Frederick Buechner wrote:
You never know what may cause tears. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you’ve never seen before. You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not… God is speaking to you through them—of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you, to where you should go to next.
Do you cry easily and often? Or do you struggle to cry?
What do our tears mean?
According to Michael Trimble, British professor at the Institute of Neurology in London, and author of Why Humans Like to Cry, tears are necessary to keep the eyeball moist, and contain proteins and other substances which maintain the eye healthy and to combat infection. Trimble writes: “Humans cry for many reasons, but crying for emotional reasons and crying in response to aesthetic experiences are unique to us.” He goes on to say that tears of joy or sorrow, in other words, the tears that are highly emotional, tell us a lot about ourselves. Emotional crying can help us highlight what’s important and what we need to focus on, says Dr. Lauren Bylsma, at the University of Pittsburgh, someone who has conducted various studies about tears and crying.
I’m sure you probably already knew that there are different types of tears. According to Dr. Bylsma and her co-author Ad J.J.M. Vingerhoets, of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, the first type of tears is basal tears. Basically, we cry to lubricate, nourish, and protect our eyes. This can happen involuntarily, of course. The second type of tears is reflex tears. You cut an onion or if you are allergic to things like smoke, pollen, or ragweed, and well, you tear up. Lastly, the third tear type: the tears that we shed after fighting with someone close to us, getting treated badly, empathizing with someone who is suffering, or crying for help. These are emotional tears.
Truthfully, researchers haven’t quite figured out why we cry. They have theories, of course. Some scientists, according to Vassar psychologist Randy Cornelius, say that emotional tears were [and are] ways to signal distress without making noise. You can make others know you are vulnerable by crying, even if you cannot speak a word. Thus, over time, according Dr. Bylsma, humans have developed a purpose for emotional tears, which is to signal that there is a problem or to ask for comfort or support from another.
And the research shows that crying can be valuable in a cathartic way. If someone cries in a social situation in which the people are accepting, that person is more likely to feel better after crying. In fact, we will feel better than other social situations in which we held back tears, because we felt unsafe, in danger, or embarrassed. Furthermore, other researchers suggest that emotional tears contain stress hormones that the body can physically push out while we are crying, therefore making us feel calmer. And finally, the difference between happy and sad tears is not very big. Dr. Bylsma states that after crying the body returns to “a state of homeostasis after being aroused—whether positively or negatively.”
I’m fascinated by this. I myself do not cry a lot, but when I do, I can say that the majority of the time I feel better afterwards. And, I can also say that if I cry with people who care about me and accept me, the feeling is not unlike euphoria. So what of the crying woman in Luke’s story?
It all took place in Simon the Pharisee’s house, which should tell us something. The Pharisees were mostly in opposition to Jesus of Nazareth’s teaching, and were certainly not happy with Jesus hanging out with the so-called unclean, marginalized, and sinful. Keep in mind, though, that we cannot make the Pharisees out to be the “bad people” because many times in the Gospel stories, the readers [you and I] are supposed to put ourselves in their shoes. Anyway, the story is not about Pharisees as much as it is about a brave woman who was already shunned and who came into the house [she was completely unwelcome] and brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She came from the city, but it is not said that she was a prostitute, as some interpreters say. Clearly, though, in the eyes of Simon, she was a category and not a person. She stood behind Jesus crying her eyes out, and then she covered his feet with tears and tried to dry them with her hair. She then kissed his feet and anointed him with the ointment. Of course, the host Pharisee mumbled under his breath: If this guy really were a prophet, he would have known what kind of woman this is. She’s a sinner.
Jesus then addressed Simon by name and told him a parable. That was, after all, the purpose of such a meeting at the house—debate and discussion. The parable of the two debtors is pretty clear. Both people owed a lot to a money lender; both were forgiven. Who would be more grateful? Logically, the one who owed the most. Simon got it. Would he get that this woman was a human being, capable of love and not just a category?
Once again, in Luke, Jesus turned. Big deal! He turned toward the woman. Then, he said to Simon: do you SEE her? Yes, that’s the climax, folks. Her tears, her love, her expression of sorrow, were all accepted and embraced. She showed hospitality. She had no more debt. She was forgiven. And her tears told that story. What do you think?
Teaser for next week: Luke 8:26-39: what binds you? In other words, what are the things that keep you from being your whole self? What would it feel like to be unbound, free?
 Originally published in Whistling in the Dark and later in Beyond Words