The Thermodynamics of Tears [#52weeks]

In case the internet hasn’t said it yet, I’m going to say it here: This week was a no good, very bad week from hell and I would like for it to be gone, very, very much gone and over as soon as possible or else.

I haven’t quite figured out what the “or else” part of that statement should look like, but if you have any ideas, please let me know.

Somewhere around 11:30pm on Friday night, I lost my ability to cope with this very bad week. After pepper-spraying a would-be assailant on my way home from a birthday gathering, then spending the rest of the night locked in my apartment and on FaceTime with a friend, my Saturday wasn’t much in terms of productivity, either. And though I made it to church in one piece this morning (exhausted), somewhere right before the homily I devolved into inconsolable flood of tears that just would not end. I cried and cried and cried I kept crying until, and at some point, I had absolutely no idea what I was crying about anymore. An hour and a half later, I had cried enough to self-soothe, and with my very puffy face and a very large post-cry headache, I reached a point where maybe, just maybe I just could (even) with today.

Whenever I find myself in this state– tear-stained and puffy, with a lingering headache– I can’t help but think of everything involved in my fit of tears in terms of science.

It all starts when I think of emotion as a system. When I apply the laws of thermodynamics to systems– these laws, by the way, are very much about order and disorder– it all falls in place and all of the crying starts to make sense in a very abstract way. Why I gravitate towards science when I get a huge case of the feels, I will never know (actually, wait, yes I do!) but here is the way my thinking generally works:

  • The first law of thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but it can be transferred/ transformed into one form from another.
  • The second law of thermodynamics states that as energy is transferred from one form to another in a system, some energy is lost. (We usually refer to this as the law of entropy, and the energy is usually lost in the form of heat.)

When I apply this to emotions– remember, we’re considering emotions as a system here, nothing else– it works like this:

  • The first law of emotions is that they cannot be created or destroyed, but they can be transferred or transformed into other emotions.
  • The second law of emotions is that they can be transferred from one emotion to another, but in this process, some energy is lost.

For me, thus, it follows that when I get an overwhelmingly major case of the feels, particularly the negative ones, they can’t be destroyed, only transformed into something else. And because systems are always moving towards a state of equilibrium– stability may be a more fitting word to use here– it’s the job of that system, when I’m overwhelmed, to transfer my feelings into something else entirely. When there is too much disorder going on, whether that disorder is happy or sad, my system can transforms that energy into tears or butterflies in my stomach or some other physical reaction (entropy) or whatever else it takes to make the system self-stabilize. (As the energy– or whatever the damned feeling is that’s taken over and wreaked havoc on me– decreases, so too does the disorder, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing). Once enough of that energy is lost, things return back to normal. We may feel pain again or we may remember the pain we suffered in its original state, but it will never be as strong as it once was when its energy first entered our systems.

When I think about it, I don’t think that it’s an accident that we share tears or other similar reactions as a response to sadness or to trauma of any kind. I know that the crying doesn’t fix everything, that it isn’t a real answer to all of the sad and scary and frustrating and terrible things that happen in the world, but is an important step in transforming one kind of emotion into another.

I’ve often wondered why, when I’m upset, I find myself turning to scientific laws for consolation. When it comes to the processes behind my tears, though, when the actual feelings are ripping into me, it’s so very hard to have the faith that they will get better. Sometimes, especially after weeks like this past one, though, it’s a relief to think that systems, whatever they may be, are constantly moving towards a state of thermodynamic equilibrium, towards a place where things “get better” or become “optimal.”

I can tell myself all day long things will to get better, but it’s difficult to have faith and truly believe that in the face of fear and bad feelings. It’s better when science says so, because I cannot, cannot, cannot argue with science in the face of reason.