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Self-Knowledge • Mood
Why Sweet Things Make Us Cry
We may once have thought of ourselves as strong, sensible and focused on the big adult picture, but with time, we may notice something strange happening: that we are increasingly moved by some very minor beautiful or tender things. The sight of someone watering their garden at dusk, tending slowly and lovingly to each plant in turn. Or a sweet-natured person discussing with their partner how their knee is doing, and whether they have had enough water to drink for the time being. Or a book that we read to a child where, in the final pages, mummy rabbit holds baby rabbit very close and tells him that she will love him until the day she dies. Or a plate made in Sweden at some point in the 18th century with a delicate motif of blue enamel flowers around its edge.
Why might we be moved by such very small things? And why – furthermore – did we yesterday perhaps almost start crying when we saw a parent carefully buttoning up a child’s coat in the park before giving them a very gentle kiss on the forehead.
We aren’t simply demented. Our eyes fill more readily because we are getting increasingly acquainted with the sheer awfulness of life in general: with how mean spirited people can be, with how judgemental society is, with how quickly health can give way, with how unfair people’s destinies are and with how much we have failed.
Against such a backdrop, sweet small pretty pure beautiful and kind things cease to be mere nonsense or a distraction from a mighty invulnerable destiny. They stand out as beacons of remaining goodness that shine all the more brightly in the surrounding gloom. It’s a paradox of sweetness that we understand it most when it is least in evidence overall. Likewise the true appreciators of beauty aren’t those who find life perfect, but those who have the full measure of its pain and bitterness – and who secretly ache and are homesick for their own lost innocence. The imperfection and viciousness of existence makes loveliness and goodness all the more vivid. Which is why, if we were tasked with the unusual project of creating a robot that could cry at the sight of pretty plates or children’s stories, we should have to do something apparently rather cruel: we would have to ensure that this robot knew all about suffering and self-contempt, humiliation and failure; for it is only against a background of pain that beautiful scenes become deeply moving, rather than merely nice.
Our tears are telling us something key: that our lives are tougher than they used to be when we were younger, and that our longing for uncomplicated niceness and goodness is correspondingly all the more intense.