You know the idiom, crocodile tears? It’s used to refer to someone who cries for reasons like grief or guilt, but doesn’t truly feel those things. Someone, showing literal tears or not, who’s pretending to feel something in order to manipulate the situation in some way. It dates back to the 13th century after crocodiles were observed eating their prey with tears in their eyes as they did it. So the implication was that the crocodile was performing the ultimate act of pain onto another while their outward expression showed remorse. Essentially, shedding hypocritical tears. There’s even a human condition with this behavior called Bogorad’s Syndrome, or Paroxysmal Lacrimation, a.k.a Crocodile Tears Syndrome in which people uncontrollably cry while they’re eating. It’s believed to be caused by a misdirection of what should be saliva to lubricate and facilitate the chewing, to the tear ducts instead.
Almost every animal produces tears, even that crocodile… or they produce what we humans recognize as tears – some sort of liquid stemming from the eyeball region. An exception to this are rabbits, goats, all aquatic mammals, and elephants… all whom don’t even have tear ducts. The elephant is a surprising one on that list because a lot of images show them with watery eyes. But what looks like crying on an elephant is actually their body having evolved to steal water based liquid from their third eyelid to do things like protect the eye from debris or the climate. And while having a third eyelid to me sounds like a kickass superpower, we humans and most primates are some of the only creatures to not have them anymore. Fun fact, though – that tiny, pink part of the corner of your eye? That is actually the remnant of what once was a third eyelid. We just evolved to not need one anymore, but that little pink thing is all that’s left of it. It’s vestigial, meaning it’s a thing that we still have that no longer serves its original purpose, like our appendix or our tailbone, or all my underwired bras.
So while most animals who have eyes produce tears, human eyes are the only ones who produce them as a byproduct of emotions. Even that crocodile isn’t shedding those tears out of hypocrisy or any other emotion-stemmed reason. Only us humans have that ability. Other animals have the ability to feel emotions, they just don’t cry about them like we do. And I guess it could be easy to explain that with a modern take on it, like – well, humans just have more to cry about than, say, a crayfish. And that may be true. (I don’t exactly know what the ins and outs of being a crayfish are but I do know they did studies on them and found out they routinely are very stressed out creatures, which makes me and my emotions want to hug and massage one.) But in contrast to my inarguably excellent crayfish analogy… Yes, it’s true – We humans have, in fact, strategically built our lives with an abundance of things and stuff that could or could not / will most certainly produce an emotion at any given time… But I don’t think that’s the answer as to why humans are the only animals to produce tears based on emotions. And it’s actually taken the science world centuries to study why this may be.
In the 300’s BC, Aristotle concluded that human tears existed merely to clear our minds from suppressed emotions. Others thought they served to cleanse our bodies of toxins. In the 17th century, most people thought that our feelings quite literally warmed our heart, which then produced water vapor to cool it off, that then went looking for an escape and found one through our eyeballs. It wasn’t until later that century, in 1662, that a Danish scientist by the name of Niels Stensen discovered what is called the lacrimal gland which is located at the outer corner of the human eye. He discovered that this gland is where a certain type of tear that only humans produce is made.
So including the only type of tears that we make, there are three types of tears. There are Basal tears – those are always in our eyes and act as a lubricant to constantly protect our cornea from intruders. They’re like the Kevin Costner to our eyeballs. Reflex tears come as a response to our changing environment… whether you’re slicing an onion, the wind or some jerk blew dirt in your face, or you walk into a smoky room… the reflex tears are the ones that show up then.
And then there are the Emotional Tears; the only tears that separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom.
And emotional tears are the only kind of tears we humans have any control over… to an extent, I suppose. Sometimes we can’t really control their welling. Whether it’s from being in overwhelming awe of something magnificent, laughing so hard that you start crying (“laughter through tears is my favorite emotion”, Truvey from Steel Magnolias 😉 ), you fall and break your leg and the pain is so excruciating that the tears come automatically, or something – or someone – breaks your heart so hard you can’t help but cry about it. OR you’re one hell of an actor and manipulate the hell out of those lacrimal glands. Either way, it still is something that is within our control if you consider that our bodies and minds and hearts are the ones controlling the emotions that then produce the tears.
But what really fascinates me is that these emotional tears, these strictly human ones (also known as psychic tears), have a different composition than the other ones. They are literally made up of different elements than those that come from dirt in the eye or onion air. These emotional tears have more protein in their recipe, thus making them more viscous and therefore able to stick to the face easier / better / longer than the others.
Why would this be? What scientific reason would there be that these only human tears are made so that they have more staying power? Let’s start with the very beginning of us being humans. Little baby us-es. A human baby cries when it needs… anything. It’s their only way of communication for at least their first several months of living. Unlike other mammal babies who slip ‘n slide out able to walk within seconds, our newborns desperately need the help of other humans in order to literally survive. But… they’ve done studies that show human baby tears have less protein than those of human adult tears.
Wanna know what I think? Sure you do. The protein in the tears is what gives the solution the thickness to linger on the human cheek, making them visible for longer periods of time. And the emotional tears of human babies telling you they are hungry or tired or bored or just plain alive don’t actually need to be seen. A properly cared for infant has a well adept older adult human close by all the time to tend to their needs. Hungry? Here’s a bottle. Or a boob. Tired? Here’s me rocking you to soothe you into slumber. Bored? Wherrrrre’s Mommy? HERE SHE IS! But adults… adults aren’t generally in constant closeness with a caregiver. Adults, with their sticky tears, literally have to PROVE the crying in order to get anything out of them. The proof is on their face! Whether it’s the mirrored expression from, and therefore reassurance of, their best friend with whom they just laughter-through-teared, an ambulance call for that broken leg, or a hug for that broken heart, the human adult has evolved to uncontrollably use those tears as a tool for connection.
Humans, whether we want to admit it sometimes or not, desperately need human connection in order to feel fulfilled. They’ve done tons of studies on the correlation between human contact (not just physical) and happiness and overall health and found that human connection decreases certain health risks by improving our immune systems, lowering depression and anxiety, raising self esteem, and even helping us live longer. It’s medicine, human connection. And eventually along the way, we humans started literally drifting apart from one another. We used to live in caves and huts, we hunted and gathered together, raised our children together… And think of how we live now. Sure you may live with other humans in a house, and maybe you even work in an office with other humans, pass other humans on the street every day, but on average I think a lot of humans don’t get a lot of actual connection. I mean, most humans today are face-down in their phones and constantly oblivious to the real time connections they could be making throughout their day.
And what I think the everpresent protein in our emotional tears is saying is that we – on a basic, fundamental and scientific level – require that connection. We are deficient in the vitamin, the medicine that is human connection, validation and reassurance. Support. Community. Fellowship.
What is the first thing you think to do when you see someone cry in sadness? Go to them. Offer support in some way – whether it’s your shoulder, your ear, or just holding their hand through whatever they’re going through. The instinct is to be there with them. The fact that our emotional tears have evolved to stick to our faces says that they had to because we stopped being close with people in the first place. So the tears have to be a literal proof of a need to connect with someone. A tangible example of the need for a hand to brush them away.
To come close.
As fascinating as this is, it’s also sad. I’m no scientist, but the more I’ve studied about this, the more I realize we’re more sad than we let on. We’re just a bunch of busy people surrounded by a bunch of other busy people every day, so sad on the inside and we don’t even know it. We teach our children, our babies even, to grow up and mature as quickly as they can. That’s the point, right? Get them to the next step, the next level; to disconnect. They crawl to move away, then they walk to move away, they go away to school, they’re encouraged to get a job away, find a new home away… To do all of these things on their own and to not need help or connection anymore. To get to the point of this whole life thing which is to not have to rely on anyone anymore.
We do grow up to be self sufficient and more physically and emotionally capable, but we also never age out of needing something from someone. No one does. We’re just trained to not act upon it. From the very beginnings of our independent physicality, we are taught that it is not only correct, but rewarded as best, to do it on our own. So as adults we suppress those urges for help and keep building walls to protect ourselves from the need to ask. Wanting help or needing it isn’t the most comfortable thing to feel. But that’s only because we have been conditioned to do things on our own. By the very people who were there for us when we cried out for hunger, or sleep, or entertainment, we are taught to be as independent as we can. So really if you think about it – at some point most, if not all, of us essentially are betrayed by the most beautiful connection to ever exist as humans. We learn on a very deep and unspoken level that humans needing humans is a temporary condition. Like soft spots or the lack of knee caps. Growing up – and out – of the consistent human connection.
And of course, most, if not all, of us end up finding other humans to connect with and the life cycle continues. We have our own children and take from what we learned and what we hoped would have been and put it all into them. But what I’ve learned is that blood family shouldn’t be your relied upon source for human connection, it shouldn’t be just the thing that you assume is there to be called a connection. If anything, we just learned how fragile and temperamental that connection can be.
I’ve always thought that it’s important to build as many connections as you can throughout your life cycle. Some of them won’t last forever, and a lot of them should not, but those connections – any and all of them – are forever a part of you. They are a basic human need, just like breathing. They are the medicine and the vitamin, the serum and the elixir, the bread and the butter of living a healthy and happy life for as long as you’re allowed.
Whatever religion you subscribe to, whatever faith you may have in something that’s larger than you, or faith in something that is just as significant as your own insignificance, this current life will come to some sort of an end at some point. And whether you believe that end is the end-end, or that it’s just the end that sparks a new beginning, we do have only a finite amount of time to make our connections where we are right now. And sometimes we may never know we missed them until it’s too late.
I think a lot about what it must be like to know you’re leaving this life. Is that a gift? A burden? I guess it depends on the person and the life they led. I’d like to think I’m living my life metabolizing all that I can from the things and the people I’ve connected with, and shitting out what no longer serves me, but the truth is I don’t know. None of us really know how our life gets summed up. I don’t know what it’s like to know that you’re dying and what it would feel like to know that everything you have done, all the connections you made or denied in this life are all that there will ever be, but I do know that I have lived my life having connected with so many people who have taught me so many things. And even the ones who didn’t last – maybe even especially those – have made a lasting impression on me. Whether it’s things they taught me, or things I taught myself in spite of it all, I have continued to grow and thrive all because of the many connections I made in my lifetime.
A lot of us lost people during the pandemic; people everywhere are losing someone everyday. And I know first hand what losing a deep connection can feel like. It feels like a hole begging to be filled again… with something, anything. And it is really, really hard to figure out what to do with that hole. First, it just stays empty. And that emptiness somehow is the most heavy thing you have ever had to carry. And then you begin to fill the hole with small things. Walks alone with your thoughts, walks with a friend, bagels. Then you start feeling light enough to do the heavy lifting and you train yourself to exist without that connection you once relied so strongly upon. You read books about other people who lost their connections, you listen to the stories of people you think you can learn and grow from. You suddenly find yourself immersed in support, community, fellowship, closeness. Almost as if that lost connection was not an ending, but rather a beginning. As if the crack in that foundation is what allowed the light to come through and illuminate the path you always needed; the path to find the healthy happiness that had been hiding in the shadows. And at some point, you emerge anew with that hole now filled with even more connections than the one you lost in the first place.
Connection, that’s the whole point of this life thing, I think. That’s the good sauce, right there. The one finger from Curly in City Slickers. The reason why Nemo was found. The reason John McClane got out of the building alive. It’s in all of us, even the crayfish (even though I’m pretty sure they’ll eat the other one if they’re too close… I should really do a deep dive on crayfish). But it’s really just all about connection at the end of the day.
So don’t be afraid to cry a protein tear to get it, but also don’t be afraid to just put some of your insides on the outside… even if the crying is what has to get you there. Who knows who that could connect you to. And please be patient and kind enough to yourself to allow those connections to last just as long as they’re supposed to. Then give yourself the grace and time to digest from it what you can, and then shit out the toxins of what shouldn’t remain.
So I guess the point of this article is fourfold.
- Hug every elephant you can, even if those tears are just third eyelid mucous.
- Ask for help as much as you offer it.
- Even those behind a crocodile tear are in need of something from someone. Give grace to the things you can’t understand.
- Hold onto your babies as long as you can, don’t rush into the independent part; it’ll happen. And when it does, be sure they feel in their tailbone that you never disconnected.
thanks for reading, ya’ll. much love x