I’m a real waterworks. It doesn’t take much for me to well up and this condition only seems to deepen the older I get. Maybe it’s because I spent so much of my life trying not to cry, to be a real man and buck up. Or, maybe it’s something else.
Television commercials often make me weepy. Disney movies have me swallowing little sobs. I’ve been moved by art, inexplicably and unexpectedly tearing up when I first saw the sculpture Winged Victory of Samothrace in the Louvre (above).
The choir in my old church moved me. Heartfelt performances on American Idol get me going. It’s stirring to watch anyone accomplished do what they do. Aretha Franklin, one of our greatest national treasures, delivered a performance at last year’s Kennedy Center Honors that made our Commander in Chief cry. Watch the recording of Franklin’s performance on YouTube. It’s clear you are witnessing someone whose gifts are godlike. When she rises from the piano and drops her mink you see her shedding the pain and restraints of being human. It’s liberating, humbling and uplifting.
Of course there are times when crying really is unacceptable. For example, if I were to start blubbering when things got tough at work or some task frustrated me, that would not be cool and no doubt some grim-faced men in dark suits would come to revoke my man card. Similarly, if I sobbed after stubbing my toe, catching a finger in a door or blocking a slap shot in hockey and anyone saw me I’d likely never live it down.
There’s a great scene in The Counselor, an otherwise abhorrently violent movie, when the lead character thinks his greed has led to the murder of his lovely girlfriend. When the realization hits, every orifice in his face seems to open in geysers of grief. It’s the best expression of unfathomable anguish and regret I’ve ever seen.
I think the cause of my weepy outbursts has something to do with my need to belong. I have read that a person’s greatest need, beyond the basic necessities of life, is to belong. Most people, when asked, would guess that our greatest need is to be loved, but psychologists and other experts say that it’s to belong. I’ve also read that the happiest people are those that have a sense of belonging, whether it’s a club, church, team or any other group.
I love showing up to play hockey because when I go into the dressing room everyone cheers. We do it for everyone. I started paying attention and when the cheer goes up not one guy can help smiling like we all just paid his bar tab.
One of my favorite columnists, David Brooks, recently wrote about the loss of community in our society and how it’s fragmented people into separate camps. I’m not old enough to track this, but he says people used to be more engaged in their communities and draw their identity and meaning from their participation in that community. Nowadays, there’s a culture of autonomy in which the individual is celebrated. Good for individuals maybe, but bad for neighborhoods and national cohesion.
All of us, I’m sure, have been victim to the loss of civility when individuals behave in a completely selfish manner. What happened to the social contract? What happened to being decent? “You know we’re living in a society!” screams George Costanza.
The problem with a contract is it’s easily broken if there’s nothing binding in it. Brooks says what we’re missing is the kind of covenant born from love—love of society. Love of people. For example, the kind of love that compels a highly skilled and creative person to choose to teach—a low-paying and often thankless vocation—when they could make easier and better money doing something else.
It’s the kind of selfless act that makes me well up.
I cry because witnessing greatness and selflessness includes me in the family of humanity at its best. It makes me part of a greater whole. It’s like a halo effect where the greatness or goodness of one human includes me in the aura. The tears are a recognition of my inability to express what I’m feeling in any other way. Words are useless in the face of comprehension that you are not an island, that you are useless alone. Your only real worth is how you relate to others, how much you give and what you can do to make the world a more beautiful place for other people. It’s a tough truth I resist at every opportunity.
Sometimes the reminder comes from unexpected places, such as this television commercial for a Thai life insurance company, of all things. Click on the image below and, unless your heart is made of stone, you will know exactly where I’m coming from.