Monday, April 29, 2013

the symbolism of tears

Why do we shed tears when we are sad?

Our eyes fill with tears when we cut up onions, or, when exposed to dust, etc. The function of tears here is to protect the eye surface.

But why does our eyes fill up with tears when we are hurt, or, feel sad, etc?

There is an emotional aspect to it, but before we go there, just get familiar with scenarios where our eyes actually fill up with tears.

1. While suffering from intense physical injury or a wound

If you had a nascent mouth ulcer and you purposefully put a pinch of salt over it, your eyes with probably start to fill up with tears...

Similarly any physical injury, like a hand fracture, etc could induce tears in the eyes.

Digressing a bit: infants know only one thing to do when they want something, or, when they know something is wrong – cry. And when they do, even their eyes also fill up with tears sometimes. Of course for the case of infants, the pitch with which they cry, the tone, etc are features that got naturally selected to evoke empathy in the person attending the infant. They actually call out for the person's help. The help that the infant receives will again be dependent on how fit that person is to provide to the child. (But that is a subject of another matter).

Say when the infant is grown up a bit and able to see and react to the surroundings; what would it do when it is approached by a predator, but the predator has not seen it yet. The infant can cry, but that would defeat the infant's chances of survival. So the infant eyes starts to fill up with tears first. Now for the mother/father, this is a sign that the infant is probably in danger, and hence the mother will take some actions to save her offspring.

Another theory (which is called the white flag theory) kind of says that in a fight, if one person happens to cry, its a sign of surrender or helplessness. The tears which the loser shed in this scenario is again to invoke empathy in the aggressor, so that the aggressor doesn't kill/punish the other individual.

In all these examples the function of tears are merely symbolic – they point to the fact that the individual is suffering from something, and its intended purpose here is to evoke empathy, and expect help from the other individual so that the subject's chances of survival relatively increases.

So in these situations relative success is only there when there are other individuals there capable of feeling empathy – in short people/individuals should be around the victim and should be willing to help.

2. While experiencing sadness

This is mainly a phenomenon common with the human species. As before tears symbolize suffering, but the suffering is something hard to understand in the case of sadness – it depends on the situation. When a child loses his parent he/she cries because of various reasons:
a) the parent's affection to the child that the child has gotten accustomed to...when the parent has expired the loss of affection is something of a shock for the child. This is purely psychological because it matters to what degree the child is aware of the affection, mental maturity, etc.
b) sometimes its just a gloomy outlook of the child's chances of survival itself since the protecting member has passed away. (But in this context, the child should again be mature enough to understand it).

There can be many reasons; it depends on the situation. The “suffering” is not exactly loneliness, but we shall call it so – since loneliness is something which reduces the chances of the individual's survival. The usage of the word loneliness encompasses a much larger scope that what is actually defined in the English language in this context.

It is a common pattern in most of the mammalian species which used to hunt or forage for food. Living in groups helped survival of the individual and the group collectively.

3. Tears appear when we feel empathy sometimes

Our eyes fill with tears when we've watched a tragic movie or read about a tragic love story. Sometimes when we hear some exceptional piece of musical composition, or an inspirational speech, our eyes fill with tears. The function of tears where is more of an empathetic symbolism – it is sometimes equivalent to saying I know because I feel the same way...

Last but not least...

The reason I write this post is because someone tweeted about it. I read the article and found my inspiration. Tears have a symbolic meaning usually. But for it to be symbolic there must be people to observe it and be able to take action on it; else the purpose of tears is lost. With this fact, please bear that when you happen to cry while all alone, it doesn't help at all, because the tear-ing incidentally happens to have evolved for a kind of social purpose meant to increase the individual's survival.

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