Disclaimer: This is not a piece about the happy kind of tears. Far from it. Also, all artwork below is mine – please don’t use without my permission.

Sum Sze Tam tears in filigree bed catatonic

Crying, in all interpretations of the word, is an inherently human action. A baby’s first cry is the first breath of a healthy child; contemporary cinematography use close-up tears as an emotive tool; and the heartbroken wail of a man or a woman is something that grips you when you hear it, or when you see the face that personifies that wail.

Maybe too many tears in popular media have made those lucky enough not to have encountered true sorrow immune to this display of emotion, such that even if you are gripped by the expression of a heartbroken wail, your own ensuing response to it (perhaps a few reciprocal tears or sobs of your own) is shallow and artificially induced. But then these people are pulled into the big wide world; and something may be there to show them what the world is truly like.

Tears are cathartic, undoubtedly. It numbs your feelings, for a while, in yielding to despair. Perhaps in your tear-streaked haze you’ll become strangely calmly entranced by the smallest visual patterns; the repetition of a small action or gesture, or you may suddenly find that you’ve been staring at nothing for long time while the mind behind the busy tear ducts has been grinding away. The numbness slows you down, forces you to not think about the masses of worries and stresses and hassles and abuses and pressures that never seem to leave you; in tears, they temporarily leave you in their pencilled-out, definite form and just register as an abstract blob in the clouds.

But in some situations, the tears are only a temporary respite, and eventually becomes something you can’t help but keep returning to over and over again. Because the situation won’t have gone away, or resolved itself after a few tears, as it might have done when you were a child and your parents were either desperate to appease you and conceded, or had known how to discipline children and just left you to cry yourself out.

From my brief stint at psychology during the IB, I learnt that emotions are a complicated process, whether you take a cognitive, biological or other approach to it. But leaving the debate to those actually qualified to argue it, I am left to contemplate the way in which crying quite physically feels like the abstract emotion you’re going through.

Throat – constricted. There’s a funny lump in the roof of your mouth, as well as just above your larynx. Your chest feels a little tight, but you’re not sure how much of that is in your mind. You almost aren’t fully aware, or sensitive of your tactile abilities – if anything, you are at your least sensitive. If you try to hold it in, and somebody notices or does something that tips your topsy-turvy emotional scale back the wrong way up, it makes it almost unbearable to hold in. Sobbing sets in and your lungs feel as if it were being jerked by the strings of a heavy-handed puppetmaster; but it’s such a relief to have somebody else, anybody, even if it’s just another part of you, take control of a part of your life for the moment.

Then the statements come in, the statements that are so good at triggering round after round of sobs; statements like you’re not good enough, you’re a selfish git for crying when others suffer far worse, you’re weak, you’re stupid, you should be grateful for the things you have rather than wasting other people’s time and space. And the worst thing is, you actually care about what these statements mean.

New Doc 21

But lately, I’ve become worried that crying, because of how cathartic it is and how strong a reaction it gets from other people, is going to become a drug that can be depended on. If that is the case, then what makes the person who cries any better than somebody who is willing to guilt-trip others? What happens when you reach the stage where crying is adopted as social manipulation, or seen as such?

At that point, I’ll be deprived of even the right to cry.

The arbitrary age for a person to become an adult is eighteen, but when you read historical accounts people came of age when they were far younger – as early as thirteen. Could you imagine being called a mature adult at that age? I’d only just begun to explore my own sense of self.

Does the fact that the critical point where a person becomes an adult has shifted upwards mean that society’s gone backwards – that we can’t educate our children to the same degree of maturity in the same amount of time? Or hadn’t the ‘adults’ of ages gone by been sufficiently mature? Like most safe academic answers, the answer probably lies somewhere in between, and includes the use of a phrase that can be used to sound intelligent for any difficult question: ‘it depends’.

Boys 2 Men

In my case, though I’ve just turned twenty it doesn’t seem so long ago that I was turning sixteen, and before that, twelve. Year on year, birthdays don’t seem to track a great deal of growth, but you really start to see the difference as they gather, if only in retrospect. Then you get periods of your life where you feel like you get maturity spurts. Perhaps you’ll have gone through a life-changing experience, you’ve had to adapt to a new and unknown environment, or you met someone who changed your life (for better or worse).

Even with one or two of aforementioned maturity spurts, I still don’t feel old enough to truly be an adult. I couldn’t call myself a woman, though there are many younger than I who have had that title foisted upon them in the past, and even perhaps today. Maybe such titles are self-fulfilling prophecies; I’ve not been able to call myself a woman because very few people have treated me as though I was one.

This is a baby beauty pageant competitor. A child sure ain’t an adult, however much she may look like one.

But that would be placing your identity as a person entirely in the hands of those around you – I want my own say in this!

I think education helps a lot with personal agency, because when you start to learn how to think, and have your viewpoint broadened massively, it allows you to make better decisions. When you start to care about how the whole world works, rather than just how the little bubble of a space around you works, is when I think you start to become smart. I met a French man on my travels to the French Alps this week, who said something very succinctly: “I think if you do not travel, you will become dumb in the head.”

So is an adult someone who’s well-traveled, someone who cares about the economy, society, and politics? It’s a sound argument, but limited to those who get the opportunity to do such things i.e. those who are rich enough. Let’s return to those maturity spurts, because they may be a little less class-specific: perhaps an adult is someone who has gone through, and at least tried to overcome, a severe hardship. The assumption is that this person knows more about the world, and the way it may work against all idealistic notions – completely demolish them.

Perhaps that brings the discussion to the cynic – is someone who can only see the negative things in the world truly an adult, or just a broken person? The kind of experience that warrants the kind of maturity spurt I mentioned should enable the person to see that there are better things. The most profound kind of happiness can only be appreciated when one truly knows what sadness is.

I read a blog post about a year back, which actually comes from a dating site – but it talked about what really made a man. The most striking, and nuanced, point the article made was that a grown-up man plans for the future. An adult, therefore, is someone who can see the long-term game and not just the short term. This is a pretty handy definition, because it links to the ‘caring about the whole world’ definition of adulthood in that you need to have a the propensity for foresight in order to really care about such macro, unrelatable and impersonal subjects such as economics, politics and sociology.

Here’s somebody you’d never think wasn’t an adult: the parent. For one, and maybe this is a weirdly trivial and taboo point to make, they’ve got to have knowledge of what sexual intercourse is (is that where the ‘adult’ genre comes from, maybe?). More importantly, parents have been given the responsibility of another human being’s life, and the amount of pressure that comes with it: the slightest action they take in the early years can have a profound effect on how their child turns out when they get older.

I’ve exhausted my meagre bank of different meanings and definitions of adulthood, and as someone who doesn’t comfortable identify as one perhaps I’m not the most comprehensive source. I’d be grateful for any outside opinions (this is the part where you comment below and tell me what you think please please please).

It’s odd, but having thought about it, and having spent a year and a half in a foreign country with a foreign culture, sometimes I wonder if some people who are supposedly adults never truly become adults. I’m not talking about somebody who was biologically programmed to never grow up, physiologically or physically. I’m talking about the adults I see behaving in a way that shows they don’t care for the future, or other people, or for anything other than themselves. Is an adult then, in the simplest terms, just somebody who has reached a more profound and sophisticated level of unselfishness?