My neighbor’s son paced in her backyard this morning, talking on the phone and weeping. It turns out his mother died in her sleep last night. He mentioned that she was scheduled for a knee replacement, as if to make the observation that death is no respecter of a person’s plans or appointments.
It’s become a regular diversion of mine to visit the Goodreads website and read quotes topic by topic. Love quotes. Friendship quotes. Adventure quotes. The most popular quote on the site, with 128,678 likes, comes to us from Dr. Seuss. “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”
Don’t get me wrong. Seuss was a genius, but these words are flawed. They’d likely do little to sooth my neighbor’s son right now. And I take issue anytime someone says, “Don’t cry.”
Cry Because It’s Over
We often act like tears are silly or selfish—and they can be, but they can also be life-affirming. I believe in the soul, in part, because of tears. There are evolutionary reasons for tears—like washing out debris from around the eyes—but humans are the only creatures that cry due to grief. I think it’s possible we cry tears of grief as a way of washing out debris from around our souls.
Have you lost someone? Cry. Are you having a really rough day? Cry. The smile will stretch back across your face in time, but sometimes in order for this to genuinely happen, you have to allow the tears pool in your eyelids and draw hot lines down your cheeks.
One of the best things you can do with heartache of any sort is to allow yourself to feel it. However, there seems to be a prevailing movement of positive thinking in the Church—sometimes it looks a lot like happiness worship—and it’s leaving less and less room in its theology for tears.
But even Jesus wept. When He saw Lazarus’ tomb and Mary and Martha’s tears, He stopped and allowed Himself to grieve. Often, we, like Jesus, cry because we feel deeply that “this is not the way things are meant to be.” Sadness, far from being a mark of not having enough “joy in the Spirit,” is a reminder that this world is not our home. One day every tear will be wiped from our eyes, but right now, we have a Savior who understands our pain.
Solomon tells us that there is a time to mourn, and if that’s true then it follows that there is a time not to be happy, a time to wipe the smiles from our faces. You see, sometimes happiness is a lie and sadness is the truth.
The Honest Teachings of Loss
One of the most powerful experiences in this life is the experience of loss: the loss of a job, the loss of a relationship, the loss of a loved one. Almost a year ago, I was in France and received news that a close family friend had passed away back home. The grief I experienced was a lot like joy, at least at the start. What I mean is, the tears started in my stomach much in the same way laughter does. It formed in my belly like something carbonated and moved through my chest like a parade. But once the grief reached my throat, it caught, almost choking me, and then it spread behind my face and started stinging my eyes. I sat in my camper in the middle of a field in France and put my face in my hands and cried, washing out debris from around my soul.
Like most people, I really do not like crying, but I have come to realize that the deep pain I feel when I experience loss is the kind of soul-sickness that reminds me I’m more than a body; I’m a soul.
“Blessed are those who mourn.” This truth seems to be missing in certain Sunday morning positive thinking tutorials. It’s as if we’ve come to believe that a smile is definitive proof of what we believe, but a smile doesn’t mean that your faith is any more real or alive than the faith of someone in tears. Cults smile; crazy people smile; evil people smile. The world doesn’t want to know what makes you smile as much as it wants to know what makes you cry. What brings you to tears is far more telling.
Joy Comes in the Morning
You see, loss keeps us honest, because loss won’t allow us to get too comfortable with him. He’s called us up and said, “I’m on my way, but I’m not sure when I’ll be getting in. Depends on the traffic.” And so we go on with our lives, until one day his car pulls up in our driveway and we find ourselves utterly shocked, as if we had forgotten that he even existed. These are the moments tears were made for. The medicine, at least at the start, is that salty bead rolling down your face.
Sorry Pharrell, happiness isn’t the truth. The poets and prophets, with their bleeding hearts, were onto something. Cry because it’s over. Wail. Tear your clothes. Spread the ashes over your head. Mourn. Allow yourself to experience the full range of emotions that accompany heartache and loss, but don’t be indulgent. Drink the moment in, but don’t become intoxicated by it. Get the tears out of your body. If you don’t they’re likely to turn into something terrible, like depression or hate.
Ordinarily, I’d never deign to edit Dr. Seuss, but in my opinion, the quote should read, “Cry because it’s over, then smile because it happened.” Weeping may last the night, but the sun will rise and some fine morning joy will rise with it.
Sean Bess is a freelance writer living in Birmingham. He blogs at seanbess.tumblr.com. You can also find him on Twitter (@SeanBess).