(RNS) — Early in seminary, I had a startling realization: I hadn’t cried in years. While this isn’t particularly unusual — sadly, it’s all too normative — it struck me as serious deficiency for an aspiring clergyperson. I felt that I was missing out on a core part of what it meant to be human. I worried that this failing would hinder my ability to provide meaningful care.
So I adopted crying as a daily spiritual practice, spending a few minutes of each day in tears. It did help me offer better pastoral care as I had hoped, but it was more than that. I had been unprepared for how intentional weeping would recalibrate my entire emotional baseline and kick off a decade of frequent tears that changed how I relate to other people and the world.
At the beginning of this spiritual experiment, I was so divorced from my feelings that I had to engage extreme stimuli to provoke tears. I would imagine my parents dying and what I would say to them on their deathbeds. I watched videos of refugees who had fled their homelands talking about the lives they had abandoned and their fragile hope for the future. If I sat in that overwhelming emotion for long enough, my eyes would swell and I could give myself over to weeping.
But over several months, my threshold dropped. It became easier and easier to make tears come. Soon, all I needed to do was watch a video of a dog being reunited with its owner or sit through a particularly tender moment in church and I’d find tears running down my cheeks.
Eventually, I gave up the intentional daily practice altogether, as I now cried several times a week without any deliberate effort. After a relatively brief period of time, I was just someone who cried easily.
Ever since, I’ve been fascinated by the relationship between tears and underlying emotional temperament — and the power crying has to not only disrupt our own spiritual calcification but to prophetically disrupt the world.
Our religious texts are filled with crying. Before he confronts his brothers, Joseph flees the room to find a place to weep. The Prophet Muhammad cries at the bedside of his son Ibrahim as he lies dying. Arjuna is desolate and sobbing at the opening of Bhagavad Gita, before Krishna makes meaning of his tears. Jesus famously weeps beside Lazarus’ body, before the first resurrection takes place. Again and again, a pattern arises: Tears precede moments of great transformation.
Research suggests this isn’t incidental: The act of crying may change underlying brain chemistry. I recently spoke with William H. Frey, author of the 1985 book ” Crying: The Mystery of Tears,” and perhaps the world’s foremost expert on the physiology of crying. Frey has collected tears from people as they cried at sad movies, and compared their chemical composition to tears from the same subjects brought on by an onion being pulverized in an open blender.
“What we found,” Frey said, is that “emotional tears really are different from other kinds of tears. They are not only unique to humans, they are a unique kind of tear.”
Frey and his researchers found that tears of emotion contain reliably and significantly higher levels of adrenocorticotropic hormone, a neurotransmitter released in response to stress, as well as elevated levels of endorphins.
Frey hypothesized that these proteins were not merely a byproduct of tears, but that tears allow the body to reduce the levels of cortisol in the brain. Put simply, he said: “Emotional crying alleviates stress. And one of the things we know is that unalleviated emotional stress can damage the brain.”