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The Ugly Beauty Of Crying In Public

Culture

Summertime sadness

There is no better place to be alone than on the crowded summer streets of New York City. Or, I guess, not be alone, but feel alone, unmoored, adrift. There's nothing more private than existing in your own personal hell after all, and what's more punitively Inferno-esque than the city's summer sidewalks? All of this is to say, it's a good place to have a good cry.

First, though, "good cry" is a funny little set of words. Their inherent conflict is instantly clear: What is good about crying? And yet as anyone knows who has felt their body wracked with sobs, spent long minutes heaving and choking on their own breath, not sure if they can survive this bout of tears, let alone whatever it is that caused them in the first place, crying—at least when it's over—can feel good. It feels good in the way anything vigorous does; a good cry, then, is a strong cry. A good cry makes you feel your muscles, centers you in the core of your body in the same way a good laugh does. The only difference is that while laughter brings everything into focus, a sharp relief, crying does the opposite; as the eyes tear up, vision blurs. It becomes impossible to clearly see the world around you, so deeply have you fallen into your own fog.

But that is part of the terrible beauty of crying in public. By doing this, by allowing yourself to be at your most vulnerable, you are actually showing a different kind of strength. You are demonstrating that you're not afraid to show your pain, that you're not afraid to reveal you're hurt. There's so much emphasis in our culture to be strong and tough, to not let our fears and anxieties take over. We're supposed to power through, to keep calm, to laugh into the gaping maw of the abyss. But this type of emotional remove ceases to become useful when we're truly suffering, when we're truly in pain. This type of detachment speaks to a larger idea that none of this—our world, our communities, our friends, our loved ones, ourselves—really matters. But crying in public shows that it does.

Years ago, I broke down in public, sitting on a park bench on my college campus, countless people walking past me. I knew everyone could see me, and, at first, it made me pause; I thought about running to a bathroom in the nearby library, occupying a stall where I couldn't be seen. But I didn't. I was in so much pain and the tears were coming faster and faster and I could barely see. I didn't want to run away from this; I wanted to pause in it, stop time if I couldn't stop my tears. And so I sat. Some people saw and just kept walking. One person barely broke stride as he offered me a tissue. And a well-meaning young woman paused long enough to ask if I were okay. I said I was, and she said, "You know, he's not worth it."

I knew she meant well by saying that, even though she had no real idea why I was crying, and about whom. (It is, of course, a pretty safe bet that someone crying in public is crying over someone else. And I was.) But the thing was, that he was worth it. Or, at least, I was worth it. The pain I was in was worth this physical manifestation. The pain I was in deserved to come out, to be seen. And so I sat there, thinking about how I never wanted my love or my hate or my despair or my joy to feel not worth it. I wanted to feel like it was all worth something.

That day that I cried, my eyes dropped the silent tears that you see so often on the subways, from the eyes of someone staring resolutely out a grimy window and into the dark tunnel beyond. These are the tears of a person alone. These tears come and blur the world for you a bit, giving you the remove you need, a veil of your own making. Others can see you, but you can't see them.

But sometimes a good public cry is not quiet. There's no dignity attached to it; silence is not a feature of these cries. Sometimes, a public cry is one of those hair-pulling, clothes-rending attacks, the ones that are always described as "ugly cries," the ones that are difficult to watch. These cries come from a place of being torn open. Watching someone you don't know crying like this feels like you're watching a stranger give birth; without the context of intimacy, all you see is massive amounts of pain, and though the promise of relief and beauty is there, it feels like it might never come. 

These are the cries we're told to feel embarrassed over; they have no place in our sanitized world. They're artifacts of a time when women howled at the moon with abandon, when love and pain were things you could perform in public without fear of being judged. And while maybe this type of crying in public will never be something you feel comfortable doing, or is something you feel like will make you look unhinged, just think, the next time you see someone crying in public—or the next time you find yourself doing it too—that "unhinged" is just another way of being open, and there's beauty in that type of vulnerability, even if it is tinged with pain.

Photo by David Fisher/Shutterstock

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