As far as we know, human beings are the only animals who shed emotional tears. People cry. They might cry contemplating Nelson Mandela’s death. They might have tears streaming down their faces at a wedding, or on the anniversary of a presidential assassination. Some people weep witnessing the birth of a newborn baby, or watching a movie on an airplane. Others shed tears during an AT&T commercial, or noticing the look on a child’s face when her helium-filled balloon breaks away and sails up into the air. I welled up listening to the sound of a musical note struggling to reveal itself.
On the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, I heard a story on Morning Edition that made me cry. My tears surprised me, though, because, just a moment before this particular story, I had been feeling somewhat irritated. For days leading up to the anniversary and all day on November 22nd, everything seemed to be about the immeasurable greatness of JFK and/or the unparalleled tragedy of his death. I realize there may have been thousands of people who cried mourning the loss of one of America’s most famous icons. However, perhaps because I am fairly cynical and depressed, I was not one of them.
Actually, what brought me to tears listening to yet another piece about JFK, was the sound of a misplayed bugle note. The radio story was called “At Kennedy’s Burial Ceremony, Even ‘Bugle Was Weeping.'” David Greene introduces the story by saying “as the president was laid to rest, a bugler, Army Sgt. Keith Clark, had an awesome responsibility—delivering a note of finality with the playing of ‘Taps.’ It’s something he had done perfectly, hundreds of times.” Then the radio cuts to a historical clip from the ceremony and you hear the first 3 notes of a bugle playing Taps. Before you get to experience the “weeping” horn, though, Greene quickly interrupts long enough to say “but on the sixth note, the instrument itself seemed to choke up.” So then, when the radio show cuts back to Taps at the ceremony and you hear the 4th, 5th, and “off” 6th note, it is impossible to miss the poignant moment. I heard it and cried.
But why? Sgt. Clark described the tenor of the 6th note as a consequence of “the enormous pressure he felt.” He had not made an embarrassing mistake, though. That note was right. It felt pure and honest. I was weepy because I could hear both the intensity and complexity of human emotion in that single note. Listening to those first five slow and somewhat trembling notes followed by one that seemed to be caught and stumbling was awe-inspiring, beautiful, powerful, and overwhelming.
Together those sounds perfectly and completely demonstrated the bugler’s sense of utter helplessness. Crying, at its most primitive level, is about the need for help. I cried because through the music I could feel the bugler’s pain. Not only did that astonishing accomplishment humble me, it also reminded me of my own vulnerability.
Scientists believe that crying is a social behavior that developed to inform others in our group (and maybe our enemies too) that we are in need. According to the Dutch psychologist Ad Vingerhoets, emotional tears “signal helplessness.” We cry to communicate. Our tears are a signal to the people literally nearest to us that we are vulnerable and in need. Even when we are alone, our brains still respond as if there might be someone close by to treat us gently or to offer us assistance. Leading psychologist Jeffrey Kottler believes that
humans cry because, unlike every other animal, we take years and years to be able to fend for ourselves. Until that time, we need a behavior that can elicit the sympathetic consideration of our needs from those around us who are more capable (read: adults). We can’t just yell for help though—that would alert predators to helpless prey—so instead, we’ve developed a silent scream: we tear up.
People who cry as adults because of happiness, sympathy, reassurance, or the sublime are no different. Emotional tears signal our connection—conscious or not—to feelings of helplessness from the past, present, or future. Crying is the most basic and functional way for people to convey our own individual and our shared impotence.
We cry when we feel empathetic, relieved, sad, scared, angry, joyful, or hopeless. Regardless of whether we are crying in awe or in pain, our tears are directly related to our experiences of feeling small and powerless. People cry because we know we are human.