I’m really fascinated by the magic of unlearned human expressions. No one has to teach a kid to laugh when he’s happy, to pout when he’s upset, or to jump up and down when he’s celebrating. It’s so normal, but still surprisingly difficult to understand. It’s as if our internal experiences of joy, anger, success, or disgust take up real space in our bodies and need to be released, to be realized, in ways that words won’t always suffice, through physical, affective language. Like a kind of food: we take it in, absorb it, and then need to fart it out. We use these funny little mannerisms like laughter to digest the substance of life, to grab hold of it and feel it, to let it flow through us, to make it real.
Tears are particularly mysterious: they often come unexpected, from somewhere hidden, and we generally seem to want to avoid them. If laughter and smiles are how we experience joy, I think tears are the language our spirit uses to experience pain… Or something like that. I’m not exactly sure to be honest haha. But I think it’s how our heart deals with a certain kind of pain, the kind beneath the surface, that our minds aren’t ready to consciously process.
In times of prayer, I’ve seen people cry with a heaving, visceral agony, and if you asked them, they wouldn’t be able to explain why they cried so hard. Maybe they’re experiencing the love of God, but I don’t think that’s why they cry. It’s not love itself that evokes tears; it’s the pain of a lifetime spent deprived of it. See, an average child’s stomach will growl for food when it’s hungry, while a starving child’s belly is disturbingly stoic. To protect itself from the pain, their stomach doesn’t make a sound, doesn’t feel a thing—until you finally feed it, at which the starved stomach rouses, and screams. Our heart, too, will numb itself to the pain when it’s too much to bear. Love is what it needs, but when it’s been starved for so long, it can be painful to receive it.
We have the ability, however, to actually live out our entire lives without ever opening the raw parts of our heart, without ever letting our pain release. You experience the hurt, the injustice, the disappointment, the betrayal, and then, after your immediate reactions, you quickly move on from it. You pull yourself together, forget it, and you bury it.
But pain lingers. It sits in our spirit and weighs down on us. It’s no longer on the surface, but we’re left with a vague and distant ache, an unexplained lump in our throat, an unspoken anger, a sense of wrong, like a shameful secret locked away. Even when it’s buried, the wound echoes through us in a dull, voiceless sadness.
There was a time when I was with a young lady I was beginning to fall in love with who surprised me with a simple gesture. We were holding hands when she raised her other hand and placed it on my cheek, just above my neck. I was slightly taken aback because it was unexpected, but I found that it actually made me feel loved. When I told her that, she looked back at me thoughtfully and then asked, “Do you not feel loved very often?” The question caught me vulnerable. As I looked for the answer, something heavy slowly stirred in my gut and tears started welling up in my chest, and I needed a second to compose myself. She was patient, and she held a gracious moment of space for me, giving me the careful time I needed to be honest with myself. “No, I don’t.”
A few hours later when I pulled up at my apartment, sitting in my car alone, I considered that small exchange again and my reaction to it. As I pondered it, I found myself crying—not just because I felt loved, but because I finally realized and let myself admit how much I need it, how lonely I’ve been, and how hard I’ve been trying to be strong on my own. I started to pray… I don’t know if you would call it that, because I didn’t have anything to say. But I let God be there with me. As He waited, I unraveled, my tears a quiet confession, and I felt His gentle hand comfort me, His angels gathering near to watch over me with grace and warmth.
In the following weeks I reached out to a few trusted friends and mentors to help me prayerfully process what was going on in me, why, and where to go from here. We examined the roots, searched my childhood trauma, identified the lies and connected the dots. It was an important process that I’m still enduring. But that night, alone in my car, as something that was locked and buried in me began to unearth, it was enough to just admit the pain, and feel it.
It’s interesting because even before my moment in the car, I never really had a hard time telling people about my experiences of failure, abandonment, depression or abuse. I could talk about the facts and details of it without shedding a tear. I think there’s a difference between just recognizing the facts of a painful event and actually letting yourself re-experience the pain of it. It’s not enough to simply acknowledge it objectively in your head and stay emotionally disengaged. That’s like looking at your pain through a thick wall of safety glass. Before we can truly heal from it, we need to hold it, to feel it, to step inside it. The pain needs to be engaged and expressed; it needs first to breathe, to spread its awful wings and expend its energy, and only then be put to rest in peace. When we brush off the pain and choke it down in the name of being strong and moving on, it takes root in us, digs into our soul, bleeds into our core, and over time inevitably influences the way we think and live, without our permission.
My pastor told me once that tears are a sign of God beginning to heal our hearts of pain that our minds aren’t yet ready to understand. It’s part of God’s mysterious work of mending the deep places of the human soul. Sometimes people pressure us into verbally processing our painful experiences, saying we need to talk about it or explain it. They don’t mean harm—they just really want to solve it, probably because they care about us. Talking about it is of course important, but perhaps in its own time. We don’t have to force it. Sometimes we don’t know what to think or say, and we aren’t always ready to approach it so bluntly. Maybe that’s okay for now… Our hearts can only take so much. Perhaps all we can handle right now is to just shut our eyes and carefully reach out to touch the faint outline of that sleeping, radiating pain we’ve buried. Maybe we aren’t ready to understand it, but we can let ourselves feel it. Maybe we’re too scared to look it in the face, but we can stand in its shadow. Maybe we can’t confront it, but we can stop pretending we don’t hurt. That isn’t nothing. That, too, takes courage. And for today, maybe that’s enough.