I promised a post about why I do not think crying makes one weak in all cases (see the discussion here), and I said I would write this post before the end of May. Of course that deadline has now passed, but I was having a hard time remembering what I thought about crying because I was feeling unusually happy for a stretch. But now my work-related productivity has slowed a little and I remember the other kinds of feelings that are not related to happiness.
To begin with I want to be clear that I think there are several varieties of crying, and some of these might indeed be an expression of weakness. I do not think this means that all kinds of crying are weak, however. Nor does it mean that forms of crying that do express weakness are only expressing weakness; emotions can express more than one thing at a time, I believe. I have cried out of weakness, and this happens when I am crying out of frustration, because I feel helpless, overwhelmed, or sometimes for no reason that I can discern. But even in those moments there is sometimes some strength in crying because through tears I can ask for help and you have to be brave to ask for help. You have to be willing to make yourself vulnerable to someone else, and that takes a lot of courage. There are also many other times when I have cried and it has not been from weakness, and has not involved an admixture of weakness at all.
A friend and I were talking last night, and I was recalling when I was staying with another friend who had cancer at the time. She also had two small children; one was less than a year old and the other was six. My friend, her husband and I were all in our early twenties, with all the insecurity that comes along with that age. We did not have very stable jobs, and none of the jobs had medical benefits. Her cancer meant that she could not continue to work as a waitress and her husband had to take on two extra jobs to make ends meet. As one would expect, there was a lot of stress and a whirlwind of emotions swirling around her house during her cancer treatment. I went over as often as I could to help her out with the kids and the housekeeping, but also because I love her and enjoy her company tremendously. I was working about two days a week in a hospital, and the other job I had allowed me to work from home. So I spent over half my time at her house.
During this time I absorbed a lot of the worry, fear and sadness from my friend and her children. My friend is wonderful in part because she is has the most positive and joyous attitude of anyone I have ever met. The two of us worked quite hard to keep her home happy, but nevertheless, I would take in a lot from my friend while we talked after her kids went to bed. I tried to listen and be there for her as much as I could, which meant not letting my negative emotions out too much to her while at the same time not totally disconnecting from her and trying to give her some of my happiness when I could. But when I went home at the end of the week, I would often collapse and spend hours crying out everything I had taken in. I was lucky because I had two wonderful roommates at the time who would take in some of my pain. They let me cry it out and did not try to make things better, they just let them be. This crying was not from weakness. I would not have been able to stay at my friend’s house if I had not had a place where I could cry and gather my strength. In this case crying was my strength. Crying let me do what needed to be done in a situation that was difficult and beyond anyone’s ability to control. If I could not cry I would have left. Crying allowed me to stay, and it was important that I stayed.
Another instance in which crying gave me strength was when I worked in a children’s hospital in the ethics department. I think ethics work is valuable, but it is also hard because you tend to see a select sample of the more difficult cases. Cases do not come to the ethics office unless there has been a moral breakdown that is serious enough that the health care staff and patients cannot work it out together. During this time, day after day, I would see families whose babies were dying (even thinking about it now makes a wave of sorrow rush through my lungs, which caves in my chest with a deep sob). I don’t think I could have continued to do this work if I were not allowed space to cry. I don’t think it is possible to see that much pain if you do not have a place to let the pain move through you, and people to help you move the pain along. I think that when people don’t have others to help them move through deep emotions they might instead turn to alcohol or drugs. Unlike alcohol and drugs, however, crying (especially with others) actually improves the situation. Alcohol and drugs merely mask the pain for a while, but it later returns.
I had a friend who was depressed and suicidal, and so I went to stay with her for a while. Her pain was vast and deep, and it shook me while I was with her. She had stopped eating and was trying to leave this world both slowly and quickly. While I was with her I tried to give her what positive feelings that I could and take in the negative emotions that she could give me. Again, this is an instance where I don’t think I could have done this if I did not also have the ability, space, and friends with whom I could let out the sorrow I had taken in.
Finally, I don’t think I could study ethics if I could not cry. When I think about ethics I tend to move between two modes. In one I try to put into words what I feel in the other. For me there is no study more captivating than ethics, which examines questions about how we should live together and how we should treat one another. These are questions that I feel about. But as a philosopher they are questions that I have to write about. Sometimes the questions hurt, because people are often not good to one another. As I wrote before
I think often crying is the only appropriate response to the things that go on in the world. We kill each other. We rape each other. We exploit each other. We oppress each other. We dismiss each other. We ignore each other’s pain. We pretend the other does not have authority to talk about their own experiences. These are horrible things. Mostly, we don’t feel much when we do these things. But we should. I think too few of us cry about these things that clearly demand a response. And not just a cold, dispassionate, reasoned response, but a visceral, emotional response.
I don’t think it is enough to just cry, however. We also need to be able to explain to each other why we are feeling the things that we do, but the explanation is better when it can also be felt. I see no reason to try to remove the part of me that feels, and part of feeling is crying.
I think this is what feminists mean when they talk about emotion-work or emotional labour. There is a skill to being able to feel with others and to interpret what others are feeling. There is a skill to being able to feel with yourself and to move through your emotions. I think the skills involved in emotional labour are often undervalued, and are often not even noticed by those who have not developed much emotional skill. I think emotional labour can either be invisible, or it can seem mysterious. It is not mysterious, although it is a skill and the skill can remain untrained.
One of the things that I think is interesting about emotions is the way that we can pass them to one another. We can make one another resonate emotionally in similar ways to how we are resonating. I think this kind of body-talk is amazing and mesmerizing. We can feel each other when we pay attention. But it takes a lot of attention. I also think that emotional labour requires others and this part is too often lacking because Western society is so busy being busy whereas emotional work takes time.
This TED talk “Embrace your inner girl” by Eve Ensler does a fairly good job of talking about the ways in which feeling is powerful rather than weak.
I don’t agree with everything that Ensler says, but beginning around 15:40 of the video she does a poem “I am an emotional creature” that resonates with me. I think crying is valuable and can be strong because crying is part of feeling. It is part of how I understand other people and things around me, and I cannot imagine wishing I could control my feelings out of my life.
I think I am fairly skilled at emotional labour, or at least I have heard things from friends that suggest this to me. I think this is why my parents used to call me Bakka. It was not simply because I cried a lot, but because of the particular way in which I cried. I think I am also fairly skilled at spreading good feelings when I have them. I have had people sit beside me on the streetcar and tell me that I looked so happy that they wanted to be near me. Of course, I am not perfect at it and sometimes I mistake what others are feeling and think they need something they do not. This happens most often when my own emotions are strong and not well-aligned with what the other person might be expressing. In these cases I think it is great that we have language and so can talk about where the misunderstanding lies.
Update January 2013: There is a really great post about crying that does not consider crying to be “weak” at Anishinaabewiziwin “Everyday Cry: Feeling Through Ogitchidaakwe’s Hunger Strike” by Waaseyaa’sin Christine Sy. I think everyone should read it. It moved me to tears.
 Despite Canada’s free health care system, there are still a number of costs associated with illness. For example, medication that is taken within a hospital is free, but medication taken at home costs the patient in many provinces. There are a number of drugs associated with cancer treatment that are used to control the side-effects of chemotherapy, and these are taken at home. Therefore, they are not covered unless you have medical benefits.
 I find the beginning of the video somewhat problematic. For example, she makes it sound as though the oppression of our emotional lives was something intentional by some conspiracy-like thing called the patriarchy, and this is not the way that I think these things operate. But she is an author and not a philosopher, so I think it is to be expected that her poem would be better than her theorizing about that poem.