Fr. Ron Rolheiser, omi

November 4, 2013

Karl Rogers once suggested that what's most private within us is also most universal. His belief was that many of the private feelings that we would be ashamed to admit in public are, ironically, the very feelings which, if expressed, would resonate most deeply inside the experience of others.

But this isn't always true in terms of our tears. Sometimes our private tears are only that, private tears, tears which are ours alone and which don't resonate with the feelings of others but rather cause them an unhealthy discomfort. Why don't all of our tears draw empathy?

Because not all tears are alike; there's a difference between weeping and whining. The former is healthy, the latter isn't.

Weeping is healthy. It's a wholesome expression in the face of loss. Moreover, when we weep we are giving expression to a sorrow that speaks not just of some private loss and pain, but somehow too of that same sadness within the entire world.

The loss we are mourning may seem a private thing, like the death of a loved one, but, if the focus of our grief is on the one lost rather than on ourselves, our weeping is essentially empathic. Our deep sadness then mourns a universal condition and connects us more deeply to the world, where death and loss spare no one. Everyone, ultimately, carries that same sadness.


Whining, on the other hand, is mostly self-pity. Unlike weeping, its focus is not on what has been lost to tragedy but is primarily upon ourselves, our hurt and our plea for sympathy. To whine is to hold a private wound up for public viewing in order to look for sympathy, like a child showing a bruised knee to his mother. We can feel sorry for a bruised child - the propriety there is not offensive - but the scenario is not nearly as palatable when we are adults.

We cry tears for different reasons and we cry tears in different ways. In all tears, the question is: "Who am I crying for, for someone else or for myself? What is causing my tears, sympathy for someone, sympathy for something or self-pity?"

That's not an easy question to answer because our tears are invariably a mix of both altruism and selfishness. Rarely are our tears pure, without self-pity, like the tears that Jesus wept over Jerusalem or the ones Mary wept under the cross of Jesus. Our tears can indict us just as much as they can exhibit empathy.

For instance, Thérèse of Lisieux suggests that when we cry tears over a broken heart, it is generally because we were seeking ourselves, rather than the other, inside that relationship. The tears are real, but they're hardly noble.

In a similar vein, Antoine Vergote, the renowned psychologist, suggests that the tears we cry when we feel guilty about doing something wrong are generally tears of self-pity rather than a sign of actual contrition. True contrition, he contends, evokes something else inside of us - sorrow.

What distinguishes sorrow from guilt is that, in sorrow, we weep because something we've done has hurt someone else. With tears of guilt, we're crying because we're feeling badly.


The difference between whining and weeping is often seen too in their aesthetics. Whining is invariably exhibitionistic, over-sentimental and causes discomfort to those witnessing it. It fails to keep a respectful aesthetic distance. In essence, it's bad art.

We've all experienced this at times, at a funeral perhaps, where, however tragic or sad the occasion, someone's tears were simply so raw and so exhibitionistic that we experienced them as somehow violating proper propriety. We felt uncomfortable for the person shedding those tears.

We experience this occasionally too to a lesser extent in bad popular art, where, in some song or film or novel, the sadness expressed is simply too raw, too sentimental or too juvenile to leave us a safe space within which to view it and digest it. Again, the fault is in the aesthetics, bad propriety. Bad art leaves us wanting to shield our eyes so as not to embarrass someone else or it leaves us feeling like we have ingested too much sugar. That's a second feature of whining; beyond being self-pitying, it's bad art.


So we need to be careful about the tears we shed in public and the frustrations we express out loud. Of course, none of our tears are pure, we're always crying too for ourselves. The same is true for our protests; there's always some self-interest involved. But, with that being admitted, we should strive to do more weeping and less whining, that is, to insure that when we express sadness or indignation in public our tears and our anger are expressing more empathy than self-pity.

Karl Rogers is right: What's most private inside us is also what's most universal. That's true too for our deep sadness, for our chronic heartaches, for a good number of our frustrations and for many of the tears we cry. But it's less true for our whining.