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What Do We See When We See Tears?

There have been many tears shed this past week, like every week.  Somehow those of a woman in China seem especially evocative.

China quake elderly woman

She is siting outside of a house that was damaged by the earthquake last Saturday in Sichuan province, China.  Her family’s house, we can assume.  You can guess that someone has moved the couch into the courtyard and parked her there, while other items are also being salvaged so that they can have water and perhaps a meal.

A much younger woman is caught mid-motion, and it is easy to imagine her going back and forth, in and out, attending to the many new problems all around her, but always with the unconscious energy of those not yet old.  She doesn’t need a heavier coat for the same reason, as she will be continuously active throughout the day.  The damage and disruption will be causing her a lot of trouble, but she can be engaged in dealing with that, and the quake already will be moving into the past while she has plenty of future in front of her.

By contrast, the older woman can only sit and absorb the fear and loss still reverberating like aftershocks through her small world.  She is bundled up for the cold and seems vulnerable, even precarious, holding on to the armrest as if she might fall, even though her body seems too heavy to move on its own.  The bright floral cushions and her stylish hat and coat seem almost a mockery of her predicament: instead of an abundant life, she seems on the verge of abandonment.

And she is crying.  Perhaps it’s a delayed physiological reaction to the earlier trauma, or fear of the unknown or of her own vulnerability, or distress at not being able to be helpful, or grief over possessions that have been lost or loved ones who are unaccounted for or have been harmed.  Or, or, or. . . .  There are many reasons to cry.

Critics of photography often fault the medium for a supposed propensity to emotional excess and to evoking the wrong emotions–not least those self-serving, power-laden, condescending, bourgeois emotions such as pity.  This photo could be seen that way, but I don’t think that is really what is being offered.  Frankly, there is every indication that the women is going to be OK.  So what are we being shown, or asked to do?

One might imagine that she actually is being useful in the scene, that she has a job to do.  Her job is to experience the emotional wreckage that is the invisible consequence of the quake or any other disaster.  I’m making this up, of course, but to make a point.  The quake will have spurred many people to high levels of activity, and activity often is used to manage–that is, defer and deny–intensely negative emotions such as fear, sorrow, and helplessness.  That emotional management is necessary to contend with and recover from disaster, and perhaps not entirely a bad thing anyway (let’s not make an art of feeling miserable), but it also is a lost opportunity.  What is lost is an ability to know oneself, connect with others, and actually think about the risk that lead to the disaster–a risk that already is being forgotten.

Even when the disaster is far away, the spectators elsewhere may spend more time watching and then find the rest of their day busier for that.  And they may volunteer, send money, give blood, and so forth  (The photo was used at the New York Times to accompany a story on changes in Chinese philanthropy when responding to disasters.)  Disaster coverage can put powerful emotions into circulation, but it also can energize practices of emotional management.  Amidst all the activity, there could be no one left to cry.

So let me suggest one answer to the question in the title to the post.  When we see tears, we might see an opportunity for knowledge, solidarity, and change that we otherwise would have missed.

Photograph by a stringer for Reuters.



What Do We See When We See Tears?


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