We are all in the gutter. But some of us are looking at the stars. — Oscar Wilde
As a child, crying was usually an indicator of something negative happening in my life. From falling and skinning my knee, to forgetting my homework and being reprimanded by a teacher, to getting in a fight with one of my siblings, the situations that sparked tears were ones of struggle. I cried when I was sad, angry, hurt or confused.
Somewhere along the line — maybe when I was in high school, when I began to see that words are usually as effective for expressing emotions as tears — this changed. I still occasionally cry from grief or frustration, but more often now, my tears accompany feelings of nostalgia, hope, appreciation, love and awe. I tear up when I read a story that demonstrates the goodness of humanity; my eyes get misty when a particularly sweet memory of my father, mother, sister or brothers comes to mind; my throat gets tight when I hear a beautiful piece of music of poetry.
To be sure, the instances of struggle that used to cause me tears still exist. In the world in which we live, sadness, anger, hurt and confusion are in many ways the status quo. Maybe, along with learning that words as well as tears can express emotion, part of becoming an adult is realizing the pervasiveness of trauma, pain and suffering and implicitly acknowledging that if we let these things cause us tears, we’d be crying all the time.
Looking around myself — reading the news, seeing a homeless man sitting on a cold stoop, talking with a grieving acquaintance — make me see that we’re in a gutter, all of us. We are surrounded by pain — emotional, mental, physical, spiritual — and not a single one of us will get through life without suffering. But my tears, now, remind me of the bursts of grace, the glimpses of light; the breaths of hope and the moments of joy. My tears highlight the things that keep me going and get me through and remind me that there is meaning in life — in the good and the hard of it. They remind me that I can be in the gutter and look at the stars.