THE WELL OF GRIEF
Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief,
turning down through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe,
will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,
nor find in the darkness glimmering,
the small round coins,
thrown by those who wished for something else.
Crying is such a taboo activity. It stirs much deep within us and yet we worry that tears might taint us with an indelible shame of human weakness. I was reminded of this a few days ago in conversation with a friend who said he hasn’t cried in ten years. It made me wonder how many people might be the same.
It also reminded me of my own experiences in the UK where emotionality of any kind was generally seen as negative - anything from weak to unprofessional and an organisational liability. Although I’m pretty sure that in a tough and male dominated corporate sector, crying might not be top of the activities list and a single episode might be a career time bomb.
And that is such a pity. Emotional crying (rather than reflex crying due to an eye irritant) is a uniquely human thing (although gorillas and elephants are thought to do it as well). It is cathartic and acts as a safety valve for physical and psychological tension.
The health benefits of emotional crying include clearing sadness and stress as well as helping to resolve grief. It seems that crying reduces stress hormones and increases endorphin (good feeling hormones) release.
The danger of not crying when it is appropriate is the accumulation of tension and stress which then needs to find another outlet either physically (e.g. rashes) or mentally through depression, rage and so on. The Work by Jairus McLeary, Gethin Aldous illustrates this principle is a great documentary on this topic and I highly recommend watching (the poem above comes from the documentary).
It’s filmed in a maximum security prison and its proposition is that many prison convicts have suffered from an inability to release the tension and rage accumulated in early life – resorting to violence – and their healing and rehabilitation starts once they are allowed to feel vulnerable and release their rage through tears.
With the essential regulatory function that crying has, it’s a surprise that we don’t have regular crying sessions (although I remember being told that a special PhD crying room was available when I started my thesis in my department at UCL…)
You could argue that the cathartic, crying activity has been privatised taking it away from religious environments where tears of joy, humility and repentance might flow and be shared communally, to the private sphere where you can cry watching movies, listening to songs or in your bathroom…
Crying isn’t just for difficult emotions (frustration, sadness, grief, etc). So many happy events might give you reason to cry at work e.g. a completed project or promotion might lead to tears of:
In fact, some of my most important moments in my career as a doctor involved tears. In Sudan for example, I felt devastated that a child had died under my care. Without the tears and the consolation that came from others, I would have not been able to get back to the hospital and perform my duties with a clear mind and heart. Sobbing my heart out helped me do what was best for my patients.
Photo: Abyei, South Sudan 2007 with Dr James Maskalyk and Dr Ali Amine Fadil
Wallowing in pity or anger at global injustice wasn’t even an option since I was the only doctor for 50,000 people. So the tears had to come, flow and clear away the stress so that I could move on quickly.
I have to reassure my clients that it’s OK to cry – more than that: it’s healthy! It’s amazing how quickly stress is released and negative thinking is replaced with new ideas and solutions come.
Legend in the making: Dr John Ndikum, originally a UK doctor, is currently completing his MPH at Yale. But he is also a published poet with a strong connection to the bigger picture and the spiritual. He wrote the book after a period of uncertainty that led him to new realisations (take a look at his website and book here: http://www.jfwndikum.com/). We’ve been working on the tricky transition from hospital doctor to health leader and he has had his fair share of ups and downs testing his resolve on the journey. I believe a role of even wider impact than he realises is in store for him…Last week, he gave a very well attended poetry reading at Yale which his MPH professors attended and the faculty of medicine supported (to his surprise). Of course, it’s not easy when you’re walking the road less travelled and your peers seem to go for more conventional options like a steady job in consulting, policy or pharma. I know that his bringing together of apparently separate strands of work and his various passions will enable him to create something unique and of great value to the world and that he will eventually be generously rewarded for. Go Dr N!
According to the government’s UK Health and Safety Executive agency, 12.5 million working days were lost last year, due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety. The causes of stress in decreasing order of importance were: workload (44%), lack of support (14%), violence/threats/bullying (13%), changes a work (8%), other (21%). The most susceptible industries were health and social care as well as public services and education…
So in view of the numbers and the challenges that continue to visit 21st Century humans, and while we continue working on the structural issues, perhaps we can cut ourselves and each other some slack and treat emotional crying as an evidence-based health intervention and investigate its optimal delivery or maybe even just see as a normal, healthy homeostatic (rebalancing) behaviour…
With compassion and kindness,
Next (online) event!
Super stoked to be co-hosting this webinar on “Creating the Impossible” (i.e. taking action on dreams you think are too far - they are actually closer than you think…) with Cathy Presland under the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) banner and the RSA Coaching Network I set up in 2016. The RSA's mission is to nurture initiatives for 21st Century enlightenment and socially progressive entrepreneurship. The Coaching Network's mission is to support the RSA mission one coaching conversation at a time. Our live London events have been popular and the RSA is supporting us to broaden access and reach through this first online event.
Hope you can join us. It's sure to be fun and inspiring!
More info and registration here (n.b. times are UK):