“Crying makes us feel better, even when a problem persists.”
— Judith Orloff, M.D.
“Jesus wept” (Jn 11.35). It’s the shortest verse in the Bible, as every junior high kid who’s ever been near a Sunday school or youth group can tell you.
Of course, it’s only the “shortest verse” in English translation, but let us not dither about such piddling details. The point is its brevity and reputation make it the Mother of All Memory Verses, and that has implications. As Christians, we’re literally “little Christs,” right? We’re obliged to imitate him as much as possible — to even become him in the Body of Christ, in carrying our crosses and serving others, and especially in receiving the Eucharist. So, if Jesus wept (as everyone knows), so we ought to weep. He even hammers this idea home in the Sermon on the Plain. “Blessed are you that weep now,” he tells the crowd, “for you shall laugh” (Lk 6.21).
Note the cause and effect here. It would’ve been especially important to the original audience. As Luke reports, that crowd on the plain included many who’d come “to be healed of their diseases” and unclean spirits. They had plenty to cry about, and Jesus not only gave them leave to do so, but also indicated that the tears themselves were part of the healing process.
And to the surprise of no one who’s ever enjoyed a good cry, science bears out Jesus’ prescription. “Emotional tears have special health benefits,” writes Judith Orloff in Psychology Today, because they “contain stress hormones which get excreted from the body through crying.” Orloff further notes that crying also seems to stimulate “the production of endorphins, our body’s natural pain killer and ‘feel-good’ hormones.” Recall that the famous “Jesus wept” verse occurs in the context of Jesus finding out about the death of Lazarus, his good friend. It was stressful; it was painful; it was just the kind of situation that calls for a shot of endorphins. Our incarnate savior benefited from his tears just like we do.
Yet we tend to get fidgety in the presence of weeping — both with others and our own. My kids and my students make fun of me because I’m so easily moved to tears. If I read a stirring Gospel passage before class? Snuffles. Recite the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V for my son on his namesake’s feast day? Sobs. Heck, I even cried during Ice Age IV, if you can believe that – Ice Age IV! If you’ve seen it, you probably know the dad-daughter scene that got me going. My kids certainly picked up on it in the theater when we went to see it together. They all looked away from the screen and stared at me in anticipation of the flood.
They weren’t disappointed.
Let ‘em stare, I say. We should all cry more, not less. There’s lots to cry about in the world these days, not to mention all the terrible and terrifying challenges we might personally face. But only trained thespians can conjure up tears on cue, and Ice Age IV will only do the trick for softies like me.
So here’s a surefire lacrimal remedy for you: Nine-year old Amira Willighagen’s performance of “O Mio Babbino Caro” on Holland’s Got Talent. Not long ago I was sitting at our home computer with 11-year-old Katharine by my side. We were searching for a particular musical video she wanted to show me, and Willighagen’s showed up in the sidebar — 34 million views! I shrugged, clicked on it, and said, “Let’s check this out.”
The set-up draws you in immediately. Young Amira walks confidently to the center of the stage and takes questions from the three judges. They’re impressed by her youthful fearlessness, which is only confirmed when she tells them that she’s there to sing an operatic number.
“O Mio Babbino Caro” is an aria from an opera by Puccini, but I wouldn’t have known that at the time – and it didn’t matter at all. Nor did it matter that the sub-titles, which had been providing English translations of the Dutch preliminaries, disappeared when Amira started singing in Italian. In fact, I think that my ignorance of what the girl was singing about only added to my emotional response.
And that response was a strong one. Almost from the very first note, my eyes welled up. The absolute purity of her voice and her gentle gesticulations in accord with the flow of Italian lyrics were mesmerizing. Astounding. It’s disarming to witness such a coupling of sheer innocence and profound artistic depth. “You can’t believe this,” one of the judges comments. “It’s not normal.” Look at his colleagues and the audience behind him, mouths agape, eyes wide.
Within seconds, I was a mess of heaving tears. Just like at Ice Age IV, my daughter leaned in and looked at my face. “Why are you crying?” she asked.
I couldn’t explain. I still can’t. Maybe it has something to do with the thought that this young girl is already feeling something that most of don’t feel until much later into our rattling lives. “An old soul,” that same judge remarks of Amira’s amazing performance. I prefer the language of grace – like, “She’s touched by grace.” And grace means suffering; grace means the cross. Why should this 9-year-old be so primed to endure so much?
But maybe it’s just my own pain. Whatever it is, I have the same reaction every time I watch Amira surrender herself to that aria. It’s a gift. It’s a balm. Try it. You just might find the release you’re seeking.