The Sunday Magazine

Michael's essay on crying and being human

"The American researcher Paul Zak has spent a career studying how the brain reacts to certain chemical releases. He discovered that the neurochemical oxytocin when delivered and synthesized by the brain makes us more compassionate, more generous and more sensitive to the needs of others. He calls it our 'moral molecule.' It also makes us react by crying."
Jackie and Thomas Wilson seen crying after the announcement that Barack Obama had been elected the first black president of the United States on November 4, 2008 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Tami Chappell/Reuters)

Behind the altar in the luminous Vatican space known as the Sistine Chapel, there is a small nondescript room that would be perfect for storage.

It is called the Room of Tears.

It is the room in which a newly elected Pope changes from his red Cardinal robes to the Papal white of the Pontiff.

The Room of Tears, or Crying Room, gets its name from Pope Leo XIII, who in 1878, upon his election, cried out that he was too old for the job and it would kill him.

He wasn't and it didn't.

Humans are the only animals to cry from emotion. Other animals produce tears only to lubricate their eyes.

U.S. President George W. Bush hands back a crying baby that was handed to him from the crowd as he arrived for an outdoor dinner with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Trinwillershagen, Germany, July 13, 2006. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

What is odd about us is that we cry when we are happy and when we are sad.

We cry in public or privately. We cry when the Raptors win, we cry when the Leafs lose.

Oprah Winfrey cried in Grant Park in Chicago the night a black man was elected president in 2008.

Hundreds cried in Dealey Plaza in Dallas when a president was assassinated in 1963.

The shortest and saddest passage in the New Testament is simply "Jesus wept."

The Irish author Elizabeth Bowen is the greatest short story writer this side of Alice Munro.

Bowen has a short story called "Tears, Idle Tears."

A woman and her seven-year-old son are walking through a park in London. The boy is crying helplessly, hopelessly.

The mother tells her son she is ashamed of him. She tells him to be a man, like his father, a dead RAF fighter pilot. She walks away from him.

The boy is left alone, crying, until he meets a stranger. 

The story has a powerful ending.

Elizabeth Bowen was an Irish novelist and short story writer. (Anchor)

I have never been a crier. Even in childhood fist fights with bruises and a bloodied nose, I didn't cry. I was brought up in the era where men didn't cry. Big boys don't cry, we were told. We were trained not to show emotion and certainly not display it by crying. 

I still don't cry much. Except when it comes to music. For some reason a popular standard or piece of classical music can turn on the waterworks like nothing else.

I become a whimpering fool when I hear Maria Callas sing anything, but especially "Un bel di vedremo" from Madama Butterfly. Or Jussi Bjorling rendering "Che gelida manina" from La Boheme. Or when Miss Julie sings "Can't Help Lovin' That Man of Mine" from Show Boat. And, of course, the titan of tearing, J.S. Bach.

Music is the most potent of the arts because it speaks directly, without mediation or gate-keeping to our emotions.

The same can sometimes be said of certain movies. Sociologists who spend their time studying such things report that 92 per cent of us have, at one time or another, cried during a movie. They are not called tearjerkers for nothing.

Among the most lachrymose movies — Old Yeller, Philadelphia, Schindler's List, Sophie's Choice, The Green Mile, even E.T.

Some moviegoers, myself among them, burst into tears having to pay $14 for popcorn and a large drink.

The American researcher Paul Zak has spent a career studying how the brain reacts to certain chemical releases.

He discovered that the neurochemical oxytocin, when delivered and synthesized by the brain, makes us more compassionate, more generous and more sensitive to the needs of others.

He calls it our "moral molecule."

It also makes us react by crying.

Pundits and prophets tell us we are living in an age of pessimism. And that things are only going to get worse. That the coming year will be as harrowing, as disturbing, as confusing as 2019.

When we look around the world, our natural impulse is to think they are right.

On the other hand, the evidence that humans are essentially hopeful is pretty convincing.

Perhaps we are emotionally wired to be optimistic even in the most dire circumstances.

If that is true, we will take the optimism path through 2020.

If crying is part of that, so much the better.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full essay.

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