The Crying Game

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Adam Morrison lies on the court after UCLA defeated Gonzaga

The most alone Iíve ever felt was crying on the F train in New York. Someone handed me a tissue on the way out the door — I didnít look up to see my benefactorís face — but no one asked me what was wrong.

Iím not sure how I would have answered — it seemed like a million things at the time. Which is why Iím not satisfied by the rather obvious explanations for a recent spate of public waterworks. Last week, the Bush White House got touchy-feeling as Andy Cardís eyes brimmed while he announced his resignation as Chief of Staff. College basketball players Adam Morrison and J. J. Redick sobbed on the courts after their respective teams, Gonzaga and Duke, were eliminated from the NCAA tournament. And remember poor Mrs. Alito, sniffling through her husbandís confirmation Senate hearings. Of course, the daytime block of network programming has long been synonymous with emotional instability. Thereís Oprah and Dr. Phil, of course — and Starting Over, the syndicated group therapy show whose saline output is of biblical proportions.

We know why theyíre all crying, right? A farewell, losing, stress and, well, the whole point of daytime chat shows and Starting Over is to exhaust a thesaurus of synonyms for "closure." But there are flavors of sadness and specific qualities of joy, let alone a whole basketful of motivations for tears.

In Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears, Tom Lutz writes that "weeping often occurs at precisely those times when we are least able to fully verbalize complex and overwhelming emotions." We cry when words aren't enough, which suggests that any uptick in public tears may be proportional to a loss in our ability to articulate what we feel.

There are different kinds of tears, too, and some might argue that blubbering will always mean something different for men than it does for women. Certainly, thereís no better time for Harvard University professor Harvey Mansfield to be flacking his book on masculine virtue — Manliness — in which he bemoans the gentle decline of men unafraid to be men and praises emotional aloofness.

But the problem with crying in public isnít that itís feminine or weak, itís that weeping will never communicate as much as words. We tend to think of being caught crying in public as being exposed — a raw, unvarnished act. It is a way of being emotional, to be sure, yet crying can be a way of avoiding emotional complications; see Randy "Duke" Cunninghamís pre-indictment press conference, or Sen. Dick Durbinís oddly excruciating apology for comparing Gitmo interrogators to the Nazis.

To cry is to disengage, to stop the conversation. Some scientists speculate that crying may have developed as a kind of psychic escape hatch — the sheer physicality of it distracting the distraught when mental anguish becomes too much to endure.

I'm not nearly as distressed as Mansfield by our apparently growing acceptance of menís tears, but I worry that we might accept them in lieu of words. Crying doesnít bring closure; putting a name to things does. Cunninghamís welling up was not a confession, after all.

For female politicians, tears are, of course, toxic. No one wants to imagine the tragedy grand enough that Hillary Clinton or Condoleezza Rice could let their waterworks flow. I am, however, less confident that this means they are raring to engage in direct debate. Hillary and Condi will never cry in public — but that doesn't mean we'll ever know what they're really thinking, even if we ask.