A Surprising Way to Discover the Secret of Who You Are

Al Andrews

There’s a great quote from Frederick Buechner about tears and it goes like this:

Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if you soul is to be saved, you should go next.

Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark

Over the last twenty years of counseling with folks, I’ve heard hundreds of folks proclaim the same thing:

“I’m not a crier.”

Sometimes it’s said with pride, sometimes as a matter of fact, and often, it is an apology. But I never believe it. I take my time, turning over rocks, looking in long forgotten closets, and opening up old suitcases.

Photo Credit: Joe St.Pierre, Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Joe St.Pierre, Creative Commons

Usually, the tears show up.

I love being right.

Enter my eldest son Hunter.

Last weekend, he had his first photography exhibition at the Nashville Art Crawl. His show was titled “The Funeral of Akaki.” The photographs showed Akidi’s family and community gathered for her funeral and burial. Accompanying the photographs were poems he’d written about grief and sorrow.

I listened to folks as they walked through the exhibition.

Some thought it was depressing and headed immediately to the pet photographer in the next booth, which was quite a happy place. But others stood quietly, like they had been to the funeral themselves.

They stared into the weeping eyes of her friends and at the casket deep in the grave. They found a communion and somehow participated in the loss.

There are so many other photographs he could have shown us from his year in Uganda.

I’ve seen them: waterfalls, elephants, sunrises and sunsets, flowers, and laughing children. But he decided to show us loss.

What’s up with that?

I have this little theory. (I have LOTS of little theories!) And the theory is this: I believe that deep down in all of us, there runs this stream of sorrow full of losses, big and small, betrayals, breakups, deaths, and failures.

Admit them or not, they’re there.

And now and then, we see a movie, we hear a song, we witness an event and we find tears forming in our eyes. (This happens even to non-criers.)

When that happens:

  • Pay attention to the tears.
  • Follow them to the river.
  • Grieve profusely.
  • Be comforted. (“Blessed are those who mourn. For they will be comforted.”)

See, what I’ve learned is that sorrow is actually better than laughter (Ecclesiastes 7:3).

Did you catch that? Better.

So whether you are grieving and the tears are close and frequent, or whether you’re one of those people who “never cries,” pay attention to what your tears (or lack of tears) might be telling you.

They are saying something you need to know.

Who knowing tears, can be content with laughter?
They wear slowly,
a thin hosing of water, that slides
down the exposed surfaces of rocks,
smoothing them, making runnels in the hard stone,
and sometimes, moaning in the reinforcement of storm,
rushing in floods to the swelling rivers,
picking up pebbles and mud, to race them round
and round in suddenly formed deep pools.
Laughing we forget those who cannot laugh,
but weeping we make a communion.
Tears will soak us through to soil,
down into high, silent caves, where sadness
losing all its sharpness is as soft as air,
and we can bathe naked in the still waters,
sharing unashamedly with other naked folk,
the ravages that brought us there.

—John Bate

Al Andrews

Al Andrews

Al Andrews is a storyteller. Whether through counseling, speaking, or writing, his passion is to engage in the stories of people, inviting them to hope. He is the author of The Boy, The Kite, and the Wind and A Walk One Winter Night, which are available on Amazon. For regular updates, make sure to follow along on Twitter (@itsalandrews). To read more of his posts on the Storyline Blog, click here.

  • Holly Loftin

    Yours is a profound thought. That laughter excludes but sorrow unifies and strengthens. It is true. Cry with someone and you are bonded forever. How beautiful is this mysterious, sweet sorrow. A unexpected gift from a loving God.

  • the Providential timing of this is exquisite beauty, as just the other day i shared these words on my blog:

    Because even in the painful feelings like grief and loss, it’s in
    our allowing ourselves to feel that keeps our feelings alive, keeps our souls alive.

    There’s a
    strange sense of encouragement hidden in my grieving the other night.
    Evidence of emotional health and healing. That night, God offered me the
    opportunity to tell my heart to beat again.
    With heavy tears, I said yes.

    ~ ~ ~

    thank you for this, al. and thank you, hunter.

    • Al Andrews

      Tanya – thank you for your kind and moving words. I’m so glad you said, “Yes” – grace and peace to you today. Al

  • Kendra Vita

    It’s been an emotional start to this new year. I am a 36 yr old wife and mother of four. Your post made me realize that I am just now grieving the dreams I let go of at 19. Follow the tears to the river – that will stay with me always.

  • Lament is a lost art but something vital if we are to go forward in strength and in community alongside each other. Sorrow is the same across all cultures and as we are able to know our own pain we are able to meet others in theirs – profound impact comes of this; we are no longer strangers.

  • Flower Patch Farmgirl

    So, so good and gracious, Al.

  • Al Andrews

    Thanks for the kind words. To see Hunter’s gallery, go to his Facebook page and scroll down a few posts:


  • Meliedes

    Amazing photos! I love this story.

    Where is the poem at the end of your essay from? I’d love to read more, but I couldn’t find much info online about the author or where the poem was originally published. Thanks!

    • Al Andrews

      The poem is from an old anthology called “A Touch of Flame” compiled by Jenny Robertson. Good news – I saw some old copies on Amazon! Enjoy!

  • LoriLamp

    In my work, I’ve often wondered if I should cry more over “the children” or over the problem of poverty in this country and beyond. Day to day, I’m more likely to feel frustration over our website than lament over tragedy. But once in awhile I’m in a meeting about a particular kid, and it happens. Precisely in the moment where we’re all being professional educators, my heart breaks for that one kid, and I know I’m in the right work, being who I really am. Thank you for this, Al.

  • Peter Burkey

    I think that this fits in here too, for those of us who are concerned for others and also follow Jesus.


  • Nadya Michel Habib

    Wow. Touched.

  • Clarivel Ann Dinh

    Thank you, Al. I am going through something at the moment that leaves me having these mini-30-second breakdowns after hours of “being strong”. But your post reminded me that our Maker designed us to shed tears. And our Savior shed lots of tears too, so I’ll be ok. 🙂 Blessings to you.

  • Dave Lewis

    So very well stated, Al. I’ve always been fond of Buechner, and that quote in particular. I’m wondering if I could have your permission to print this post (with full credits) and include it in my syllabus for Recalibrate! (a missionary debriefing event that I host).

  • Bob Rubin

    Tears in order to grow on the old earth and to stop falling in the new heavens and the new earth. Since, in the “new”, greater depth and joy will be manifest in us through our Lord, Hallelujah.
    H Rubin, author of Look Backward Angel on Amazon

  • Bob Rubin

    Tears are a wellspring of sadness and of joy, a complex liquid. May they never run dry for too long in our earthly sojourn. In the new heavens and the new earth no tears shall fall. An even deeper more complex joy will fill out souls before our Master, the Triune God. May our old earthly journey be filled to overflowing with love.

  • Beautifully stated. The full suppression of tears has never been something I’ve been comfortable with. There’s a “hiding” and sometimes deception that takes place, an unwillingness to meet each other and life on the common ground of humility, the wounds and sorrow. It’s the perception of somehow appearing weak. I’ve learned with the opening and ourpouring is the only way to true strength for in deep sorrow arises the courage of the heart.

  • Patti Selvey

    I would love to read more theories and deeper exploration of this topic. It’s wonderful. Thank you!