The Malta Independent 23 July 2019, Tuesday

The powerful significance of tears

Monday, 4 March 2019, 08:58 Last update: about 6 months ago

Frequently I enter this store and remain captivated by a big tear I see hanging in front of me. Obviously this tear is artificial. Yet, its expressive character makes me think, reflect, cherish, appreciate, learn and ... in the long run, being transformed as well.

Tears! Opthalmology teaches us that lacrimation or lachrymation (from Latin lacrima, meaning 'tear') is the secretion of tears, a body fluid which often serves to clean and lubricate the eyes in response to an irritation of the same eyes. Thus, tears serve to keep our eyes tidy and healthy. But, as this broad term by itself suggests, there is much and much more to be said regarding tears.


In her article entitled All about emotional tears, Reena Mukamal attempts to answer the question: Why do we cry? According to Mukamal scientists tried to solve this riddle for centuries. In fact, already in 1662, the Danish scientist Niels Stensen observed that tears come from the lacrimal gland. He said that there are three distinct kinds of tears: basal tears, reflex tears and emotional tears. Many scientists hold that emotional tears, that are triggered by strong feelings like joy and sadness, are exclusive to humans. Besides the many research done in the area of crying and that is presently going on we know that emotional tears are brought about by biological, psychological and social factors.

Psychologists say that crying developed from animal vocalizations. Although infants and babies do not have completely developed lacrimal glands that cannot produce visible tears however their cries are audible. This is so in order to call attention for care and help. Even in both childhood and early adoloscence physical pain is a general trigger for emotional tears that is liable to decrease as one grows in age.  

The more we grow up through adulthood the more we come to realise that emotional tears are triggered by a larger cluster of feelings which incorporate physical pain, attachment-related pain, empathic, compassionate pain; societal pain and yes, sentimental or moral feelings too. All in all, in speaking about tears one cannot not appreciated the idea of Charles Darwin when he declared that emotional tears are “purposeless”. In voicing his idea Darwin has triggered a whole learning movement which brought us to recognise how tears facilitate social bonding as well as stimulate helpful behaviour.

For Dr. Lauren Bylsma, from University of Pittsburgh, “the value of crying may be more about the social response it prompts than its physiological effects”. In effect Dr. Bylsma had led many studies on crying and, as a result, she found that people were more likely to feel better after having a cry, provided that they were offered social support during their shedding of tears. She also noticed that tears could lead to a change or also presented to the cryer a new way of comprehending of what was wrong in his and her life. Thus, in this perspective, tears helped the individual to feel better with himself and herself. Contrarily, people who refrained from shedding tears or cried in a non-supportive social environment, such as at work, were less likely to really feel supported after crying.

There is another important and essential aspect of tears, namely the spiritual one. Tears are, first and foremost, a spiritual phenomenon. That is why theology and spirituality speak alot about the gift of tears! In his homily while celebrating Mass on the Aventine, on Ash Wednesday, 18 February 2015, Pope Francis offered a powerful reflection on the importance of tears.

On that occasion he said that tears unravel the real face of humanity which is free from hypocrisy that attempts at absolving these prescriptions “attacked by the corrosion of exterior formalism”, he said, referring to the works of mercy prescribed by Mosaic Law — almsgiving, prayer and fasting — which, over time have become simply “a sign of social superiority”. It is a temptation which exists today, because “hypocrites do not know how to weep, they have forgotten how to weep, they do not ask for the gift of tears”. Hence, the Pope strongly urged, we are all in need of the Lord's mercy and forgiveness. The Lord, he said, is “inviting us to turn to Him with a new heart, purified of evil”, and purified by tears. Pope Francis assured that the best way to accept this invitation is by “letting oneself be reconciled” with the awareness that every “effort to convert is not only the work of mankind”. It is, first and foremost, the work of the Holy Spirit.

If, as Leonardo da Vinci said: “Tears come from the heart and not from the brain” how much does it make sense St. John Paul’s reflection on tears: “It is better to cry than be angry, because anger hurts others while tears flow silently through the soul and cleanse the heart.” And, what is the ultimate result of the heart’s cleansing? Psalm 126 gives us the definitive answer: May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy! (Ps 126:5). Yes! Because tears of sadness, pain, anger and sorrow, by God’s transforming grace, are changed into tears of joy, happiness, forgiveness and, most of all, internal peace!

 Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap

  • don't miss