Sit and Watch as Tears Go By

Mockingbird has several shibboleths; one is the word, “abreaction.” Type that into the search on this […]

Mockingbird has several shibboleths; one is the word, “abreaction.” Type that into the search on this website, and you will come up with a slew of great articles about it or containing the term. Go ahead, do it, I’ll wait.

See, I told you.

In the abridged version of Frank Lake’s Clinical Theology, Lake defines abreaction this way:

“A technique employed in psychoanalytic therapy by which repressed emotions, which belong to earlier and usually painful situations, are relived vividly and with feeling, thus lessening the emotional tension caused by inner conflict and its repression. “

My version of that would go something like this. You know when you hear a song, watch a movie, see a clip of something that makes you lose it – instant waterworks? Yeah, that’s abreaction. We’ve all experienced it. Sometimes the effects are mild, you get a little choked up, misty-eyed, and there’s lots of throat clearing. At other times, the effects are much less subtle. It’s like the spigot of the water tower was turned on and a deluge of tears comes out, all at once.

Undeniably, there is a strong sense of relief that comes with that release of emotion, and thankfully so. But something I have noticed about myself lately is what triggers it. Why do, for instance, acts of compassion cause such a strong, almost overwhelming, reaction in me? Something in my childhood? My parents were and are compassionate people. If there was a need someone had, they tried to do everything they could to meet it. If there was a natural disaster, they would pack up their little pickup truck with supplies and go and help people. They weren’t wealthy, but if they had it, they would generously give. In other words, witnessing or experiencing compassion was not an unusual experience in my family. No, it has to be something else.

Recently, I was listening to John (the good brother) Zahl, give a talk at a Mockingbird conference. He was using movie clips to illustrate grace. One of the clips was from the acclaimed film, Kramer vs. Kramer. A divorced father, portrayed by Dustin Hoffman, shows compassion with an extraordinary gesture of grace to a fellow single parent, portrayed by Jane Alexander, after a near fatal incident involving Hoffman’s son:

[vimeo 176601814 w=640 h=346]

You’re a Good Mother from Mockingbird on Vimeo.

The scene, which is quite beautiful and profound, caused an enormous, well, abreaction. I burst into tears, and may I add, spectacularly so. No, really, it was amazing. There is very little I could relate to in the video. I’m not a parent, single or otherwise. I cannot begin to imagine the stresses the characters were under. But, still, the waterworks occurred. Obviously there was something going on there.

I may never understand the reasons, but in thinking about this, something occurred to me. I wonder if maybe abreaction can serve another duty, something beyond the release of emotional tension, as wonderful as that is. I think it can also serve as a reminder of the overwhelming goodness of God’s love. It reminds by giving us an undeniable, dare I say tangible, experience of that undeserved grace. We experience it viscerally. Not simply as some sort of spiritual anxiolytic, but rather of an immanence that left behind some biochemical fingerprints in the form of relief and tears.

Abreaction also points to a reality that is not yet. Fleming Rutledge–who will be speaking at the 2017 NYC Mockingbird conference–writes in her amazing book, The Crucifixion:

“Something is wrong and must be put right. When we feel that in our bones, when we admit that something is wrong not only with the whole human situation in general but also with one’s own self in particular, then God is at work bringing us closer to the cross of Christ.”

I love that, that cutting through our defenses and sin-addled confusion, working at bringing us closer to the Cross. It’s direct, insistent. It reminds me of what Robert Farrar Capon wrote in Between Noon and Three:

“Grace is the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world. It is a floating, cosmic bash shouting its way through the streets of the universe, flinging the sweetness of its cassations to every window, pounding at every door in a hilarity beyond all liking and happening, until the prodigals come out at last and dance, and the elder brothers finally take their fingers out of their ears.”

Abreaction may be an emotional form of us elder brothers taking our fingers out of our ears. So… next time you are watching a video clip of a puppy cuddling with a baby, and you get all verklempt, don’t worry about it. Let a couple of tears out. You’ll feel better. Who knows, you might even be able to hear a little better, too.


4 responses to “Sit and Watch as Tears Go By”

  1. Patricia F. says:

    Oh, how I LOVE the word ‘Verklempt’. It’s a great Yiddish term.

    And thank you, Josh, for this. I’ve been having a hard time with ‘abreaction’, since the unexpected death of a very dear friend in early January. We’d been close friends for nearly 20 years, and I only found out about his last illness and death via Facebook.

    Since then, I’ve been ‘numb in heart’; I can’t seem to shed tears over my friend’s death. (Antidepressants aren’t helping matters.) I’d love to have a really good ‘abreaction’, and let it all out. Very frustrating.

    • Josh Retterer says:

      I’m so sorry for your loss, Patricia. Numbness is part of the grieving process, too. Unfortunately, grieving can be a bit like the weather, unpredictable-a bit like abreaction itself.

  2. Duo says:

    “It’s his Daaaaad” whispered all the men in the movie theater as they hunched over, in tears and their dates leaned over and asked why when the catcher stands up and takes if his mask st the end of “”Field of Dreams” – witnessed by me, in tears, almost 30 years ago – repeated by me, most often alone when it pops up on cable TV

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