In my dream, a friend is sobbing into her hands while saying “I’m sorry.” There are several other women there and we gather around her, hold her, and tell her there’s no need to apologize for tears.

I woke up with permission to shed tears, and a question about why my inner wisdom feels I need permission. What am I glossing over? What am I soldiering through? And why?

I don’t cry easily or often, so maybe I’ve forgotten how to read the cues that tears need to be expressed. Perhaps I needed that dream instruction to allow them to well up and flow freely; and the instruction to find comfort and release rather than the tight grip of shame.

Where does the shame come from? Well, let’s look at the history. Parents today have more access to intelligent advice on raising healthy happy children. I just did a quick search about crying children and in seconds came to this post of “10 Things to Say Instead of ‘Stop Crying’” The blogger mentions typical things we might have heard as children: “Don’t be silly.” “Shh, everyone is looking at you.” “Stop that noise, right now!” and the infamous “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!”

Sound familiar? Our parents said what the majority of parents were saying, because that’s what was said to them. It’s what they believed would make us strong and healthy. It doesn’t mean they didn’t love us. That’s important for me to remember as I look at my own experiences, in particular, a moment as a teenager when my mother shamed me for my ‘inappropriate’ display of emotions.

That memory is also a clue as to why my subconscious is giving me permission to cry. There are so many obvious reasons to do so right now in our world, but why this particular moment for me? I let myself notice the patterns of my thoughts, the images that come up, and then, in a receptive way, observe how they might be related. Where are the parallels? This process is entering a space beyond time where things that happened sixty years ago are just as present as something I saw on TV yesterday. For example, one thought thread was from an episode of the Netflix series Borgen : The Danish Prime Minister is having a hard time paying sufficient attention to her kids, and she’s not picking up on the clues that her teenage daughter is suffering. Finally, her daughter breaks down in tears. And that gets her mother’s attention. 

Maybe my dream tears are a way to get my attention, too. Because there’s a lot going on in my life in one sense with my teaching and writing, yet in another, I feel suspended in a vacuum, waiting for a vaccine, waiting for life to regain some of its previous freedom and fluidity. The pandemic has become so much a part of life that I can sometimes forget that it’s a still powerful presence, influencing my thoughts and emotions. Can tears help to illuminate all that is arising? Or am I inclined to shut them down because once begun how would I stop crying?

Even as I think I’m cultivating spaciousness and compassion, making room for my emotions, I can see I’m having trouble making room for what I saw on January 6th and then again in the Senate impeachment hearings with the addition of previously unseen images and unheard voices that shocked me anew. And it shocks me that anyone could look at that and acquit the inciter of it all. Like most of us, I had never considered the possibility of an angry mob of citizens breaking windows and climbing into the Capitol building. Tapping into that timeless field of patterns, I can see layers of similar shocks: watching the World Trade Center towers fall. And further back, when my high school principal came on the loudspeaker to announce that the President had been assassinated. Each of these is a unique horrendous incident, but all were shocking and violated a sense of safety.

I remember a few other bits of the day Kennedy was shot, how school was canceled and I wandered around campus in stunned silence until a friend, Laura S., suggested we go to the military surplus store where we bought ourselves woolen Navy middies to honor our fallen commander-in-chief. Then we went to Grace Cathedral for a huge impromptu evening service, seeking solace.

A few nights later, my parents took another friend, Laurie B., and me to see The Lord of the Flies. The film was so disturbing that on the way home, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, I broke down and sobbed. I realized my world had been a fantasy, believing in the basic goodness of human nature. The film and the assassination told me a very different story. Laurie put her arm around me as we sat in the back seat. My mother turned around, horrified by my sobbing. “What on earth are you crying about?” Laurie said I was upset about the death of the President, surprised that my mother even had to ask. Mom then said, “Stephanie, you didn’t even know him. It’s ridiculous to be so dramatic.”

Okay, in a way she was right. It wasn’t a personal tragedy, not like it was for little Caroline and John. Just as no one I know has died of COVID-19, nor lost their lives on 9/11, nor was terrorized in the Capitol building. But losing JFK and then seeing the brutality of those stranded little boys toward each other, was shocking, a loss of innocence. My worldview was irrevocably altered. And so I cried. And despite my mother’s beliefs at the time, that was good.

Tears may blur our sight, yet give us greater clarity. “Oh, I didn’t realize how upset I was about that situation.” Tears give us the invitation to look more closely, to spend some time asking about our intention and our fears, rather than acting out blindly and unskillfully. [Learn this technique of self-inquiry]

Tears nourish compassion and allow it to blossom into a meaningful exchange with our inner wisdom and with others. And shared tears enrich relationships. Another memory arises as a part of a pattern, with yet another teenage girl, this time my daughter:
A few months after my mother died, my daughter and I confessed to each other that in the weeks following her death, we had each been crying alone at night. During the day we carried on, not letting our grief get in the way of forging ahead with her school or my work, but once the lights were out and our faces landed on our pillows, the release of pent-up sorrow spilled for the loss of someone we loved so dearly.

When I realized we could have been crying together, hugging each other, and telling favorite stories, I regretted that I hadn’t made room for a shared expression of grief. The family tradition of keeping such emotions in check ran deep. We didn’t seem to have any problem with expressing anger or other strong emotions, just this sorrow that seemed to demand privacy as if it were shameful.

But every moment is a personal pivotal point of power. So, at this moment I choose to free my tears. And I invite to do so as well if that invitation speaks to you. May our tears be of benefit to ourselves and all beings.

I loved the above image taken by AnnaER from Pixabay, but I have no information about it. If you do, let me know. I don’t want to appropriate the art of a culture, even when it has a seemingly universal message that tears are sacred.

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