Image by Mark Lore

I have a confession to make.

Well, I’m not sure if I should call it a confession. It feels like a confession, but I suppose I’m not really guilty of anything. Certainly not a crime.

It’s something else. I’m a crybaby. Always have been. Likely always will be. A pretty big one, too.

Once, in the second grade, during math class, we were having head-to-head races to see who could finish algebra problems the fastest. I was the smart kid who everyone expected to win, so the pressure was on. All of a sudden, in the mad dash to the finish, I screwed up. The chalk scribbles got too messy, I got confused, and before I could sort out the mess, it was over. I lost.

When I got back to my desk, I cried.

I knew it wasn’t the end of the world. I knew everyone made mistakes. I knew it was just for fun anyway. But I couldn’t help but care. It might not have mattered to everyone else, but it mattered to me.

Losing stung. And, though I tried with all my might to hold them back, it brought tears to my eyes. I definitely didn’t need to add the embarrassment of being a crybaby to the shame of losing the math race, but a few tears still streamed down my face before I could wipe them away.

Growing up, my father never understood why I cried so much. Tears didn’t make sense to him. He didn’t cry. Didn’t believe in it. Not because he thought it was unmanly, but because he thought tears didn’t help anything and were therefore irrational.

Whenever I got a bad splinter or fell off my bike, he would always ask, “Why are you crying?” And then helpfully add, “Tears aren’t going to make it better.”

Deep down, I always suspected they did.

Every time the words came out of his mouth I wondered if he could remember the last time he cried. Perhaps he had simply forgotten how much better tears make you feel. Maybe he never knew.

How do we manage to raise men who don’t know crying can make it better?

It wasn’t until much later in life that I learned about the scientific benefits of crying. Crying is calming. When we cry, our heart rate lowers and our breathing slows. Our body releases hormones that help increase feelings of pleasure and reduce feelings of pain. Plus, tears literally contain stress hormones. You cry away the cortisol.

Despite his proclaimed rationality, my dad never did his research on tears.

But even though I didn’t know the science then, it still seemed obvious to me that he was missing the point.

I never intentionally cried because I thought it would help. No one ever thinks, gosh darn, that hurts, I should really release some water from my eyes to make it feel better. I cried because I felt like crying. Because I needed to cry. Because no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t hold back the tears.

Looking back, I’m thankful I never did become “rational” or “manly” enough to stop myself from crying.

I do wish I wasn’t still embarrassed by it, though. Because the more and more I think about it, the less embarrassing it seems.

To this day I can still cry at the drop of a hat. If I read something heartbreaking in the news. If I worry too much about my sister who is in poor health. If I think too long about the brevity of life.

It’s especially hard not to cry when I’m talking to someone about something I care about deeply. Lately I’ve been making a point of having these sorts of conversations more often, so the tears have been flowing.

I cried a few weeks ago when talking with my mentor about how best to provide me feedback. A month or two ago I cried over drinks with a friend when talking about changing people’s minds. Earlier this year I cried when my boss told me she was moving on. Tears started to well up when I sat across from my new boss and told him about my career aspirations. While on the phone with a friend I cried while talking about my fear of how incredibly easy it is to wait to be told you’re dying to finally start living. I got tearful while giving a speech at my best friend’s wedding about how he finally found the love he deserves. I still cry almost every time I talk to anyone about my experiences with living with bipolar disorder.

Though I never bought into the idea that crying didn’t help or was unmanly, the idea that I should be ashamed of how readily tears come to eyes did sink in. I’m only now realizing that perhaps I should fight my urge to hide my sensitivity — to look away, wipe away, disappear my tears.

Perhaps instead I should be proud of my tears. Treat them as proof that I’m mindful, present and paying attention. Proof that I feel as fully as I can, for myself and for others. Proof that the finality of each moment isn’t lost on me. Proof of an appreciation for the fleeting nature of our existence. Proof that I’m trying to be as honest and vulnerable as I can. Proof that I seek out moments that make me feel uncomfortable and force me to reveal more of myself than I have in the past. Proof that I’m not numb. Proof that I still care. Proof that my eyes are open and my heart is beating. Proof that I’m alive. Proof that I’m here.

Because of how society treats crying, it’s easy to get the impression that — all else being equal — a life with more tears is a worse one.

But I’m starting to believe that the opposite might be true. That a life without tears might be a lot more painful and a lot less meaningful.

Growing up, I always thought it was strange that my father never cried because he was so obviously in pain. I would watch him yell and scream, but never cry.

It never made sense to me because, unlike tears, the anger and aggression only made things worse, only made life harder, only tore things apart.

I would watch him and think he’s got that so backwards. If only he cried more, I bet he would yell less. If only he allowed himself to feel the pain more fully, maybe he wouldn’t need such a destructive outlet. If only he knew crying could make it better.

My entire life I’ve been embarrassed by the fact that I couldn’t hold back my tears. I was just as embarrassed the last time I cried in front of someone as I was in that second-grade math class. Though I always suspected a life without tears was worse, I still thought of them as a weakness.

Now I know it’s my strength. I cry a lot because I am emotionally intelligent, self-aware and believe that it is only in life’s most vulnerable moments that true connection and understanding are possible.

Since I started embracing moments that make me cry, I’ve formed deeper connections with people I care about. I’ve been able to be more honest with others and with myself.

I think the next step is to start crying more bravely. Not holding back, looking down and wiping away. But instead allowing the tears to flow freely, looking ahead, refusing to hide.

Because in truth, there is nothing to hide. Nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing to confess.

I’m a big crybaby. And life’s better that way.

I encourage you to try it sometime.

Steele

I’m not going to cry if you don’t subscribe to my weekly newsletter, but it would sure make me happy if you did. You can do so here.

I write about living a better life and making a better world.

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