Listening to Saint Francis of Assi

July 10, 2010 by  
Filed under Blog

On a trip to the West coast four months ago, the stars lined up for me to meet an amazing woman. We went from the casual “Are you on a vacation?” to sharing our deepest feelings regarding what was really happening in our lives. Her journey the past few years with breast cancer… the loss of her breasts, five surgeries. My life with my late husband… his need for a heart transplant, the limited time we had before that window softly closed. Complete strangers sharing the darkest time of life; a conversation about our reality, life journeys full of heartbreak and tears.

For months we have continued that conversation through emails and happy hours via phone. We were well aware of how tough it is to be in our 50s and feeling like a fish out of water.

She often holds back tears when lifelong girlfriends spend the majority of their time with her talking about kids and grandkids, something she had always wanted, yet a club she would never get to join. Read more


Emotions Outlast The Memories That Drive Them

April 26, 2010 by  
Filed under Featured

I friend has just sent me this link.  It reminded me of my husband’s 100 year grandmother.  We used to ask her to play the piano and she would say she didn’t know how, but when we walked her to the piano and she touched it, all these emotions would come back to her and she would sit and play smiling all the way.

A study of patients with amnesia finds that the emotion tied to a memory lingers in the mind even after the memory is gone.

The finding, published this week in the journal PNAS, Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences could have important implications for people with Alzheimer’s disease and their families.

One of the loneliest things about loving someone with early Alzheimer’s is the feeling that any good times the two of you share just don’t matter.

Family Caregiver Alliance

“So often I’ll listen to family members say, ‘Oh, I don’t go and visit Grandpa anymore because 10 minutes after I leave, he doesn’t even remember I came,’ ” says Justin Feinstein, a graduate student in neuropsychology at the University of Iowa.

Feinstein had a hunch that those visits made more of an impression than anyone realized. To check, he turned to several people who, like Alzheimer’s patients, have damage to a spot in the brain called the hippocampus.

He describes it as a “kind of a sea-horse-shaped structure right in the middle of the brain, no bigger than the pinkie.”

Damage your hippocampus, and you can’t hang onto new memories for more than a few minutes. It can happen through a stroke, epilepsy or Alzheimer’s disease.

Feinstein says, “Your brain is no longer able to catch onto those experiences, so your day-to-day experiences, like what you had for breakfast this morning, what you did last Saturday night, those are gone. They’re vanished.”

But Feinstein suspected that the good feelings and bad feelings triggered by meaningful events might linger, captured by a different part of the brain.

So, to stir up some strong emotion, he threw a mini-film fest in his clinic. He showed several people who have damage to the hippocampus a string of short movie clips from tear-jerker classics.

One was the scene in Forrest Gump where he is crying all alone at the grave of his dead wife, Jenny.

It worked. Everyone who watched the film clips was visibly moved — some to tears. Yet a half-hour later, when quizzed about the movies, they didn’t remember a thing — not even one woman who had sobbed during the films.

“We test her memory, her memory’s gone,” Feinstein says. “What happens to her emotions? Well, it turns out she’s still sad…Continued


Believing In Miracles

April 18, 2010 by  
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There are days when I’m reminded of a moment in time that I’d not thought of for a long time. My heart smiles. My soul dances. My tears fall. I am trying so hard to stand strong and trust. The path that leads you to a place where your prayers and dreams come true is there, trust and believe in miracles…

Death is nothing at all.

I have only slipped away into the next room.

I am I and you are you.

Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.

Call me by my old familiar name,

speak to me in the easy way which you always used.

Put no difference into your tone;

wear no false air of solemnity or sorrow.

Laugh as we always laughed

at the little jokes we enjoyed together.

Play… smile… think of me… pray for me.

Let my name be ever the household word that it always was.

… I am but waiting for you, for an interval,

somewhere very near just around the corner.

All is well.

Canon Henry Scott Holland, English Clergyman and Theologian



Why We Cry

September 23, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured

By John-Paul Flintoff

Women do it 64 times a year, men just 17. Actors and politicians do it on demand. But why does crying happen in the first place? John-Paul Flintoff learns that even scientists are still guessing.

I had behaved badly, and feared the worst. I went looking for my father, gave him a reasonably accurate report, then did something that – now I think about it – seems rather odd.

Specifically, I released a salty, protein-rich fluid from my lachrymal apparatus, improvised adjustments in the muscles of facial expression, added a few non-specific and incomprehensible vocalizations, and convulsively inhaled and exhaled air with spasms of the respiratory and truncal muscle groups. To put it another way, I cried.

Like most boys, I sometimes allowed my conduct to deviate from the ideal: running around the house, gabbing on my brother, setting things alight. But the occasion I have in mind was different. Not because of the specifics of my crime, which I no longer recall, but because this time my father interrupted to tell me I was too old to cry. (How old? Somewhere between eight and 12, is my best guess.)

His point, I suspect, was that for years he had not expected me to take criticism tearlessly, but now he did. As it happens, he does not remember the incident – and insists he has never felt anybody can be “too old to cry” as such – but it lives with me still, the shocking realization that I could no longer squeeze out tears to escape trouble. A rite of passage for which there is no name, although we all go through this, or something like it

I have, of course, cried many times since then. Even relatively recently – in front of my father and others too – although not ordinarily to avoid a bollocking. As an adult I have cried for characters in films and books. I failed an important exam, once, because my eyes constantly flooded as I tried to put from my mind the death of a close relative the night before.

Bill Clinton was laughing and joking with colleagues at a funeral when he noticed he was being filmed, immediately became serious and welled up.

I burst into tears in front of a flatmate – a man – after my mother was made redundant some years ago. In my first job as a journalist, after spending a whole day sitting beside a nitpicking editor as he went through my work, I went home and cried to my girlfriend. After severing major blood vessels in my foot, I wept in front of my wife (as she had by then become) and a roomful of strangers. Four years ago, after reading the memoir of a woman dying from cancer, I drove to the reading group where that book had been chosen for discussion and cracked up on the freeway, allowing my tearful gaze to rest on a beautiful sunset and … driving into the car in front. (I stopped weeping, obviously, to exchange telephone numbers with the driver, but the incident provided still more reason for crying again afterwards.)

And let’s not forget this one. Last year, on a fast road in Texas, a squirrel dashed out in front of my car; even the slight bump caused by driving over it, minimal though that was, thanks to the excellent suspension on my rental car, was sufficient to generate tears.

To write this is embarrassing, even shameful. To cry for a squirrel; how could I be so pathetic? But it is also self-serving, hinting at a sensitive soul – and a bold move, to put all this on public record. As I was researching this story, a glamorous woman told me something that I only hope others feel too: “There is nothing more powerful than seeing a grown man cry. It shows a sensitivity and vulnerability that is very appealing.”

Over the centuries, as between cultures, the appropriate context for tears has varied considerably. St Francis of Assisi is said to have gone blind from too much crying. In the 12th century epic, Song of Roland, the lords of France weep bitter tears, pull their beards and faint from grief. As Tom Lutz writes in his brilliant and witty book, Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears, only Monty Python could do justice to the idea of 20,000 knights in armor weeping and fainting and falling off their horses.

Among later European classics, comedians could have fun with The Sorrows of Young Werther, in which Johann Goethe’s hero sobs almost constantly, and many Victorian melodramas that came after. (Europe dried up, it is said, during the First World War, because there was just too much to cry about. But I reckon crying became unfashionable earlier, around the time Oscar Wilde joked that you would need a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Dickens’s Little Nell.)

A common ruse of journalism is to justify writing about something by claiming that it is on the increase. But to write that we are all crying a lot more these days would be absurd because any such change would be glacially slow. All the same, we tend to forget how often we do cry. In one study, researchers asked English speakers to keep daily records and, at the end of the year, to estimate how frequently they had cried. The guesses were much lower than the diaries showed: women cry 64 times a year, on average, and men 17.

To find out what sets us off, I recently looked up stories that appeared this year in two mid-market newspapers, in which the words “crying” and “tears” both occurred. The subjects they covered most often were, in roughly this order: the deaths, births and illnesses of children; and of parents; cheating husbands; and violent ones; absent fathers; pedophilia; rape; adoption; the hell of school exams; remembering lost loves; or retired guide dogs; accepting an award for acting; problems with builders; and onions. Most of these things, thankfully, do not arise often. The most common causes of crying are low-level frustration or sad moments on TV. Which may explain why, according to extensive research, adults cry most frequently when they are alone, at home, between 7pm and 10pm.

No other animal sheds emotional tears (as opposed to tears of irritation). Charles Darwin, who confirmed this in his book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, acknowledged that crying could be useful to infants for attracting attention from caregivers, but ultimately concluded that tears were more or less useless; like the appendix, an exception to the rule that purposeless behavior and body structures will not be maintained during the course of evolution.

Perhaps he was right and we will eventually lose this faculty. If we do we may miss it because, as a means to stop intimidation, crying would seem to be less humiliating than the chimpanzee’s preferred tactic of presenting the hindquarters.

The pageant of public life is frequently enlivened by tears from grown men (and women, of whom more later). These leaky outbursts, even following behavior more than usually shameful, can raise a man’s popularity and immediately produce forgiveness – if not necessarily from the individuals he has hurt, then at least from anonymous millions who read the newspapers and watch TV.

But even the most powerful weapons in the armor of public relations do not always work. In the US, the Democrat Ed Muskie flunked the 1972 presidential primaries after crying in front of the press corps. (A hostile press had written that Muskie’s wife was “emotionally unstable”. He claimed they were not tears on his cheeks but snowflakes.)

In Russia, the former prime minister, Nikolai Ryzhkov, who also cried on camera, was forever after derided as the “weeping Bolshevik”. But many others have turned tears to their advantage, including Oliver North in the Contra hearings, Jim Bakker, the fraudulent TV evangelist, and Bill Clinton, who always managed to tear up at need.

Once, notoriously, Clinton was laughing and joking with colleagues at a funeral when he noticed he was being filmed, immediately became serious and welled up.

Such weeping, less than fully sincere, may put you in mind of Lewis Carroll’s walrus, in Through the Looking Glass, who weeps for the oysters as he cheerfully eats them. Or of the musician Liberace, who said after he was libeled that he would “cry all the way to the bank”. Or the poet Robert Lowell, who memorably wrote that we “piss hogwash through our eyes”.

Despite this roll of male dishonor, studies have shown that women, in particular, use crying purposely to manipulate others. This has long been suspected. Over the years women’s tears have been described as “the world’s greatest water power”, and “stronger than any acid”. According to one proverb: “Every woman is wrong until she cries.” Outdated misogyny?

British Prime Minister’s wife, Cherie Booth, had tears in her eyes during a speech defending herself against behaving improperly in a deal relating to her son’s university accommodation. Several newspapers unkindly interpreted those tears as forced. She was faking, they insisted, to win sympathy that she did not deserve. But surely she is a bit old for that. Whatever would her father say?

At birth, most babies cry at C or C-sharp. (That is, according to one American study.) As they grow older, they learn to cry at different pitches, and with different intensities, durations and qualities. At around 10 months, they cease to cry primarily when alone, in favor of crying when a caregiver is present: crying becomes manipulative.

Along with the noise – and usually, as we get older, without it – come tears. Ordinary tears, which lubricate the eyeballs every waking minute, are produced continuously in the lachrymal gland, which rests between the frontal bone and the eyeball, at up to two microliters a minute, or nearly 10 ounces a day. They flow from the outside, upper edge towards the center and drain away through puncta, or holes, on the lower eyelid.

If the flow is excessive, as the result of yawning, coughing, vomiting or sneezing – or a poke in the eye – the 0.3 mm-wide punctum cannot handle the flow, and tears slosh over the edge of the eyelids. This also happens when we weep.

But what causes emotional tears? The philosopher William James, following Darwin, considered emotions to be little different from reflexes, occurring without prior rational thought. Only after experiencing the bodily sensations of, say, anger or fear, James argued, do we cognitively recognize the emotions. But this does not explain why the bodily sensations arise in the first place. Nor is it clear how James accounts for blushes, which, as anybody can testify, come after embarrassing thoughts, not the other way round.

And anyway, if bodily state alone determines emotions, why does the losing team in a football match feel miserable and the winning side euphoric – when both have played for the same duration, on the same pitch and in the same conditions?

More confusingly, the same thoughts can produce two different emotions. Pity and schadenfreude both arise from the contemplation of somebody else’s misfortunes. So why does only pity make us cry? Hormones certainly have some influence: in tests, patients injected with adrenaline have reported feeling something like an emotion but not the emotion itself. (“I feel as if afraid,” said one. “I feel as if I were going to weep without knowing why.”) But neurologists are unsure of the precise pathways of the nerves controlling the glands that release hormones, let alone what happens in the brain to stimulate them.

They have, however, identified two different memory systems: one declarative and one emotional. People with brains damaged in accidents, who lose the use of only one of these systems, either (a) react with great fear to a person who hurt them, but without having any explicit memory of that person or the injury or (b) remember clearly the person and the injury but without strong feelings. This suggests that reason and emotions are not opposed to each other, as Plato long ago suggested. On the contrary, it indicates that reason and emotions need each other to function properly.

One person hoping to find answers to these mysteries is Ad Vingerhoets, one of a handful of academics, worldwide, to have devoted their attention to crying. Like Lutz, he recently came to London for a conference on adult crying hosted by the Freud Museum, but I meet him in Tilburg, in the Netherlands – a place best known for its soccer team, PSV Eindhoven, a rock academy, and the university where Vingerhoets is professor of clinical psychology.

Vingerhoets had worked for years on the psychophysiology of the emotions when somebody at a party set him thinking. “A man asked me, ‘Is crying really healthy? I don’t believe it.’ I couldn’t tell him. There’s very little in the textbooks.” Over time, the professor became consumed by the subject, which everybody thinks they understand, but which proved less comprehensible the more he looked into it. (Is sobbing fundamentally different from merely getting watery eyes, or for that matter a quivering lip? Nobody knows.)

At Tilburg, the study of psychology is scientifically rigorous, based on laboratory tests rather than mythology and metaphor. One of Vingerhoets’ PhD students, Michelle Hendricks, is analyzing the distress caused by seeing somebody else cry. This morning, as part of an experiment, she has a volunteer coming in to watch a movie in the lab: a room at the end of the corridor has been specially prepared, with a huge TV set-up before a leather-effect sun-lounger.

The volunteers are undergraduate students, obliged to take part in a certain number of experiments each year, but allowed to choose which ones. Before the film begins, they are told what will happen and asked to sign insurance forms. Next, they complete a questionnaire about their mood and climb on to the sun-lounger, where Hendricks wires them up to monitors assessing, among other things, blood pressure, heart rate and sweating. They are also given a button to press whenever the film, Once Were Warriors, elicits tears.

When it ends, they must complete another questionnaire. One volunteer recently pressed the button eight times, reports Hendricks with evident satisfaction, but roughly three-quarters do not press it at all. “I think maybe the movie is not touching enough. It’s pretty violent. Also the environment may affect them. They’re in a strange room with all kinds of wires . . .”

Examining the forms from her latest volunteer, Hendricks says: “She was happy before the film. Not so much after.”

I find this fascinating, but wonder if Vingerhoets and his team ever worry about the seriousness of their work. As he drives me to the airport, the professor seems to admit as much when he tells me about a friend and former colleague, a world expert in blinking, who gave it all up for a career in politics. “This would seem to be one answer to the question of ‘why oh why?’.”

I leave Holland little clearer about my own crying habits, let alone those of Cherie Booth. But soon afterwards I come across another piece of research, much like the one Donkers mentioned. In tests, individuals were asked about their own reactions to watching men and women cry, and also how they thought other people would react in the same situation. Most felt that “people” would be more bothered by male crying than they themselves were – indicating a substantial, if unacknowledged, acceptance of male crying.

This makes a lot of sense. The British soccer player Paul Gascoigne became a national icon in 1990 after he cried in the World Cup, even though his tears were entirely self-pitiful. Then there are the weeping movie stars. Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Tom Hanks are well known as sensitive types, but even the conventionally macho Mel Gibson, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis have shed tears on film. Indeed, it has been argued that actors are more likely to win awards if their performance requires them to cry.

Thinking about this, I wonder whether, after decades of exhortation from pop psychologists – many of whom believe crying to be therapeutic, although this has yet to be supported by hard evidence – men have acquired a new license to cry in public. And whether, owing to the even mightier imperatives of feminism, women have felt an equal and opposite prohibition.

Lutz, in his book, hints at exactly such an idea. He believes this may be part of a more general trend towards the centre: just as politicians seek to position themselves away from the extremes of left and right, so men cry to prove they are “not too manly” and women suppress tears to prove they are “not too feminine”. For me, this can only be good news. Cherie Booth, on the other hand, may regret making the mistake of crying while also not being a man.

But did she, as accused, fake her tears? I ask Mark Borkowski who, in addition to wearing pinstripes and advising major companies on public relations, has a background in performing arts. “In public life,” he says, “you are always under pressure, and you have to show strength. We have a tradition where you can’t show emotion; you’re trained to deal with the media and not to be seen as who you really are . . . People do want to see the honest human face, and when someone cries, there’s huge appreciation. But they might also think this has been manipulated.

“If you went into the street and asked people if they thought PR people were using tears for leverage, I think seven or eight out of 10 would say ‘yes’, so you have to take that into account. And there’s too much light on the puppet strings, when it comes to the Blairs, so if I’d been asked I would not have advised her to cry.”

But each client is different. “If someone said to me – before a press conference or interview – ‘Look, I really want to keep a stiff upper lip’,” continues Borkowski, “I would probably say, ‘No, let it go, people want to see the real you.’

“If they said, ‘I would like to pull out a hanky at paragraph eight in my speech,’ I’d say no.

“Nobody has ever asked me, but it may happen. If somebody publishes conclusive research, there are going to be a thousand publicists telling clients to think about using tears.”

If that happens, they may want to get in touch with Dee Cannon, an acting teacher who works at Britain’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and for private clients who have included actors Matthew Modine, Jon Voight, Courtney Love, the singer Craig David and the former soccer star David Ginola.

Cannon, who is in her 30s, wears sunglasses on the top of her head and sits back on the sofa with legs crossed – but leans forward urgently to explain the mysteries of the acting theory originated by Russian producer and actor Konstantin Stanislavsky, known as the Stanislavsky Method, and particularly his use of emotional memory.

In classes, she explains, students lie on the floor. To relax, they are encouraged to imagine themselves on a beach, or in a garden. Then she asks them to look back on a traumatic episode. “It’s normally death, to be honest,” she says. “Or it could be a car accident.”

Whatever it is, the memory must be at least five years old, because the emotion associated with anything more recent may be too strong to control. Cannon invites them to shut their eyes and consider every aspect of that event. “You get them to go back to the beginning of that particular day,” she explains. “Where were they? What were they wearing? What were the sounds and the smells? You try to get them right up to the moment when they picked up the phone and heard the bad news.”

Gradually, this forensic attention brings most students to tears. Is it odd, for Cannon, to see everybody crying at her feet? “A little.” But also gratifying? “Oh, absolutely.”

Afterwards, she asks students to identify the precise detail that elicited the tears. “It could be the look in someone’s eye, or an intake of breath, or the sound of the telephone.” Whatever it is, that’s the trigger they take with them into the studio, or on to the stage.

As in representations of drunkenness, says Cannon, the most effective criers appear to struggle against their condition. Thus, just as it is funnier to watch drunkards straining for sobriety than mere slurring and staggering, an audience is less likely to be moved by incontinent sobbing than by characters who fight back their tears.

“Well, it doesn’t always take much to produce tears, especially if you’re feeling a bit low in the first place . . .” She pauses, remembering something that is interesting, particularly for students of rock music, but which leaves me no more sure than I was before about my own tears; and less sure about Booth than my father was about me, justly, all those years ago.

“The point of acting techniques,” says Cannon, “is that you are in control. Vulnerability and sensitivity are not techniques – although if you are clever you can use them. When I worked with Sinead (O’Connor, the Irish singer and actor) she would just tap into something and cry. It was amazing. But she would say, ‘I’m on my period, I was feeling vulnerable before I came in’.”

John-Paul Flintoff is contributing editor, Financial Times Magazine.