Let Your Tears Be Your Guide

A little over a year ago I was in the final minute of delivering a TEDx talk and quoted the closing lines of Mary Oliver’s poem, When Death Comes:

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world

The talk was focused on the idea that our best work doesn’t have to kill us. I’ve had to wrestle some pretty nasty influences in my career who told me I would only make a meaningful contribution if I beat myself bloody, celebrated exhaustion, and made sure everyone knew how hard I was working.

To free myself from those voices was a very emotional process — as some of those voices shaped my identity.

So, not surprisingly, as I delivered those lines of poetry tears welled in my eyes and my voice broke. I had to pause a few seconds to make it to the end. I felt Oliver’s line, “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world” so deeply in that moment.

Overall the speech went well and in the following weeks I was invited to have coffee with several folks from the TEDx event. One particular conversation slapped me in the face on a Tuesday morning as one gentleman, within five minutes of sitting down said, “You faked it right? The tears? Were those real or did you fake the to get a reaction from the audience?”


Faked the tears, huh?

I don’t remember exactly how the conversation ended or what I said, but I remember spending some time afterward thinking about the power of tears, why some of us avoid them, and what it is they might mean.

It didn’t take very long to recall a beautiful piece of writing from Frederick Buechner’s collection of essays Whistling in the Dark as he guides us to understand tears this way:

You never know what may cause them. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you’ve never seen before. A pair of somebody’s old shoes can do it. Almost any movie made before the great sadness that came over the world after the Second World War, a horse cantering across a meadow, the high school basketball team running out onto the gym floor at the start of a game. You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.

They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go to next.

I believe any moment we experience tears it is important, as Buechner says, to pay attention. Especially in moments the tears are caused by events other than sadness or grief — when the world rolls over and shows you its underbelly and you get a glimpse of something powerful and awe inspiring and you suddenly know something about your life you’ve been waiting to understand.

Perhaps you’ve found yourself with tears in your eyes in some of the following situations:

  • When you feel a sense of connection with, or discover empathy for, another.

  • When you feel heard or understood.

  • When you say something you’ve not said in a while and its truth surprises you and causes your voice to shake.

  • When you’ve been given a kindness or an opportunity you don’t feel you deserve.

  • When you sense the presence of justice supported by work in which you’re engaged.

  • When you witness the selflessness of others.

  • When you consider the most innocent of things — yourself as a child, folks with different intellectual capabilities who are ceaselessly positive, or dogs.

  • When you have a private victory no one else will never know about; perhaps you pause and realize you’ve changed. And whatever park or hallway or airport you’re in, you celebrate tearfully your silent growth.

  • When you’re in the middle of sharing a truth which has set you free, and you sense it might set others free as well.

  • When you’ve graciously been given another chance after making a mistake.

  • When someone you aren’t fond of redeems themself by being kind or generous and you realize they too have wounds, and they too are capable of love.

  • When you experience a moment when you are a part of something larger than yourself.

  • When you realize you did something to the best of your ability and have no regrets, even if you lost.

  • When you learn how to live a different story than the story others thought you were going to live.

  • When you watch Homeward Bound, Remember the Titans, Forrest Gump or any story that celebrates the power of persistence, relationships, or the underdog.

You know what I’m talking about?

Haven’t you found yourself a little misty during some of those moments above? I know you have.

What are those moments trying to tell us?

Again, Buechner says they are telling us the story of where we have come from, and if we are to be saved, where we are to go next.

So where have you come from?

Where are you going?

What great truth is found in the thin moments where the membrane between you and the greater story of your life is so thin you can see through it like a foggy window and, for some reason, can’t help but cry?

Recently I was running a workshop for college students where they share things they’re nervous about as they enter college in small groups, then a few small groups share with the larger group. Normally the things they share are quite vulnerable. To reinforce the importance of harnessing the courage to be vulnerable, after an individual shares with the group I’ll say quietly, “Are they alone?” to which the group replies, “No” — I’ll say again, louder, “Are they alone?” — the group shouts louder, “No!” Then I’ll ask, “Who’s got their back?” — to which hundreds of voices respond, “Me!” Then I’ll ask them, “Why?” — and they’ll shout, “Because we are Bobcats!”

Oh man, I cry every time.


Because solidarity is beautiful. This idea we’re not doing life alone reassures the most scared parts of me. Whoever we are, wherever we’ve come from — these people in this group will have my back.

Maybe I get tears when college students commit support to one another because I remember feeling alone when I started college. Or maybe it’s because I’ve always felt misunderstood. Or perhaps I’m touched by something I’ve yet to understand about myself. Regardless, to understand redemption happens with people is an important truth tears have shown me.

Another moment: When I talk about myself as a kid I’m overcome with emotion as I consider little Reagan’s deep desire to be understood, to be kind, and to do things right. As I think about the struggle he had growing up up to love himself, I lose it. Waterworks. Because I’m still trying to love myself.

So as an activity in reflection I’d ask you to consider moments filled with emotion which weren’t necessarily moments of sadness. Refer back to the list above as a reminder and consider these two questions:

  • Where did you come from? Who were you and why are those parts of your identity so important to carry with you?

  • Where must you go next? What convictions and truths become clear for you when you consider the poignant, tear-filled moments of your story?

This isn’t for everyone.

There’s an easier way to live.

After all, what does it require of us to find ourselves with tears in our eyes?

Risk. Pain. Vulnerability. Failure. Conflict. Fear. Commitment.

All very hard things to experience. Many of us prefer to charge forward with as few disturbances as possible.

But there are some of us who desire to read all the signals our lives might be sending to us, because maybe we’ve got a new lesson to learn which might make clear the very next step on the path we’re meant to travel.