By Sally Saville Hodge
Poor John Boehner.
It’s a toss-up what the former Republican Speaker of the House will be remembered for most: His dedication to upholding the principles of The Party of No or the copious tears he shed in the process.
He brought out the hankie for mundane moments – like a debate over a military spending bill. And also got choked up over the emotional – getting an award or remembering the good ol’ days with his buddies on the golf course. He cried when the Pope spoke to Congress in 2015, during television interviews, and when listening to music, whether the national anthem or Irish folk tunes.
Boehner cried a lot and was mocked constantly for it. It tends to be frowned on in today’s culture. Especially when it comes to public figures, it engenders mistrust and skepticism and is a sign, some believe, of weakness. As a 2013 piece in Politico put it: “…if you look deep into his watery brown eyes, or see him crying when he should be chest-bumping Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, what you find is self-doubt, indecision and impotence.”
I actually sympathize with Boehner, because it’s pretty clear his tears that are so scorned reflect a condition that’s gained some notoriety in recent years. Criers like him are known as “Highly Sensitive People (HSPs).” Researchers who have studied its manifestations say that HSPs process information more thoroughly. Any triggering of the senses of taste, touch, sound or smell may affect them and they are particularly sensitive to positive and negative emotions.
I, too, am an HSP. Some might embrace their inner sensitivity but, I am hugely embarrassed by mine. I was raised in an era when it was okay for girls to cry, but not for boys. Girls were weak anyway and tears were part and parcel of that package. My inner self is mortified at reflecting that girly girl stereotype. I’m too strong to cry.
The stuff of tears.
There’s more to tears than plain old water. Like proteins, salt and hormones. And there are different types. Basal tears lubricate, nourish and protect the eyes. Reflex tears protect them from irritants. If you were to analyze the tears that John Boehner and I shed when our emotions have been triggered, you might find they contain more protein than other types, but that’s not yet been scientifically proven.
There’s a reason why your nose runs when you’re crying: Your tears are actually running through your nasal passage. Biology also is why women shed more tears than men. Their tear ducts are shaped differently and are smaller than a man’s. That gives the tears less room to “drain,” so there are more and they spill more quickly.
And yes, women cry more than men, 5.3 times a month versus 1.4, according to one study. They also cry longer – six minutes versus two to four for a man. Interestingly, it turns men off when they smell a woman’s tears, a function of a “chemo-signal” in human tears that reduces sexual arousal, another study says. But here’s why maybe it doesn’t matter and a reason why women are frequent criers: Crying releases endorphins that make you feel good. So who needs the sex anyway?
Being like Mike…or not.
While I didn’t learn until just a few years ago that there’s a name for people like me, I still remember one of the first times my tendency to tear up at the slightest emotional trigger became really obvious and kind of embarrassing and out in the open for everyone to see.
It was during Michael Jordan’s heyday. It seemed like the man was in our already crowded little TV room morning, noon and night. When my husband Brian, then-ten-year-old son BJ and I weren’t enjoying Jordan’s on-court performances on Chicago Bulls’ game days or nights, we could always count on the ubiquitous star interrupting morning cartoons, noontime news reports or evening dramas to shill sports drinks, athletic apparel and, of course, America’s favorite hamburger. And damn, those copywriters were good. They knew how to play on the viewer’s emotional connection to Jordan, making him just as likable and believable and, well, nice, as his brand was presented.
So, one night a new campaign for McDonald’s featuring Michael Jordan came on as we were all sitting in front of the television. It featured Jordan interacting with a little kid in his own inimitable, kind of heroically human way. It must have been the look of wonder on the kid’s face or maybe just a line that spoke less to food and more to the human spirit, but I could feel a burning in my eyes and a tear seeped out onto my nose.
I surreptitiously rubbed my index finger against the inside corner of my eye, then yawned and covered my mouth with my hand to try to hide it. Shit. Now both my eyes were tearing and to hide it, I turned my head away from Brian, who was sitting next to me on the loveseat with his arm around my shoulder.
“What? Are you crying? Over a McDonald’s commercial?” he asked with no small amount of incredulity.
“Crying? Me? No!” Well, not anymore, at any rate.
BJ popped up from the floor, where he’d been positioned in front of the television with his head propped up on a pillow. He stood in front of me, and stuck his face two inches from mine to see for himself if it was true. “You were crying. Jeez, mom. Really? It was a stupid commercial!”
My two boys had a good laugh at my expense, and I never did live it down. There’s a reason for that – I have only gotten more emotionally sensitive with the years. “My mother,” my son has been known to say in describing me to friends. “She’s the woman who cries about…everything. McDonald’s commercials. Sappy movies. Good writing. The song Amazing Grace. A major leaguer hitting a home run.”
Wait till it happens to him.
We weren’t always so stoic.
Of course, I’m very self-conscious at having such emotional reactions to sights, sounds and various other stimuli that don’t even register with most other people. Perhaps I belong in another era, when tears and sensitivity were celebrated.
In his book “Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears,” Tom Lutz tells us that the earliest written record of tears was found in a narrative poem from the early 13th century B.C., inscribed on clay tablets found in northwestern Syria. The poem recounts the death of the earth god Ba’al, and how his sister, the virgin goddess Anat wept at the news, “…sating herself with weeping, to drink tears like wine.”
Throughout history, poets and songwriters, clergy and philosophers (and more) have all celebrated tears and crying. The Psalms in the Hebrew Bible say “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy!” It’s a sentiment echoed in the Old Testament and the New, where Luke says, “Bessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.”
There’s been a long-standing aesthetic pleasure to tears. Nietzche said, “I cannot differentiate between tears and music,” while the Romanian writer E.M. Cioran took him one better: “Tears are music in material form.” And, surprisingly enough, men have been among the messiest sentimentalists of classical literature. To wit: the titular hero of Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther” pretty much cried his way through the entire novel. “Oh, if only I could fall on your neck and describe with a thousand joyous tears all the emotions that are storming in my heart” he writes to his friend Wilhelm in one instance of his propensity to dissolve in tears.
Today, I think we’re just so hammered with so many more stimuli than was the case in earlier times that we’ve developed a hard protective shell against the emotions they might evoke. Then, too, in today’s culture, there are conventions to be observed. If you burst into tears in a public place for a reason only apparent to you, you tend to get a lot of sideways glances, if not people twirling their fingers at the side of their heads in a commentary on your mental state.
The company we keep.
If my sensitivity to what others would consider mundane triggers (I mean, really. McDonald’s commercials?) qualify me as crazy by some norms, at least I’m in good company. Some 15 percent to 20 percent of the population is said to be HSPs, split pretty evenly between men and women.
Researchers suggest that HSPs may absorb information so deeply that they become overstimulated. (And may well cry.) They also say it takes HSPs longer to make decisions. They need their alone time. One study showed they have substantially more brain activity for high-order visual processing. They are more detail minded, too.
Emotional sensitivity was considered one of Abraham Lincoln’s predominant traits. Many attribute his lifelong “melancholia” to his mother’s death when he was nine, and later, that of his first love. But it also might have stemmed from his emotional sensitivity, which scientists say can cause bouts of existential depression without any triggers.
Many actors consider themselves HSPs, and that’s why they are able to throw themselves so convincingly into their roles. Scarlett Johansson, Nicole Kidman and Clare Danes are among them. Marlon Brando once said, “I put on an act sometimes and people think I’m insensitive. Really it’s like a kind of armor because I’m too sensitive. If there are 200 people in a room and one of them doesn’t like me, I’ve got to get out.”
Musicians, writers and artists have also had their lives shaped by their highly emotional natures. Singer/songwriter Alanis Morissette gets emotionally overwhelmed so easily that she reportedly has friends screen reviews to spare her from bullying and snark. Featured in the 2015 documentary “Sensitive: The Movie,” she says: “My temperament is highly sensitive. I’m very attuned to very subtle things, whether it’s food or minerals or lighting or sounds or smells. Overstimulation happens pretty easily.”
Embrace your inner HSP and have a good cry.
The more I mull over my condition and its manifestations, the more I think that perhaps instead of being embarrassed by it, it’s something to be celebrated.
It’s so easy to harden our emotions in times like these, to become inured against all the events and influences – good and bad – that hammer us so relentlessly in our 24/7 world.
The emotions, the sensitivities, the feelings that it all gives rise to aren’t something that we should hide. They speak to our human-ness and humanity. If it all these emotions are manifested in a bucket of tears, then maybe we’re all better off having experienced their cleansing.
If John Boehner can unapologetically weep on command, there’s no reason you and I can’t do the same without shame. Because maybe that’s the stronger thing to do.