I saw a young woman cry on the tube the other day and I couldn’t help but wonder why. Had she experienced a break up? The loss of a loved one? Or was it just one of those dreary days when even stepping on gum would stimulate tears? I was torn between whether to comfort her or leave her be.
Crying in public may not be desirable, but it is often unavoidable. After that treacherous blink which allows the tears, there is no going back until the mascara has been rinsed from our eyes.
Darwin was wrong when he called weeping “incidental” and “purposeless”; we cry to release the energy built up during emotional times, or at least to remove dust from our eyes. But does it follow therefore that we should let the taps run in public and not worry about the water bill of embarrassment?
Crying is usually seen as a personal affair to which only our nearest and dearest should bear witness. So is crying in public a sign of deeply sorrowful circumstances or a symbol of the blurring line between the private and public realms?
Many activities once confined to the private sphere are now public. We earwig on phone conversations, meet-up calls, break-up calls and even conference calls. As we travel to work, we watch people eat their breakfast and apply their makeup, spoon and eyelash curlers in hand. Others respect our privacy anywhere in which we feel private. People have built walls around them; walls which we would never dream of knocking down by simply talking to someone for fear of invading their privacy.
But when someone is hurting or crying out for help – literally or not – the private morphs into the public. Just as strangers would act to help a woman who has collapsed, they should act to help a woman who is crying. Making someone feel even more isolated in the modern world is insensitive.
So although I was inclined to comfort the lady on the tube in some way, I concluded that it would have been an encroachment on her privacy. In hindsight, I wish I had performed a small act of kindness.
Had I been approached in one of my few public-crying episodes, what would I have wanted? A hug? I can barely hug my friends, so probably not. I once welled up on the tube thinking about the end of Armageddon when Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler reunite. But, although it would have been mortifying to explain to someone that my tears were caused by the predictable end to a Hollywood film, a sympathetic smile would not have gone amiss.
I have seen countless tube seats offered to the elderly and to the pregnant, yet, when we see someone cry, we just leave them to their private moment, standing. Their tears may not make them less able to stand, but I’m sure they would be grateful for the seat.
The line between private and public is increasingly blurred, but the line between kindness and insensitivity should not be. I will still endeavour to leave my tears at home, but should I experience public sorrow, a tissue from a stranger would be nice.