Sorrow's Springs: Tracing the Tracks of Tears

I'm not a crier.

I don't well up at weddings, or even at funerals. Sad movies might leave me with a lump in my throat, but rarely send me scrounging for Kleenex. It's not that I'm a stoic by nature. I just don't turn on the waterworks much.

But there is a Latin phrase that I read recently that haunts me. Sunt lacrimae rerum. It's from Virgil's Aeneid, part of a speech Aeneas makes as he gazes at a mural of the Trojan War and remembers his fallen comrades.

Scholars have argued about the translation for centuries. Some say it's "there are tears of things," as though the universe itself might weep over human calamity. Others insist that "there are tears at the heart of things" is the accurate reading. In any case, it's more than the violence and loss of battle that Aeneas laments. It's the pain that informs all of human experience.

It's what Shelley meant when he wrote that "our sincerest laughter/with some pain is fraught." The Japanese poet Basho summed it up in 17 syllables: "Even in Kyoto/Hearing the cuckoo's cry/I long for Kyoto." Knoxville's own literary giant James Agee wondered "who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of night."

At the wedding of my youngest son, a day of near perfect joy, a friend played a guitar solo that seemed to soar and reach the vaulted ceiling of the church. As the final notes faded, there came a fretful whimper from a back pew. The bride's year-old nephew had reached the end of his tether. It's a memory that stays with me. In the midst of beauty, there is always a cry.

In some religious traditions, this earthly sojourn is described as a vale of tears. St. Teresa of Avila called life a night spent in a wretched inn. The reality of pain is one of the first Noble Truths of Buddhism.

It's not a popular concept in 21st century America. Tears are a downer, a bummer. Sniveling is for losers and victims. If pain is acknowledged, it is only as the passing price of gain. The papering over of sadness is a central tenet of modern life, mirrored in every glossy TV ad and Real Housewives episode. But somehow this papering over, this ratcheting up of denial, becomes its own program for misery.

There is a man I see often on the streets of Knoxville, sometimes downtown, sometimes on the Strip or farther along Kingston Pike. I've seen him for years, and he remains a mystery to me. Neatly dressed, he walks with his arms flung upward and his face raised towards the sky. Silent, his lips move as though he is conversing with an unseen other. Once or twice he has appeared at my church, standing quietly in the line for communion. There, briefly, his arms are still and his eyes downcast.

There are days when this man seems to me to personify the human condition. His posture of supplication echoes a longing that lies at the very heart of existence, a reaching up towards peace and wholeness that is a kind of witness. Cocooned in my car on the way to work, my mind darting from one temporal concern to another, I glimpse him on a street corner. For a second, the day shifts, slots into perspective. My eyes fill. Lacrimae rerum. Tears at the heart of things. Or the tears of things. Or just tears, plain and simple, the tears that come without warning, from nowhere. The tears that remind us of the journey we're all on, its brevity, its inevitable sorrow. Its unbearable beauty.