Thinking Allowed: For crying out loud

Here is a millstone to grow up with: big boys don't cry.

It is a cultural norm that has developed over the centuries, straitlacing us Victorianly after all that Romantic emotional excess. On the other hand, crying like a girl can be exhausting and undignified. Lachrymose. Lachrymose. Why?

There must be some purpose to tears; otherwise why would we have them? Darwin dismissed them as much as the next bloke, saying ''... we must look at weeping as an incidental result, as purposeless as the secretion of tears from a blow outside the eye, or as a sneeze from the retina being affected by a bright light ...'' Still, at least he highlights that we need lacrimation to lubricate our eye sockets, at the very least.

Evidence, both scientific and artistic, exists to show there are at least three kinds of tears. Basal tears are our natural eye baths, using their lysozyme to help us protect against bacterial infections. And nobody could object to a boy regulating his immune system through natural processes, right? Big boys and basal secretions? Sweet. Well, probably salty, but you know what I mean.

There may be a case for boys not crying if they do not take their fair share of culinary duties. Teaspoon in the mouth or not, reflex tears are a powerful thing for some onion-choppers. Mind you, the same can be said for dust in the eye and pepper spray. Tears can flow freely as an irritant cleanser: but that is not crying.

American artist Rose-Lynn Fisher has photographed ''The Topography of Tears'' in an exhibition exploring the microscopic differences ''from elation to onions'' and in many states between. The onion tears come up spiky like snowflakes while others, of laughter, of liberation, of yearning, could be pages from an atlas of an unknown continent. They show us what science knows, that emotional tears have differing content (and thus perhaps purpose) than their more practical, explicable brothers.

When our crying stems from emotion, our tears flow packed with more hormones. Those in the boys-should-not-cry camp may be delighted to hear the foremost of these is prolactin, which is also instrumental in the production of breast milk, which makes it pretty girlie, really. Leucine enkephalin is also excreted. This is a natural painkiller and might be one reason why some people feel a great deal better after a good cry.

Is the phrase ''a good cry'' enough of a cliche to suggest it might be something that is good for us all? You know, we are the only animals who do it with physical tears. It has been hypothesised that they are a historic sign of helplessness so our enemies can pity us and our allies rush to our aid. And I can see why a manly protector would not want to put himself in that position. Although Greek gods and heroes did a fine line in crying, they tended to keep it to the manly battle-weeping bit. And anyway, who was going to argue with them?

Us modern mere mortals have seen heroes weep, too: Google Images will show you All Blacks do cry. And there is research out there to show baby boys cry more than their female counterparts. But that is probably just crying like a baby, right?

I am pretty sure our bodies do what they do for a reason: they are amazing, complex machines. And I do not really have original metaphors adequate to describe chests of tears otherwise hidden if they cannot be cried. Can tears anneal to anger? Can they be refined into epic art and superslammed tries?

There is research out there to show crying can be a shared ritual: more tears are jerked, proportionally, at sad movies watched together than alone. It is catching in the way we cry to empathise.

There seem so many choices of how we can cry: like a boy, like a girl, like a crocodile. Like a hero, an All Black or a baby. Just, in the end, like ourselves.

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