Crying GIF, What Are Tears & What It Means To Cry

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A tear is a universal sign. Since ancient times, philosophers and scientists have tried to explain crying as part of a shared human language of emotional expression. But, in fact, a tear on its own means nothing. As they sprout in our eyes, or trickle down our cheeks, the meanings of those salty droplets can only be inferred tentatively by others, and only when they know much more about the particular mental, social, and narrative contexts that gave rise to them.

We cry of sadness, grief and mourning, but also of joy and laughter. Some are moved to tears of sorrow for human suffering; Others have cried the enraged tears of the oppressed. A cheek full of tears can be produced by nothing more than a yawn or a chopped onion. Victorian journalist Harriet Martineau had tears of intellectual ecstasy running down her cheeks as she translated the heavy tomes of the French sociologist Auguste Comte. A friend of mine, a steam enthusiast, told me that when he first saw the locomotive that broke the record, the Mallard, at the National Railway Museum, cried. A tear is a universal sign that does not have the same meaning at all times and in all places. It is a universal sign because it can mean almost anything.

If crying was a gesture with only one meaning, part of a universal language of feelings, then surely it would mean pain. That is the state with which you have most frequently connected. However, there were countless examples of crying joy on display in London last summer. Currents of Olympic and Paralympic emotion spilled through the full bucket. On the podium of the winners, as the national anthems increased, so did the lacrimal effluvium. Pride and joy were expressed in abundant tears. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, boasted of his “tears of patriotic pride” at the opening ceremony and proclaimed that the end of the games was a “trembling climax”. In 1872, when Charles Darwin wrote “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals,” it could have been true that “the English rarely cry”, but in 2012 the mayor and others did everything possible to hide the idea.

I can also add my own personal example: when my son was born in St. Thomas Hospital, with the Diamond Jubilee flotilla of a thousand boats floating down the Thames outside, I cried with joy and relief because a truly exceptionally alarming emergency cesarean section.

The theories of tears have always struggled to do justice to their triple nature, such as secretions, symptoms and signs. Should tears be treated as urination, as a rash or as a work of art? Does your interpretation require the experience of the physiologist, the physician or the metaphysician?