I generally avoid crying in public. By “avoid,” I mean I will chew my cheeks and tongue raw, imagine professors in old-fashioned bathing costumes, resort to sharp sarcasm–do almost anything–to pull myself out of emotion’s current. But a few days ago, I shamelessly cried in a theatre full of friends and strangers.
My university’s theatre department put on A Piece of My Heart, a play that tells the stories of women who served in Vietnam. I, along with the rest of the audience, felt a piece of my own heart break off in the dark theatre on Friday night. And as I slowly wandered home through ice and snow, my breath rolling up like a fog machine’s expulsions toward stars like spotlights, I wondered what on earth induced me to stand in a crowded theatre, clapping and sobbing unashamedly.
Why do we love sorrow? Nicholas Sparks makes bank by killing off characters. The Fault in Our Stars raked in millions. Try imagining Harry Potter without all those beloved characters suffering and dying. Why do we cling to things that rip our hearts out?
I don’t claim to know the deep secrets of humanity, but here are some thoughts:
Loneliness is normal. We live surrounded by people, and, pressed into the crowds, we feel inexplicably alone. People ask, “How are you?” and we say, “Fine” even when we’re not. In the midst of sorrow or pain, we fight a lonely battle without support or camaraderie. Stories of others’ struggles remind us that we are not alone. Though I’ve never worn military fatigues or nursed battle wounds, I identify with the emotions portrayed in this play. Stress. Overwhelming odds. The conviction that the struggle will never end. The expectation of relief–an expectation constantly disappointed by one more emergency, one more demand.
Happiness makes us suspicious. Faerie-tales end with “happily ever after,” but life doesn’t, and we all learned this early. “You can’t have everything you want,” our mothers told us. “C’est la vie,” the cliched phrase reminds us. Stories of happy people succeeding provide some relief from real life. Stories of struggling people fighting against horrible odds, failing and getting up again, making bad decisions and living with them, forcing every step–those stories resonate with us. Those stories echo with a truth we’ve grown unaccustomed to and thirsty for in this world of airbrushed models and too-bright advertisements.
We all want a voice. In a society lived online through Facebook statuses, Tweets, and blogposts, it seems like everyone has a voice. And in so much noise, individual voices disappear. When our hearts are breaking, we post about our photogenic Starbucks breakfasts. Keeping track of our likes and reblogs teaches us that humour is rewarded and authenticity ignored. Good stories of grief and pain give a voice to our own feelings when we feel muzzled by the world. Fiction tells common truth more eloquently and accurately than we can on our own.
And in the end, despite the artificial smoke from the fog machine clogging my lungs, the cramps in my legs from sitting still too long, and the ache behind my eyes from flashing lights, my soul stirs at the beautiful portrayal of truths society likes to shy away from and my heart pounds in rhythm with heartbeats of strangers, friends, acquaintances, professors. For a few hours, we shared an experience–shared sorrow and joy, rage and hope–and that shared emotion is something comedy never offers.