You know the type. We have a very low crying threshold. Our triggers are many, varied and sometimes trivial: Commercials. Movies. Newspaper columns. Speeches. A particular prayer. And on, on, on.
I wasn’t always like this. Oh no. I knew about the criers, because my mom is one. I’d notice her crying during certain movies or episodes of Touched By an Angel. And when Dad was out and we watched Steel Magnolias, I knew for sure she’d end up in tears.
But not me. I asked mom why certain things made her cry, and she explained, but I didn’t understand. Movies never made me cry (except for Old Yeller, though I think that one was more because it’s mildly traumatic) and I always associated crying with just being really sad.
I mostly attribute my change to growing up and becoming a parent. It makes sense to me, because in my limited experience the criers tend to have those things in common: grown-ups who are parents. I noticed a change beginning with pregnancy, and easily dismissed it because of the hormones. Sure, that’s probably part of it. And now that baby is ex-utero and almost one (!!), I can also attribute it partly to exhaustion. But that doesn’t quite cover it.
After Dominic was born everything changed. His total helplessness overwhelmed me and the world around us suddenly looked bigger, badder and more powerful than ever. So I cried because I knew I’d never be able to shield him from all of it.
While I was carrying Dominic, I participated in 40 Days for Life. While I stood and prayed, I thought about being alone and pregnant or unemployed or homeless and I cried for women who faced the prospect of life with a newborn and no security.
Dom was still just a few months old when Kermit Gosnell‘s trial was going on. I remember rocking Dominic while he slept on my chest. I ran my fingers up and down his tiny spine and cried for the helpless babies whose spines were severed seconds after birth. I couldn’t help it, could only cry quietly and hold him tighter.
When I fall into bed at the end of my day knowing I’ll be up before the sun I sometimes cry from exhaustion, but also for the mamas who are mothering their little ones all alone or while working two or three jobs and going to school. At the same time, I now also cry when I hear about the mamas who make it, who came through the storm and are on the other side, who are helping others do the same.
I can’t read about abandoned babies, sick babies, children from broken families, starving children or children aging out of foster care without shedding a tear or twenty. Mamas and daddies whose babies are in the NICU. Mamas and daddies who finally get to hold those babies. Couples trying to adopt. Mamas who miscarry. Wives or husbands who lose their spouse. Parents who lose a child.
Why do we cry? As I thought when I was little, sometimes we cry just because we’re sad. But now I see too that the more you love, the more your heart grows and the more you can fit into it. And the more there is in your heart, the more it hurts for those within it. As I became a mama, my heart began to fill with expectant mamas and hurt for those struggling. When I held my child, my heart began to fill with other children, with other parents.
As usual, C.S. Lewis sums it up well:
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
Of course it’s possible to have empathy if you’re not a parent. There are many, many empathetic, kind, caring individuals who love very much, who love more and better than I do. What I have discovered is that it’s not necessarily easy to become this way, as we tend to be born selfish and empathy must grow as we do. Many of us grow our hearts through this process of loving, through the process of having them stretched and broken over and over.
And there’s a beautiful flip side too. The more is in your heart, the more room there is for great joy. I cry more from watching others struggle, but also more when I see the human spirit triumph over great difficulty, great struggle, great evil.
So I get it now, Mom. Next time we watch Steel Magnolias, I can guarantee I’ll cry too.