THE BLOG
06/24/2013 03:09 pm ET Updated Aug 24, 2013

Here Come the Water-Works: (Un)professional Tears

Not long ago, I cried during a job interview. The panel, of which there were about a dozen members, asked me to characterize my relationship with students outside of the classroom. In a dizzying rush, I felt again the full presence of all of the students who had ever come to me to tell me they were afraid they might be gay or that they had been sexually assaulted, or were struggling with depression, or addiction, and felt they had no where to turn. In an instant, I felt all of these kids crowding into my head with me -- that's the best way I can describe it -- and, overcome by the indomitable challenge of trying to articulate what it they mean to me, I saw the room begin to swim.

The position was for an undergraduate mentor; I didn't get the job.

I've always been a cryer: Easily touched by hokey melodrama, incapable of watching others cry without feeling my eyes fill in sympathy, and just generally unable to read or watch the news without being reduced to tears. But, (isn't this a neat trick?): crying is also my body's preferred biological expression of joy, surprise, frustration, or the inability to process beauty. This is making me sound, I realize, like a tremendous sap.

My whole personality, it now seems to me, was specifically developed to balance out this physiological response over which I had no control. I started smoking cigarettes at the ripe, old age of 12. In college, I donned a kind of punk-rock drag that involved very infrequent hair washing. And then, just in case you might have detected that this cry-baby wasn't cool, I wrote a dissertation on zombies. Boom.

I hoped I would eventually out grow this, but here I am, by any chronological definition, a grown-up, still crying, as my parents used to say, "at the drop of a hat." Embarrassing when it occurs in the aisle of an Ace Hardware when you drop the glass knob you ordered from Prague and waited six weeks for, but a whole different animal in front of your betters.

I've cried in office hours at every point along my academic career and cried hot, hiccoughing sobs before the most respected professors in the field, at UC Berkeley, NYU, and UC Davis. Then, I joined my students as they cried in my office hours. There are some literary texts that I positively cannot read aloud without having my voice crack (Robert Haas's poem "Forty-something" gets me every time, and I have no idea why). I've cried both in leading small discussion classes, and in front of large lecture halls. I've cried tearlessly, voice vibrating in a strained register while giving a conference paper dedicated to my late mentor Marc Blanchard, but, then, everyone understood that.

The deep well of the internet provides medical and psychological explanations, informal blog musings cataloguing taxonomies of tears (http://thoughtcatalog.com/2011/on-crying/), how-to's advising how not to cry, meditations on public crying and literary celebrations of it, like David Sedaris's "Journey into Night."

Of course there are physiological reasons we cry having to do with hormones and proteins. But can we also read the body's symbolism?

For me, crying is a materialization of the experience of "border trouble," by which I mean, frustration with the difference between the self and the outside world:
(1) In the simplest sense, when I cry of a broken heart, it is because I cannot make the outside world match up with my internal desires. I feel the frustration of the difference; my tears manifest in rebellion, crossing the border that separates me from not-me.
(2) Frustration tears often come, I find, from not being able to put into words what it is I want to say; I am feeling too many things and I cannot contain them, or: I stumble upon the insufficiency of language as a means of crossing that divide between myself and the other person I'm talking to.
(3) Most often, I cry when I am in sympathy with someone else (real or fictional), and thus, I attempt to transgress the border of individual being, to feel what they feel.
(4) Similarly, my eyes overflow when, because of the experience of beauty, I feel a surplus, larger than the body I inhabit. (Shut up, like you've never cried in a museum before?)

As a physical expansion in which the self overflows its borders; crying is an act of resistance against the boundaries that cannot be crossed. (Language, what a feeble bridge!) It makes visible the experience of enlargement that we seek in empathy, or that surprises us in the sublime.

Well and good, but last week, I cried in a writing workshop surrounded by the colleagues, peers, and mentors I would most have liked to impress. When the next day, A League of Their Own came on television, I snapped off the set as Tom Hanks was winding up for the "There's no crying in baseball" monologue, saying aloud, "Yeah, I get it, Universe!"

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