A friend told me about photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher’s project “Topography of Tears” in which she takes pictures of dried tears under a microscope, and shows how tears of pain, anger, fear or joy are each made of a completely different molecular structure. Wow.

Does this mean that everybody’s tears of pain or joy share the same characteristics or is it that each time we cry tears of pain they also change? Either way, it sort of confirms the hunch I have that our tears tell stories and have a life of their own. For most therapists and anyone interested in personal growth and learning, real tears – of grief, pain, regret, rage, joy, relief – are a vital part of the work and seen as a crucial part of the journey. Why are they so important?

Personally, I like the clues that myth and fairy tale suggest… that tears arrive at the moment of utter despair, the crunch point, and are normally the catalyst that triggers help and a chance of saving yourself. So… in the myth of Psyche, she has a massive cry when Aphrodite assigns the impossible task of sorting out a zillion seeds. It’s easy to judge Psyche as wet or a bit pathetic. It’s hardly heroic. However, interestingly, it’s only when she lets herself cry that the magic ants arrive and help her with the work. Her very tears summon them. Or the princess who loses her golden ball in the pond who falls to her knees sobbing and the frog appears. Or Alice in Wonderland whose gallons of tears lead her to the Mouse and other creatures. Something in the story has changed, as tears call the magic helpers to move the story onward to the next task that must be undergone before the protagonist can become more whole. In our lives, a magic helper might be a forgotten or neglected part of ourselves, an inner resource or strength that we just haven’t recognised or met before.

We all tend to avoid crying, and understandably so. It’s a hugely emotional and physical process, tied in culturally and socially with vulnerability and we’re left feeling exhausted, not to mention those red sore puffy eyes that stare out at us bleakly from the mirror. We may be afraid if we start, like Alice in Wonderland, we won’t stop. And if our tears aren’t heard or seen by someone, it can be a devastating experience of rejection, especially as people who can’t deal with their own tears normally get very rattled by those of someone else.

So, I would like to propose that real tears in their essence are magical in nature. If we can learn to value and accept them first, and equally make sure (as much as we ever can) that they can arrive into a welcoming environment, they can bring insight, release and the winds of change with them. And sometimes, showing vulnerability requires all the strength we can muster. Surely, that’s got to be seen as a bit heroic.

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