Happy Crying

We cry when we're sad, and we cry when we're happy. It's weird. I have a new theory of happy crying.


When we cry because we're sad our feelings can often be expressed as, "I can't believe this is happening!" in a bad way. When we cry because we're happy our feelings can often be expressed as, "I can't believe this is happening!" in a good way. There's a connection here.

In my theory of grief I've pointed out that mourning is the process of our good expectations of the future being dissolved, and our new more realistic set of expectations being built. This is intense. There is no way around the process of grief. You can put it off by deceiving yourself, but that's just putting it off, you can't truly escape it. At some point you have to readjust your expectations.

When you've lost a good thing, such as in the death of a loved one, you have a feeling of loss. You had good expectations, usually subconsciously, and now those aren't going to happen, or didn't happen. It's whenever you make this realization that grief and mourning happen.

Happy crying is very similar. It's also an adjustment to your false expectations, with one major change. Instead of losing good expectations, you lose bad expectations or gain good expectations.

Let's take some general examples.

There's a kid that is doing well at football. He's doing well in school. People like him. Everything seems great. He has a great future. It's wide open. He will probably go to college, travel, have adventures, go to parties, have a family, have a good job, maybe even do some great art, who knows, whatever it is it's going to be wonderful. You're watching from the stands at one of his games. He makes a hard tackle and then lays on the field, not moving. The players all kneel. They hall him off, everyone is worried about him, but no one really knows what's happening. They take him off in the ambulance. A couple of days later you here that he's paralyzed from the neck down. He'll never walk again. He won't be playing anymore sports, or dancing, or traveling and hiking, or going to those parties with friends, he won't have a family, he probably won't find that good job, and he won't make great art. So much has been lost in one moment. How many people need to grieve this loss? How many people will mourn for his positive future that was taken away? Himself, his family, his friends, his teachers, his coaches, the friends of his family. It's devasting to an entire community.

This loss is more intense for some than others. And the speed at which they will be able to go through the process of mourning is individual, but there is no way around it. Some people will try to deceive themselves, and they will have major emotional issues for the longest time. Some people never accept the loss and go through an odd and distorted grieving process for the rest of their lives, because they aren't willing to confront reality. This is the harsh process of loss, and from whence our crying comes. False expectations dashed upon the rocks of the cruel world.

This probably makes sense to most people. A feeling of loss. A loss of what? Expected values in the future. Now, for the more perplexing phenomenon of happy crying.

There's a kid that was born with a deformed foot. He's gone through many surgeries, starting when he was just a baby. He can walk, but he still has a bit of an odd gate. The family has worried about him and always made sure that he was around a good group of supporting people. No one ever said he couldn't try sports, but no one ever expected him to want to try sports. This year though he begged his parents to let him join the baseball team. Kid's teams aren't that good in general, but still. He really wants to do it, so the parents finally consent. He joins the team, and seems to be fairly happy with it. He struggles a little bit, which is to be expected. Then, it's time for their first game. Late in the game the team is getting clobbered. So this kid gets a chance to get up to bat. He misses the first ball. Fouls off the second ball. Then hits the next pitch down the third base line and takes off running towards first with his funny gate. The throw is close, but he's safe. The crippled kid just made a base hit in his first ever baseball game. His mom is crying in the stands. Maybe even you are crying. Why?

You weren't expecting that kid to play baseball. You weren't expecting him to get a chance to bat. You weren't expecting him to get a hit. And you definitely weren't expecting him to outrun a throw to first base. This changes things. Not only were these expectations wrong, maybe more of your expectations are wrong. Maybe instead of being teased in high school he'll be accepted. Maybe instead of just trying to stay out of other people's way he'll be a leader. Maybe he has the inner resources to overcome his external limitations. Maybe they will push him to be more, maybe he practices harder, studies harder, wants more, and maybe he can get it. If he can do this who knows what could happen. Maybe he'll go to a great college, maybe he'll be a great artist, maybe he'll be a CEO, or lead a great reformation of society. It changes the entire outlook for him, for his family, for his community, and for humanity.

In the same way that a loss is more powerful the more unexpected it is and the greater the value that is lost, this feeling of gain is more powerful the more unexpected it is and the greater the value that is gained.

In the same way that a huge loss makes us cry out, "You can't do this to me!", a great gain makes us feel, "I can do this! You can do this! We can do this!" We cry in response to existential discouragement, and we cry in the face of existential encouragement.

Indeed, there is an emotion called elevation. It's often in response to seeing heroic and chivalrous virtues on display. They help to raise our expectations of ourselves and others. They redeem our faith in humanity and reveal the goodness that is possible in people, whether it's in overcoming internal or external challenges. For just as there is beauty and ugliness in appearances, there is also moral beauty and moral ugliness.

I propose that we call this feeling of overwhelming good, when our false expectations of the future are revealed to be too low, elation.

Children often ask adults why they are crying. The normal response is "Because I'm sad." or in the the case we are talking about here, "Because I'm happy." Now you can more fully explain sadness: "I'm sad because I've lost some good things I expected to have, and things are worse than I thought they would be." And more importantly, you can explain happiness: "I'm happy because I've gained some things I didn't expect to have, and things are better than I thought they would be."

Elation and grief are at opposite ends of a long spectrum. The many variations of adjusting ourselves to reality by confronting our own false expectations.

Happy crying reveals to us that the world can be better than we expect.

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Read more of Jeff's thoughts at: http://www.jeffreyalexandermartin.com/

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