The Emotional Neutrality of Tears
We’d now like to return to the question we posed in our opening paragraph: how can happy and sad events both elicit tears? People are puzzled by the question because they automatically equate tears with sadness. In fact, tears are neither happy nor sad; they’re simply manifestations of the shift from arousal to recovery. The labels we attach to them depend entirely on the context in which they occur. For instance, the tears of the Chilean miner’s son would probably be called “tears of relief” or “tears of joy”; by contrast, the tears shed by Cindy Anthony, Caylee’s grandmother, would undoubtedly be considered “tears of grief.” The two situations aren’t as distinct as they appear. In both cases, elevated tension is followed by an event that triggers a biophysical shift. The miner’s son was worried about his father’s welfare, but he was instantly relieved to see his father emerge unharmed from the rescue capsule. In Anthony’s case, we have less information about how the event unfolded. Even if we could have asked her about it at the time, she might not have been able to provide an accurate report about what triggered her tears. This is because people in the midst of a tearful episode are typically too busy having the experience to be able to analyze it. Yet we can surmise that she was under considerable stress talking to the press about her granddaughter’s death. The tears may have been caused by a sympathetic response from the reporter or a momentary image of a happier time with Caylee. In fact, if you want to trigger a parasympathetic shift in clients who’ve suffered a loss, it’s useful to ask them to recall a pleasant or joyful time they spent with the deceased individual. This will elicit tears more regularly than descriptions of the funeral or the circumstances surrounding the person’s death.
Because life events can be difficult to analyze in real time, we’ve found it useful to study the emergence of tears by examining audience reactions to key scenes in various plays and films. Consider the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I. In the final scene, Anna—about to leave Siam because of her disagreements with the king—learns that he’s dying and feels compelled to pay him a last visit. Audience members are saddened that the king is ill and worried that the disputes between him and Anna won’t be resolved. Although these events provoke tension, they don’t elicit tears. When Anna visits the king’s bedside, he first scolds her for abandoning her work with his children, reminding her that she’s leaving the country of her own free will, while he’s “just . . . leaving.”
In the dialogue that follows, Anna and the king subtly acknowledge their admiration and love for each other, and the audience senses that the rift between them is beginning to heal. At a pivotal moment, the king urges his eldest son, the heir to the throne, to begin making royal proclamations to “practice” for his new role as ruler. The boy first decrees that New Year’s is to be celebrated with boat races (he likes boat races). Then, more hesitantly, he decrees that members of the court will no longer bow to the king “in fashion of lowly toad,” but instead will bow from the waist, in the more dignified Western tradition. Thinking that he might have gone too far, the prince turns to his father for reassurance: “You are angry with me, my father?” The king replies, “Why do you ask question? If you are king, you are king. You do not ask questions of sick man—nor of woman! [Pointing a finger at Anna.] This proclamation against bowing I believe to be your fault!” Anna replies, “Oh, I hope so, Your Majesty. I do hope so.” The audience weeps.
The audience isn’t crying simply out of sadness. Tears are always about something specific: an image, thought, or memory that changes the psychological and neurophysiological equation. In this case, tears flow because the king finally acknowledges—before it’s too late—his feelings for Anna and the importance of her contributions to the kingdom.
But it would be misleading to say that these are entirely tears of sadness at the king’s impending death. The emotion, as it so often is in art and life, is more complicated than any simple formulation. Throughout the play, we’ve felt the constant tension between the liberated Victorian Anna, with her Western outlook and modern view of the equality of men and women, and the old-fashioned King, whose good heart is often at odds with his outdated approach to ruling his kingdom. The world is changing, and we feel some relief that the new, more forward-looking young king is more prepared to lead his people into this new age. Our tears flow as we watch Anna and the king share a moment in which, each in their own indirect way, acknowledges what they’ve meant to each other and the depth of their bond. We can leave the theater teary-eyed, finally released from the grip of this touching play, feeling somehow complete and ready to go home.
Jay Efran, Ph.D., is emeritus professor of psychology at Temple University. He’s the coauthor of Language, Structure and Change: Frameworks of Meaning in Psychotherapy and The Tao of Sobriety. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. Mitchell Greene, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Wayne, Pennsylvania. Tell us what you think about this article by e-mail at email@example.com, or at www.psychotherapynetworker.org. Log in and you’ll find the comment section on every page of the online Magazine.