“I didn’t know I was pregnant.”
An unfathomable admission, but apparently possible. It’s amazing to think that, after conception, what happens during a pregnancy is so involuntary for both the mother and the baby. An embryo can gestate for nine months, without parental intervention, and come out a full-term baby. Of course it is not advisable for the mom to remain clueless about that additional life, and to keep living like nothing is happening, but life is possible outside of awareness.
I don’t think most humans like to simply succumb to the involuntary miracles that make up the human condition. We are control freaks. We want to manage and micro-manage and configure our lives. We are the only living thing on the planet that exhibits this level of manipulation. I am struck by the power of the human mind to attain the level of control that it does. We are a conscientious bunch, and with intellectual awareness comes an innate desire to keep at bay all the habits that might remind us that we are a miraculous animal. There are a number of human experiences that are involuntary, but with age and the right training you can teach yourself to stifle the involuntary reactions that are purely human. It comes down to goosebumps, crying and laughter.
A number of animals get goose bumps. There are theories about the use of a goosebump, but the general consensus is that the animals who have fur rise on the back of their neck when threatened are responding involuntarily with goosebumps to a “flight or fight” scenario. Porcupines offer the best example. The raised fur warns the enemy and triggers an appropriate reaction in the fur-owner, plus it realigns the fur to better protect it during a potential attack.
Human goosebumps happen in similar times, although not necessarily at a level to alert a predator. We get goosebumps when we are scared and cold and generally when we need to make a decision to stay and fight or to run for it. I am fascinated by the fact that I could not find a scientific explanation for why we get goosebumps when we hear that high note in the “Star-Spangled Banner” or while we are watching a mind-blowing display of athleticism. That is a purely human phenomenon. I do think, however, you have to be open to letting yourself feel the emotionally-driven goosebumps. With body language of crossed arms and a stoic attitude, I am certain you don’t get the full pleasure of an episode of goosebumps.
Similarly, emotional crying can be controlled. Most men have taught themselves to keep from tearing up when they see something moving, and although women cry more, with enough effort they can remain dry-eyed too. One of my favorite scenes in the move City of Angels happens between a perplexed angel (Seth) and a human doctor played by Meg Ryan (Maggie) as they talk about the reasons people cry.
- Seth: Why do people cry?
- Maggie: What do you mean?
- Seth: I mean… what happens physically?
- Maggie: Well… umm… tear ducts operate on a normal basis to lubricate and protect the eye and when you have an emotion they overreact and create tears.
- Seth: Why? Why do they overreact?
- Maggie: [pause] I don’t know.
- Seth: Maybe… maybe emotion becomes so intense your body just can’t contain it. Your mind and your feelings become too powerful… and your body weeps.
The doctor’s initial description of crying explains what happens physically, but it doesn’t explain the why. Crying happens for lots of reasons, but the emotional tears are reserved for humans. Crying out of pain happens for all sorts of animals…including people. Emotional crying, however, does not happen for other animals the way it does for humans. We cry when we are happy and when we are sad, and often when we are fatigued or stressed. Stress and sleep deprivation knock down defenses, and I have seen that firsthand the last few weeks. I am more run down, my hands get cracked and dry from eczema, my body retains water and cortisol, and I can just tell that I am off. When I am stressed and tired, I cry sooner too…because I cannot control myself.
As I’ve gotten older, I have learned to tap into that emotional crying weakness more often. Scientists may not know why we cry when we are emotional, both ecstatic and devastated, but they do know that there are positive reasons why we should let ourselves do it. The body releases harmful toxins when it cries, and they have found that those people who allow themselves to cry more often have fewer ulcers and other stress-related problems. So my response to my 9-year-old boy when he tells me that I cry too much, “Oh honey, you’re just jealous.”
Then we laugh.
We laugh at the unexpected and the surprises and the silly. We all know how great it feels to have a laugh-until-you-cry-and-then-almost-pee-your-pants session, yet there are still the reserved among us who can only muster up a chuckle. Belly-laughs leave you vulnerable, and it is scary to think you are the only one who may laugh that hard, but with the known health benefits of a good laugh, how can you sit quietly? Laughter reduces stress hormones and increases the level of positive hormones like endorphins and neurotransmitters. People who are able to see the humor in a potentially stressful situation have been more successful in recovery from trauma, illness and injury. Laughter is so good.
It all is. All of those things that are innately human and involuntary need to stay that way. We need to let ourselves be our own natural best. To cry when we need to cry, to laugh when we need to laugh and to notice the goosebump moments and embrace them. The burst of human emotion are such miraculous gifts that we have no right to try to control them. So sign me up for everything involuntary.