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The Benefits of a Good Cry in a Polarized Society

Tear-jerker films, now gone, once permitted communal catharsis in the dark.

Key points

  • Societal norms that once allowed us to express our feelings collectively have all but vanished.
  • Tear-jerker films can offer a space for individuals to show their compassion and humanity.
  • Shared vulnerability is a powerful antidote to the isolation of modern life.

In an age where society feels increasingly polarized, angry, and teetering on the edge of violence, the profound need for communal crying in public is instructive. Our emotions are pent up beyond belief, and societal norms that once allowed us to express our feelings collectively have all but vanished.

The ancient Greeks understood the importance of catharsis, an emotional release that maintained one’s mental health and sanity. Attending the theater for a dramatic catharsis was a regular communal event, allowing citizens to vent their emotions safely and collectively.

The Lost Art of Emotional Release

Today, we find ourselves devoid of socially acceptable outlets for emotional release. What happened to the shared rituals that once permitted the public to release their pent-up feelings in a secure space? The cinema once provided a darkened theater in which audiences could cry together, experiencing a collective emotional catharsis.

Hollywood’s Golden Age produced an entire genre known as “tear-jerkers,” which reliably reduced audiences to sobs. These films offered a space for individuals to show their compassion and humanity, reminding each one that they were individually worthy of compassion, too.

The Healing Power of Communal Crying

The experience of communal crying is deeply healing. It allows us to feel connected to others and part of the human race. The release of pent-up emotions through crying reduces stress, improves mood, and fosters a sense of belonging.

When we cry together, we acknowledge our vulnerabilities and build emotional resilience. This shared vulnerability is a powerful antidote to the isolation and fragmentation that characterize modern life today.

Sentimentality plays a crucial role. We are naturally drawn to sentiment because it taps into our deep-seated need for connection and empathy. Sentimental experiences remind us of our shared humanity and the universal nature of emotions. By engaging with sentiment, we allow ourselves to be moved, to feel deeply, and to connect with others on a profound and sometimes even spiritual level.

Rediscovering Collective Emotion

Why have we forgotten how to feel anything collectively besides indignant outrage? The rise of social media and the 24-hour news cycle have contributed to a culture of instant reaction, elevated blood pressure, and polarized arguments.

Rather than engaging in a civilized debate of ideas—as America’s Founders could do even in the face of heated passions and violent disagreements—today we resort to invective and name-calling as if berating one’s opponents were going to be more successful than trying to persuade and win them over to your point of view.

This shift has eroded our ability to engage in meaningful emotional connection let alone expression. Opposite parties are not even interested any longer in persuasion—it takes too much work when feeling outraged feels so much more satisfying even when it achieves nothing.

To counteract this corrosive trend, we might rediscover the power of communal catharsis. Cinema has a long history of facilitating such experiences from the silent era onwards. Noir cinema tear-jerkers like Casablanca (1942), Mildred Pierce (1945), and Dark Passage (1947) were immensely popular because they tapped into deep emotional themes of love, loss, and redemption.

These films moved huge audiences by presenting complex characters and situations that mirrored their own struggles and aspirations during the fraught period of World War II.

The Power of Modern Tear-Jerkers

Gerd Altman / Pixabay
Movies can provide a healing, collective catharsis.
Source: Gerd Altman / Pixabay

In recent years, films like The Fault in Our Stars (2014), A Star is Born (2018), and Marriage Story (2019) have continued the tradition of moving audiences to tears. These modern tear-jerkers resonate with viewers because they explore universal themes of love, loss, and human connection. By portraying raw and authentic emotions, these films invite audiences to engage in a shared emotional experience.

The Fault in Our Stars captures the poignancy of young love in the face of terminal illness, allowing audiences to empathize deeply with the characters' struggles. A Star is Born delves into the complexities of fame, addiction, and relationships, eliciting a powerful emotional response. Marriage Story portrays the painful realities of divorce, drawing viewers into the intimate and heart-wrenching journey of its protagonists.

Moving Forward

To heal our fractured society, why not embrace the power of communal crying in public?

Within a space for collective emotional release, we can reconnect with our shared humanity and nurture a sense of empathy and compassion. With its ability to move audiences and tap into deep emotions, cinema is an underutilized tool for facilitating these experiences today.

Think well about the importance of sentimentality and emotional connection. By allowing ourselves to feel deeply and cry together, we can break down barriers that divide us to become more compassionate and connected—certainly less isolated and lonely.

The healing power of communal crying is not just a nostalgic notion from the past but a crucial element for our collective emotional well-being.

The need for shared emotional experiences such as openly crying in public (far better than blind rage and contempt hurled by opposite sides, isn't it?) is more pressing than ever. Let us rediscover their cathartic power. Acknowledging our vulnerabilities and connecting with others through the healing power of tears can create a more compassionate world in which we can grant, without rancor, other points of view—assuming that we want to.

More from Richard E. Cytowic M.D.
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