Crying on Airplanes

I got choked up on my return flight to Cleveland. Tears formed in the corners of my eyes, and I swallowed hard. It wasn’t the fullest or best crying session I’ve ever had, but it was more emotional expression than I’m usually able to access. I was watching the final episode of a series about U.S. Marines who were heading back home after their tour of duty in the Pacific Theater of Operations during the Second World War. So, it kind of made sense to cry for something like that: processing images of homecoming while in the process of a (much smaller) homecoming, myself. War films provoke emotional reactions from me more than a lot of other things, with the stakes of the narrative so high: literally life or death. But I think the airplane had something to do with my emotional reaction, too.

A few years ago, I had an even bigger emotional reaction on a trans-Atlantic flight. I was on one of those planes where each passenger gets his own entertainment system, so I spent most of the long flight watching movies. And in this case, the first movie I watched was another war film (I think this happens more regularly on airplanes because of my wife has a pronounced dislike for the violence and pathos of war films). Anyway — as we’ve already established — there are some heavy emotions that go with war. And by the end of this particular film, I was absolutely weeping in my plane seat: tears rolling down my cheeks… Blowing a large amount of mucous from my nose into the napkin on my tray table… Wondering what the Canadian guy sitting to my left was thinking of me…

Honestly, that emotional release felt kind of good, since I’m not always able to access that sort of full-fledged emotional expression. But it also felt kind of strange. So: the next movie I picked for this flight was a very different sort of movie (one that had been recommended to me by a friend). I figured I’d be safe from any further instances of “emotional diarrhea.”

But I started watching the movie — and about a third of the way into the film I again found myself moved to tears. And the movie this time? Pitch Perfect. A teen musical in which (according to Wikipedia) “The plot follows a college women’s a cappella group, The Barden Bellas, as they compete against another a cappella group from their college to win Nationals.”

Pitch Perfect is not typically considered a tear-jerker — but that “Riff Off” scene… where they’re all in that skate park at night… musically battling each other… and Becca puts herself out there with rapping a few lines from “No Diggety”… and then all the rest of her singing group joins her… and then all the different music groups join in with the “Hey yo, hey yo, hey yo, hey yo…” That’s powerful stuff, man.

[I told this story once, during a sermon, and it got huge laughs]

Seriously, though, I like to think of myself as being pretty emotionally healthy. I’m emotionally stable… But then something like a plane flight crying session happens, and I recognize that I’m actually not good when it comes to crying in appropriate moments. I can cry easily at the “Riff Off” from “Pitch Perfect,” but then when I hear about the break-up of a friend’s marriage I don’t shed a tear. I’ve got some issues with expressing a full range of emotions.

But I’ve actually learned that it’s not just me! I remember being floored when I listened to an episode of This American Life entitled, “Stuck in the Middle” (Episode 553, Act 3). It describes numerous instances of other people crying on airplanes. And ever since then, I’ve just been fascinated by this phenomenon. I don’t know if I can fully explain it, but I appreciate it. Have you ever had any experiences like this? What do you think is going on when you find yourself crying on airplanes?

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