By most measures, I am not very feminine. My husband has to drag me to Michael’s to look at decorations for the house, I cannot be prevailed upon to take pictures, let alone scrapbook them, and I will never be accused of being a slave to fashion, as the Car Talk guys so tactfully put it. But I have at least one tentative claim to femininity. I cry. Not delicately, like the doe-eyed women in movies who dribble out a few dainty, alluring tears. I sob convulsively. I cry like a…wounded buffalo?? It’s not the kind of crying that makes people want to offer me their great-grandmothers’ handmade lace handkerchiefs. It’s the kind of crying that makes people want to put something in my mouth so that I don’t swallow my tongue.
I have a long history of losing it at church. The first time I remember being pushed over the edge by sacrament meeting was when I was six or seven. My family was harried and late that morning, I was cross and uncomfortable in my Sunday dress, and I suspect some discouraging words may have been uttered all around before we barged in. At the opening strains of “There Is Sunshine in My Soul Today,” I burst into angry tears because my soul was illuminated by not a shred of sunshine, and even then I was sure that everyone else was serene and happy and that I was alone in my puddle of misery. I had to be hauled out by my poor mother, who I’m sure was already stretched to the breaking point from juggling her four madcap children (three to follow later…).
The February 2005 Ensign had a fascinating article by Carl C. Bruderer entitled “Losing Barbara, Finding the Lord,” describing the pain of losing his wife to breast cancer and his subsequent journey to reactivity. The article was moving on many levels, but the part that absolutely riveted me was his description of seeing all of the families with both parents and ending up sobbing in the men’s restroom. At the point I read the article, I was making fairly regular trips from sacrament meeting to the restroom myself, for my own reasons, and it was so comforting to read that someone out there had done the same thing.
Recent posts have led me to reflect on the etiquette of religious crisis. Let’s face it, there are lots of reasons to cry in church, and probably all of us will experience one or more of them at some point in our lives. So, in the spirit of self-mockery and self-instruction, I offer my personal guide to crying in church.
First, cry quietly. Convulsive sobbing only creates unfortunate social complications that will likely make you feel worse, either in the moment or later, as you reflect miserably on the spectacle you’ve made of yourself. Kind people stare, try not to stare, or dither uncomfortably. (This is not their fault. When other people cry in my presence, I dither just as uncomfortably.) Should they ask you what’s wrong? Hug you? Leave you alone? Offer you a Cheerio? If you find yourself unable to keep it down, slip out as quietly as you can. In deciding whether to leave or stay, weigh the disturbance of your sobbing against the disturbance of rushing out of the meeting, and go with the lesser. Escalating sobbing suggests it’s time to flee.
Get your sobbing thoroughly out of your system before you attempt a return. While you’re convulsive, restrooms are best. You can lock the stall door and keep flushing the toilet if you have to, which, while undeniably a horrid waste of water, guarantees you privacy. In any other room, you risk interruptions that lead to stammered apologies on both sides. It’s also important not to convince yourself you’ve regained your composure before you actually have–this can lead to repeated attempted and failed returns, which only draw more attention. So once you’re out, don’t rush back until your hiccupping has faded of its own accord and you really have calmed down, not just stopped crying.
In the intermediate stage, after you have ceased convulsing but before you are ready to return, playing the piano in an unoccupied classroom can be very soothing.
If you are stuck in the front pew, where you would call more attention to yourself by leaving than by staying, another set of tactics comes into play. The most important thing is to get your mind off of what is driving you to tears by any means available. Open your scriptures. Contemplate polytheism in the Old Testament. Read the more anguished psalms, unless they make you cry harder. Read the Wendell Berry or Mary Oliver you have brought for this express purpose (I owe this suggestion to Lynnette. It really works!). Recite whatever scriptures, poems, or verbs you’re currently committing to memory to yourself. Say the multiplication tables backward. Make a frog out of the sacrament-meeting program. Hold the small child of a desperate parent near you.
Another tactic that rarely works, but might fool the unsuspecting: assume a beatific, touched-by-the-Spirit look. Attempt a radiant smile through your tears.
If you know you may have to leave sacrament meeting, Sunday school, Relief Society, or priesthood, position yourself in the back of the cultural hall or right by the door to facilitate a rapid exit. Recognize that certain days (Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and stake conference are some of mine) are invariably bad, and on those days, position yourself accordingly, or just sit in the foyer. Recognize too that certain periods of life are just bad, and during those times, no matter what happens, you will probably break down. And remember that bad days and bad times, however endless they may seem, do invariably come to an end.
What do you all do when you lose it in the pews?