About two weeks ago, in the middle of a random Tuesday, I found myself crying. It wasn’t unprovoked, rather, it was in direct response to an unexpected situation that my brain, and my body were not prepared to process.
So, for about ten minutes, I lost it.
During the following hours (now weeks), I thought a lot about those tears, considering how I have been dealing with emotions over the last two and half years. Obviously, the stress and worry of the global pandemic, social uncertainty, and its ramifications have hit all of us in very, very, different ways. While I won’t claim to not have not been a crier before, I will say that it was an emotion not so close to the surface.
Then out of the blue I remembered Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own yelling “There’s no crying in baseball,” at the top of his lungs. While the character is flailing about because the women on his team are upset and he is unable to to deal with it, the sentiment still struck a chord. (Obviously, we know that people cry over sports all the time, but stay with me).
I realized, while the event precipitating the crying was upsetting, I was angrier at myself for losing it over something I was actively trying to be less emotional about. Just as Jimmy Dugan (Hanks’ character) was convinced crying was something you do.not.do. when playing a sport, I fought against a situation where crying also felt taboo.
And then my career coach, Kate (illustrating how well they know me) said—you need to write out your feelings. Which brings us here, to this piece, which ended up being less about me and my mental health, and more about crying, emotional language, and storytelling.
Developing an Emotional Language
If I really think about it, In the last five years my crying has been 25% related to general stress and anxiety from my own life, 25% to worrying about the world we live in, and 50% triggered by something I was listening to, reading, and watching.
For many people that last one may match their own experiences, but as cliché as it sounds, as I’ve grown older my reaction to events of fictional devastation, dystopia, or requited or unrequited dreams brings pressure in my chest, tension in my sinuses, and then the inevitable leaking from my eyes. I have even started a music playlist called “Move Me” which includes song that make me feel when I need it.
And when two forms of artistic expressions come together, they exponentially raise my emotional reaction, reinforcing a moment. I am talking about Sabaa Tahir’s All My Rage which calls out a specific song by Johnny Cash and U2 as the underling tone of the novel. Or when This is Us recently used Billy Joel’s And So it Goes at the end of a very special episode about Miguel.
Or when Lauren, the lead character in an operatic adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents sings of her lost father before she steps into the unknown (jump to 41:38 to listen). A moment that draws on elements of drama, voice, and visual direction—to emphasize just how much we are poised to lose. It is a moment that is just as poignant, but even more resonant then merely the words on the page, incredible as they are.
For all of these moments i.e. the 50% that comes from media, it is really the other 50%—the world, my personal context—which directs my emotional reaction to fictional circumstances.
Nevertheless, with each of these cases there is an unspoken language, a reflection where storytelling is able to dig deep into our souls, and spark necessary, and needed, reactions.
A few months ago, I picked up Brené Brown’s Atlas of the Heart, a book which looks to build out our emotional language so as to build connections related to the human experience. As I navigated through my feelings, and considered why crying has been so near the surface, I found myself turning back to this book.
I originally thought the book would work as tool for navigating the emotional underpinnings for my fictional characters. An encyclopedia for character development so to speak. Instead—and what Brown really intended the book to be—I found myself mapping my own feelings and emotions against her definitions. I learned the different ways my reactions can manifest, and the importance of using precise language when talking about emotional responses.
More applicable to this essay, however, is how understanding each of these emotions and feelings are key to what Brown calls “Story Stewardship.” She writes, “story stewardship means honoring the sacred nature of story—the ones we share and the ones we hear—and knowing that we’ve been entrusted with something valuable or that we have something valuable that we should treat with respect and care.”
As a historian who shares other people’s stories, this is incredibly important, but for the purposes of this piece, understanding the emotional language Brown lays out in her book helps me recognize the ways in which layered storytelling effects both my head and my heart. For just as the musicians, writers, and artists are stewarding their own stories, they are also stewards of our own emotions.
It’s not surprising that science fiction is often referred to as a mirror to reality, or that music and song often trigger memory, because successful storytelling is built on a connection with their audience—whether they are meant to reflect back our own world, or serve as a pure escapism.
At the end of Ximena Vengoeche’s Listen Like You Mean It, a book about developing better ways of listening and connection, she writes about recovery methods after particularly difficult days of listening to testimonies or stories.
In this section she references an individual who would take 5-minute crying moments to deal with feeling overwhelmed, “Perhaps you are thinking, “Not for me. I never cry.” But even those of us who don’t usually cry can benefit from the catharsis of a good cry. My trick? If I am emotionally burdened by the day’s conversations, I will turn to a sad movie to get the tears flowing. Movies, songs, books, and plays can be vehicles for unloading—they give your feelings permission to come to the surface. When you are emotionally overwhelmed, let the arts move you and let it out.” (285)
So sure, some might think there is no crying in baseball, but you know what?
It’s ok if there is.