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I cried a river and it was hilarious

November 14, 2012

“Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”
–Truvvy, Steel Magnolias

It was a perfect storm: Theater-related post-partum depression, p.m.s., and an encounter with an old friend through an old marriage. As that marriage has ended, I have for the first time in my life experienced that upsetting-sounding thing I always heard about but never had: a panic attack. I have been aware of most of four for five my attacks as they have begun because of the tingling in my fingers. (As a theater artist, I’m trained to recognize that that means there’s something up with my breathing.) But this time it happened too fast. Only the next day did I remember the whooshing sound I heard in my ears, like a wave. It was the blood rushing from my brain to the organs and limbs needed for fight or flight.

I’ve since come down from that, but that didn’t stop me from really appreciating Zoey Deschanel’s menstrual performance in The New Girl last night. During a job interview, she complemented the boss’s photo of her pet, attempting to strike up a rapport, but instead dissolved into tears at the notion that the dog, so little it could fit inside a teacup, had passed away. I had a terrific laugh. Then I burst into tears.

What is it about these two seemingly opposite emotional experiences that is so similar? One of my favorite moments in the aforementioned show-that-just-opened is one in which the main character goes from laughter to tears in the course of a 15-second phone message. The day we found that moment in rehearsal, I burst into tears, stood up, said, “Excuse me,” and headed for the door. I stopped right before I left and explained, “It’s just–that’s exactly how it feels!”

The moment works as theater partly because it is so jarring. Ideally the audience is laughing with the actor and completely unprepared to be confronted with an opposite emotional experience of the same intensity so suddenly. But the jarring is temporary–seconds later, we recognize and remember this experience within ourselves.

Physiologically, both laughing and crying involve moving facial muscles, vibrating vocal cords, and shallow inhalations. Perhaps laughter and crying are not opposites at all. If so, given that those experiences are expressions of particular physical states, is it possible that being happy and being sad are not opposites either, but rather equals? Is it not then unreasonable to think about “happy” as a constant state meant to be attained and maintained?

Am I happy? Do you mean at this very moment? Because I can tell you that, but 30 seconds from now? Can’t say. Do you mean have I been happy? “Well, my existence is a continuum, so I’ve been what I am at each point in the implied time period.”

Maybe that’s as specific as we can ever really be.

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