you make a career of sulking was the general tone of her critique, and I tried to say how impressive I found Julien’s stance as a songwriter: to really bear witness to darkness and also believe in goodness; to believe in goodness so much, in fact, that you’re continually disappointed by your inability to live up to your own standards of goodness, that you refuse to give yourself an out, that you close off every exit; to be willing to create connection by signaling helplessness. Inspiring stuff, in my opinion!
But in my sister’s defense, perhaps the evolutionary rationale for crying is not what everyone is looking for in art. Even John Darnielle, the “guy who writes songs that make people cry,” would admit that not everyone wants music that makes them weep all the time.
Here are some other things I have been consuming lately: Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker; Either/Or by Elif Batuman; Stranger Faces by Namwali Serpell; Alam No Hris by Krill; In My Car by Rat Tally; “Erase / Rewind” by The Cardigans; the Wye Oak Tiny Desk from 2010, which I had never seen before; The Rehearsal on HBO; the Falmouth Road Race (an annual tradition for me), but as a spectator, which was inspiring and beautiful; a lot of kalamata dip; one salted lychee gummy candy; a homemade date-caramel tart with a tahini shortbread crust from a recipe by Alicia Kennedy; quality time with my guitar, including re-learning most of my old Keeper songs (lol); a lot of bike rides
This time last year I was: appreciating ambivalence (still am!)
Thanks for reading. This month I hope you laugh so hard you cry <3 (which type of tears are those?) See you next twenty-fourth.