Entry 119: I Won’t Cry– Some days I wake up in a mood to refer Pollyanna to a specialist in depressive illnesses. Admittedly, such days are mostly in the distant past- presently, it’s the very odd day when I get out of the sunny side of the bed with a cheerful tune on my lips, just a-rarin’ to get out into the light and set the world to rights.
In popular digests, one may come across articles which extol the virtues of the optimistic outlook as a promoter of longevity and which also counsel men to access their feminine side- but take care to channel Pollyanna’s I-am-a-happy-little-sunbeam– rather than Cassandra’s glass-half-empty vibe. If you are- what is the word?- proactive in your search for mirth, perhaps a spot of laughter yoga may be just what the doctor ordered.
I am reliably informed that there are over a hundred laughter clubs worldwide but whether you can easily join one of these yuck-fests is problematical. Evangelical Christians of a certain flavour practise holy laughter and there may be a place for you among these folk, although, a caveat: some view such levity as against the Spirit: for example; John Wesley, encountering uncontrolled laughter in his meetings, ascribed it to the action of the Devil.
We are all familiar with the gleeful mwha ha ha of the villain expressing malicious satisfaction at the misfortune of his victim. Still, there’s more to be said for laughing than for crying. Now, I wouldn’t have pegged the Germans as a particularly lachrymose nation, but must admit to being taken aback by the findings of the German Society of Ophthalmology published in 2009 which found that women cry between 30-62 times a year and that men resort to the blub on 6-17 occasions over the same period.
I don’t think of myself as a flinty-hearted brute but I doubt that I would have cried more than once or twice in the past year- if even that! But, then, I was formed by that generation that had coped with the fallout of World War Two by not looking back and by damping down any stirrings of emotion by concentrating on, work, kids, the future- indeed anything that helped make it go away, even booze, for some.
Crying was seen as weakness rather than a catharsis and among a lot of people, men especially, this still applies. Of course, politicians have realised the humanising effects of crying and regularly shed a tear for the cameras. Crocodile tears have a long lineage as a mark of hypocrisy in the shedder but this should not obscure the fact that certain animals do seem to demonstrate a capacity for grief that is more than a just fleeting response to mortality.
Elephants and chimpanzees among the higher mammals and mute swans among our feathered friends all exhibit signs of distress when confronted with the loss of a young one, fellow or partner.
Top of the evolutionary pile, we like to think ourselves unique in the animal kingdom- remember when we were once differentiated because we use tools? Because we communicate using vocalisations? Because we use play for learning? Because we can feel and express emotion? Because we are the only animal with a sense of its own mortality?
Looks more and more like a God of the gaps argument and just as reductionist. In a decaying world which we persist in poisoning with carbon, nuclear and chemical waste, it seems a bit futile to worry too much about what distinguishes us from the rest of creation.
I listened today, to a wax cylinder recording made at the end of the 19th Century. It was made by the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Strait in 1898 and we hear the eerie sound of the death wail or keening.
The practice is found in Ireland and Scotland and also among indigenous peoples in Africa, Asia, the Americas and Australia. It is a link to a deep animal ache for one who is gone, and so what if, among our species, it can build into such artefacts as the Taj Mahal, Michelangelo’s Pieta or Mozart’s Requiem?
Most of us are incapable of responding to loss- either personal or vicarious- by erecting beautiful structures, carving marble masterpieces or crafting music of genius- and few have the skill to create great literary tragedies.
But will we cry with Lear holding his dead child, Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of/ stone: Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so/ That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone for ever!/ I know when one is dead, and when one lives;/ She’s dead as earth.
Or will we smile with Henry Scott Holland, who wrote lines that have given solace to many people from a sermon delivered at St Paul’s in 1910 upon the death of King Edward VII: it starts, Death is nothing at all./I have only slipped away to the next room… It concludes, I am but waiting for you./For an interval./Somewhere. Very near./Just around the corner.
So who do we listen to: Pollyanna or Cassandra?