The Joys Of Crying

I cry easily; so I cry a lot. Many, many things set me off: movies, songs, talking about my parents, a sportsman’s death, showing my daughter music videos of songs that I listened to as a teenager, Saturn V liftoffs, the misfortune of others in the world’s ‘disaster zones,’ witnessing random acts of kindness on the subway, a busker hitting all the right notes, political disaster–the list goes on, and it doesn’t seem to settle into a coherent pattern. Nostalgia features prominently here; as does a new-found vulnerability and fearfulness made vividly manifest after my daughter’s entry into this world. I’m an immigrant and adult orphan, so memories are especially precious; and I suspect they color my perception of most things I encounter on my daily journeys through work and parenting and the usual reading and writing. (A beautiful turn of phrase, a fictional character’s terrible, tragic fate can also get the tear glands working overtime.)

As I wrote here a while ago:

I’ve become a better, not worse, crier over the years. Growing up hasn’t made me cry less, now that I’m all ‘grown-up’ and a really big boy. Au contraire, I cry–roughly defined as ‘tears in the eyes’ or ‘lumps in the throat which leave me incapable of speech’ even if not ‘sobbing’–more. There is more to cry about now, more to get the tear glands working overtime: more memories, more days gone by, more nostalgia, more regrets, more friends gone, never to return, more evidence of this world’s implacable indifference to our hopes and desires–for ourselves and ours. I cry in company–sometimes, when I’m trying to tell a story and realize I cannot proceed; I cry when I’m alone. I cry on my couch when watching a movie. And just to make sure I’m a genuine New Yorker, I’ve cried on the subway.

Truth is, crying feels good. It is actually intensely pleasurable; to cry is to feel alive, powerfully so. I am not jaded and cynical, impervious to things that should hurt or feel good; crying tells me I’m still capable of powerful emotional responses, that I have not become blasé to this world’s offerings.  Crying slows things down; for its duration, there is an intense concentration on the engendered emotion. All else falls away; in a world of eternal distraction, in which time has sped up, where all is a whirl, crying is a blessing.

But crying isn’t just a reaction to an external event or stimulus; it’s an act of communication with oneself. Crying is informative, a message from self to self. It tells me what hurts, what feels good, what I remember, who I miss, what got under my skin, and stayed there. It informs others too, of course, about who I am, but that is not its most important function. That honor is reserved for the self-knowledge it makes possible, the picture it completes of me, the reminder it provides that I’m many things and many people, spread out over time and space, still trying to hang together.

Broadchurch’s Grieving Mother And Our Reactions To ‘Victims’

Viewers of the BBC’s Broadchurch are subjected to a trial of sorts: we have to watch, in some excruciating detail, the reactions of parents, and in particular, a mother, to the violent death of a beloved child–at the hands of a malevolent, unknown actor. Paying close attention to our reactions to what we see and hear is instructive.

In Broadchurch Beth Latimer’s reactions to the death of her son, Danny, cover a wide range: there is incoherent grief and bewilderment and shock, and then, unsurprisingly, rage and resentment too. (Her husband’s infidelity, disclosed as a result of the homicide investigation adds further insult to injury; it is a miracle that the couple is still together at the end of the second season. This is especially so because we are aware of the grim statistics pertaining to the high likelihood of couples separating after the loss of a child.)

Beth’s anger–sometimes directed at her husband, sometimes at the pace of the investigation, and therefore, the homicide detectives, sometimes at other residents of their town, and later, at the wife of the murder suspect–is volatile, threatening to immolate those who come within its ambit. The viewer–like those in the show who come into contact with an angry Beth–instinctively shrinks back; this is not a rage to be trifled with. In the second season, in particular, Beth’s rage at DS Ellie Miller becomes particulary pointed, and at one stage, veers into unkindness and ungraciousness. My deployment of these latter adjectives should give some indication of the reaction her rage may provoke in viewers: we start to become impatient with Beth and her grieving.

Indeed; as Beth’s rage continues, we start to lose some sympathy for her; we find ourselves wishing she’d find it within her heart to forgive and forget; to ‘move on,’ even if only for just a bit. The moment we do so, of course, we reprimand ourselves: How dare we tell a grieving mother to get over it? How dare we set up a timeline for an appropriate period of grieving? How could we possibly attempt to circumscribe the nature of how Beth expresses her sense of loss? And so even as we reproach ourselves, we acknowledge the conflicted nature of our reactions to her.

These reactions are illuminative. We feel sympathy and perhaps some empathy for a ‘victim’ but these sentiments are limited; these limits become all too apparent when the ‘victim’ is not a passive recepient of her fate. It would be far easier to tolerate Beth’s reactions if she did not rage so and merely retreated into a grim, brooding silence, though even then, were she to continue to interact with others in a noncommittal, sullen, uncooperative fashion, we might find ourselves tempted, a little too easily, to tell her to ‘snap out of it.’  The uncomfortable truth here is that the ‘victim’ makes us uncomfortable; we are reminded of the ever-present contingency of our lives, of our success in life’s sweepstakes, of the fragility of fortune; ‘there but for the Grace of God go I’ is not an easy reminder to take on board; we wish the ‘victim’ would cease and desist, thus pushing away these grim reminders from our awareness.

These considerations are relevant to the reactions often on display in political discourse, in the reactions made to those protesting past wrongs and demanding redressal. Sympathy and empathy are possible, and sometimes even extended, but they are not easy to sustain; the protester bids us face uncomfortable truths we would much rather not deal with. The protests grate; we find faults with their form and content all too easily; too loud, too long, too shrill, the list goes on. Pipe down, move on, get over it; admonitions spring easily to our lips. After all, if we could find reprimands for a grieving mother, when her cause for grief lies so close by in space and time, then what chance do we have when confronting those who are protesting injustices and crimes which began a long time ago? Even if those have continued into the present? Their vintage provenance seems to drag them into the past, and that is all the excuse we need to justify our impatient and irate reaction. Enough already; keep moving; my resources are limited, and I can spare no more for you.

If the personal is political, then we should not be surprised to find, in revealing reactions like these, glimpses of the many subterrenean forces that animate our political stances.

Chaucer’s Knight As Stoic Philosopher

In How to Read and Why (Scribner, New York, 2001, p. 281), Harold Bloom invokes ‘The Knight’s Tale‘ from Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales and writes:

The Knight sums up Chaucer’s ironic ethos in one grim couplet:

It is ful fair a man to bere hym evene
For al day meeteth men at unset stevene

Bloom continues:

My friend the late Chaucerian Talbot Donaldson paraphrased this superbly:

It is a good thing for a man to bear himself with equanimity, for one is constantly keeping appointments one never made.

Among the most haunting passages in Joan Didion‘s The Year of Magical Thinking (Vintage, 2007)–which describes the year following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, from a sudden heart attack at home–are the ones on its very first page:

Life changes fast
Life changes in the instant
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends

Didion writes that she considered editing the lines above so that they would read as follows:

Life changes in the instant
The ordinary instant

At some point, in the interest of remembering what seemed most striking about what happened, I considered adding those words, ‘the ordinary instant.’ I saw immediately that there would be no need of adding the word ‘ordinary,’ because there would be no forgetting it; the word never left my mind. It was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it. I recognize now there was nothing unusual in this: confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the remarkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy. “He was on his way from home work–happy, successful, health–and then, gone”….In the midst of life we are in death, Episcopalians say at the graveside.

Rare is the remarkable disaster that provides advance intimation; even the most drawn out of all deadly diseases begins with the most innocent signals–perhaps the test result obtained during a routine medical exam, perhaps the lump that makes its presence felt during a routine palpitation of the skin. All around us, misfortune stalks the unwary, even as we imagine it will pass us by today, and continue to do so in the future.If every day is the first of the rest of our lives–an inspirational homily we are only to happy to dish out to others–then it is an elementary deduction that one such day will be the last too. But this is an inference we are often unwilling to draw until it is time to have its grim conclusion forced upon us.

Chaucer’s Knight then, is bidding us be good Stoics, fully prepared, with a kind of sensitive indifference, for this world’s eventualities, not all of which bring glad tidings to our door. It is the oldest lesson of all, one which we are destined to have imparted to us again and again, for the facts about the nature of our existence that it brings to our attention are not easily accepted.

On Not Participating In A Collective Mourning

It’s an odd business to not be participating in a collective mourning. By ‘collective,’ of course, I mean ‘seemingly widespread and ubiquitous within my social space.’ In this case, I’m referring to the mourning following the death of Prince last week. There are: musical tributes, personal testimonials, remembrances, markers in public spaces–all the manifestations of a collective outpouring of grief at the death of a man reckoned one of the music world’s most interesting and accomplished artists, a reconfigurer of musical tastes and sexual identities alike. But I have nothing to contribute to this celebration of his life; Prince’s death didn’t touch me the same way. For the simplest and best of reasons: his music didn’t.

I heard ‘When Doves Cry‘ and ‘Purple Rain‘ back in my high-school days; they were an interesting departure from the other offerings of the music world. A few years later, I heard ‘Sign o’ the Times‘ and quite liked it. (A lot; for I still remember where I was when I first heard the track play.) But that was about it. I never bought a Prince album, never played a Prince song on a jukebox in a pool hall or a bar, never bought tickets for, or attended a Prince concert. He simply did not feature on my musical radar. Indeed, from the sidelines, over the years, I watched with some bemusement as his star ascended in both the critical and commercial dimensions. A fan of Prince might say that I don’t get it. And that would be entirely right. I didn’t. And that’s perfectly fine. Not everyone did.

Still, as this mourning continues, on my social media pages, in the various conversations I overhear, in the many tributes, I feel distinctly isolated. All around me, there is a ritual underway; an invitation to participate has been extended; and yet, I stand on the sidelines, unwilling and unable to acquiesce. I have not been ostracized; I have exiled myself. For my older indifference to the music is still present. I watch and listen to his supposedly memorable guitar solo on a performance of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ during the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and do not find it as compelling as the guitar work I have admired in the past; ’tis true, my receiver for Prince signals is not working and has been turned off for a while. I am beyond redemption. Perhaps the future will see me change my ways and join the fold of the faithful. Stranger conversions have been known to happen.

Of course, there is an irony present in my writing of this post. I began it by noting that I had not participated in the collective mourning for Prince’s death. But by putting these thoughts down here, by making note of my distance from his music, I have finally been compelled to step forward and throw my hat in the ring, even if only by way of explaining why I did not do so. Well played, Prince. RIP.

Grieving For Others When ‘There Is Sobbing At Home’

In Koba The Dread (Vintage International, New York, 2003, pp. 258) Martin Amis includes in a footnote, a quote from Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn citing an alleged Russian proverb as follows:

Why grieve for others when there is sobbing at home?

The sentiment at the heart of this query about apparently misdirected grief may be summed up, roughly, as follows: we should reserve our expressions of sorrow for where they are most appropriately directed, at matters closer to heart and home. Our sympathy is scarce; there is much need for it here, close by; it is inappropriate and wasteful to direct it elsewhere. It might even be an expression of insincerity, of a certain kind of bad faith, evidence of a flaw in our affective responses to others: you do not have grief for those closest to you, but plenty for others? (This is certainly how the quote is deployed in Amis’ referring to a story told by Kingsley Amis in his Memoirs about how reports in Pravda about Joseph Stalin‘s complaints, “in person,” to the United Nations about the treatment of Greek communist prisoners at the end of the civil war evoked “hysterical laughter” among gulag prisoners; their state bore ample testimony to Stalin’s malignant hypocrisy.)

But we can offer a contestation of such a view of the act of grieving for others even as ‘there is sobbing at home.’ Perhaps we grieve for others precisely because we have born witness to such sobbing; perhaps we can direct our grief elsewhere because the grieving ‘at home’ has reminded us of the ubiquitousness of grief, that no one is immune to it, that sorrow comes to all, and leaves no one untouched. We might have once viewed the sorrow of others as a distant vision, a visitor unlikely to come knocking at our door; the ‘sobbing at home’ tells us that such smugness is unwarranted.

It might be too that we can grieve for others because we have participated in the sobbing at home and learned how to grieve. Perhaps our sobbing at home has made it possible for us to become more sympathetic and empathetic alike. Grieving might not be instinctive; we need to be inculcated in its ways and means, and what better venue for such education than our most intimate and personal of spaces?

I have made note here previously of the appropriateness of grieving over the passing of ‘perfect strangers,’ people–like celebrities and other public figures–with whom we did not enjoy a personal relationship; there our expressions of grief were evoked by the felt resonances of the occasion of someone’s passing with components of our own emotional make-up–“memories accumulated over a lifetime, traces of experiences, formative and supposedly insignificant alike.” I’d concluded then that “To ask that we confine our expressions of sympathy and sorrow to only those we know personally is indeed, not just ignorant, but also morally dangerous; it bids us narrow our circle of concern.” That same conclusion holds true here too. We should, when we can, grieve for others even when there is sobbing at home.

Why It’s Okay To Mourn, To Cry For, The Passing Of Strangers

Many silly things are written when celebrities die. One is that you cannot speak ill of the dead. Another is that you cannot mourn for those whom you did not know personally. A variant of this is that visible expressions of grief for those you did not have personal acquaintance with are ersatz, inauthentic, a kind of posturing.

The folks who make the former claim are simply clueless about the nature of the public life. The latter are clueless about how emotion works, about the nature and importance of symbolism and its role in our memories, and thus our constructed self.

Consider for instance that I tear up on the following occasions:

  1. Watching this musically mashed-up tribute to Carl Sagan;
  2. Watching a Saturn V rocket lift-off (or reading about the death of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee while testing Apollo 1);
  3. Watching fighter jets at an airshow, or indeed, even listening to the roar of a fighter jet’s afterburners as they are lit.

I did not know Carl Sagan personally. I did not know any of the astronauts on the Gemini and Apollo programs. I did not know Grissom, White, or Chaffee personally. I do not know any of the pilots who perform at airshows or whom I have seen taking off on many occasions. Indeed, one might ask, why tear up when watching or listening to any of these things? Man up! Be authentic! Stick to the known and the personal.

Sorry, no can do. Carl Sagan was an important influence on my education and philosophical and intellectual orientation as a child; to watch that little mash-up of Cosmos is to remember my childhood, one spent with my parents, watching Cosmos on Sundays at home. And my father was a pilot who flew fighter jets; I watched the Apollo 11 documentary with him as a child. My parents are no more. Need I say more about why I tear up when I undergo the audio-visual experiences listed above? Planes, rockets, astronauts, men with crew-cuts, memories of the moonrise. How could I not?

The emotions we feel are wrapped up in the deepest recesses of our selves; they reflect memories accumulated over a lifetime, traces of experiences, formative and supposedly insignificant alike. This is why, of course, when we listen to music, we can conjure up, seemingly effortlessly, a mood, an atmosphere, a remembrance, a time long gone. Music is perhaps the Proustian Madeleine par excellence. We listen to music when we read, write, walk, run, make love, work out, play, talk to our friends–the list goes on. We grow up with music; it becomes associated with our lives and its distinct stages. We listen to some songs again and again; they become almost definitive of a particular self of ours.

So when a musician dies, one whose music we have listened to on countless occasions, it is natural to feel bereft; we have lost part of ourselves.

To ask that we confine our expressions of sympathy and sorrow to only those we know personally is indeed, not just ignorant, but also morally dangerous; it bids us narrow our circle of concern. No thanks; I’d rather feel more, not less.

Kundera On Nostalgia For The Present

In Identity (HarperCollins, New York, 1998, pp. 40), Milan Kundera has Chantal thinking nostalgically about her love, Jean-Marc, but:

Nostalgia? How could she feel nostalgia when he was right in front of her? How can you suffer from the absence of a person who is present? (Jean-Marc knew how to answer that: you can suffer nostalgia in the presence of a beloved if you glimpse a future where the beloved is no more; if the beloved’s death is, invisibly, already present.)

Sometimes when I’m looking at videos and photos of loved ones I find myself overcome by a curious melancholia, a wistfulness of sorts. I’m perplexed; why is this so? These people, whose images I am gazing at, whom I love and care for, are still very much with me; they continue to enrich my life. Why does the sight of them introduce a sensation that is ‘nostalgic’, akin to the feeling that one might get on gazing at a scene never to be re-staged, a vista never to be viewed again? (The images I speak of are not ones that should be properly productive of nostalgia: they are way too recently produced for that, and even the sense of time elapsed cannot account for the depth and pathos of the associated melancholia.)

Kundera is right, of course, that this is because we have anticipated a future without our loved ones; we are not content to live in the present; we must look ahead as we always do. Our joy at the presence of our loved ones then, is always mingled, always touched and inflected, by a hint of terror; indeed, this fear, this paralyzing nightmare which flickers at the margins of our thoughts, might be what makes our joys of love quite so sweet. Parents know this the best perhaps, but lovers do too. Just like a jealous lover torments himself by thoughts of the times before he met his beloved, of those she loved and left, of a time when he was non-existent in her romantic calculus, we inflict ourselves on the pain of an imagined future that is bereft of those we love. As we walk side by side by those we love, we imagine ourselves alone, unable to share what we see with that pair of eyes which now supplements ours.

There is another reason too, I think, for reactions similar to mine–where we are looking at images of loved ones who still live with us. We have experienced losses in the past; we have spent much time gazing at visual mementos that remind us, again and again, of what we have lost. The act of viewing an image has itself become infected with a particular kind of superstitious threat: to look on too long is to tempt fates, to turn this gazing into all we might have left. And images themselves threaten: this is what your loved ones are reduced to; this is all that shall remain. We might shrink from the act of capturing images, afraid that we are tempting fate; perhaps we should be content with the concrete. And, of course, the present.