My son had stumped me with a random question. He asked, “Who invented the Kleenex?” Having no answer to give, I masked by ignorance by distracting him with a children’s riddle about how to make a Kleenex dance. Don’t know the answer to the riddle? Look it up. It’s both amusing and gross. My son loved it and walked away laughing, having forgotten his question.
I, on the other hand, was left puzzled. After all, who invented the Kleenex? Seeking an answer, I asked Google and discovered that the Kimberly-Clark Corp. introduced Kleenex disposable facial tissues to American consumers in 1924. Kleenex was originally marketed only to women as a product to remove their makeup. By 1926, Kimberly Clark began receiving lots of letters from customers stating they were using Kleenex as disposable handkerchiefs. After a change in advertising, Kleenex became known as the go-to product for blowing noses and wiping tears.
I try to keep a well-stocked supply of Kleenex in my office at church, sitting always front and center on my desk. The tissues aren’t for me. They’re used by the people who come into my office and cry, which happens regularly. People cry in my office for all sorts of reasons. They cry because they’ve been hurt by someone they love or because someone whom they love has died. They cry because they’re overwhelmed by the burdens of life and fell ill-equipped to solve their problems. They cry because they’re terrified about the future or ashamed of the past.
People who cry in our presence often make us uncomfortable, so we are tempted to get them to stop their public displays of emotion as quickly as possible. We feel compelled to fix whatever problem is causing them to cry, even if our attempt to help will only make things worse. We overcrowd them with anxious hugs, unhelpful clichés, and false reassurance that everything will be okay. We sometimes even undermine people’s reason for crying by saying, “You don’t need to cry about that.”
What are we supposed to do when someone suddenly bursts into tears? Maybe it’s best not to do anything to calm him or her down. People seem to stop on their own when they’re ready. They always do.
When someone cries in my office I delicately place the box of Kleenex at their side, give them all the time they need to cry and keep my mouth shut. It’s one of the more important duties of my job. Although pastors are expected to open their mouths and preach on Sunday mornings, I’ve learned that when it comes to pastoral care, sometimes the less said the better.
After the crying slows down, I’m usually offered a quick apology by the person holding the soiled Kleenex, as if they’ve committed a sin by exposing their true emotions in front of the pastor. Our tears shouldn’t be dismissed as a sign of weakness, Neither should we be embarrassed to cry. In fact, we need to pay closer attention to our tears, especially the ones that sneak up on us in the pastor’s office or during the drive to work. As Frederick Buechner once said, “Tears are a sign that God is drawing near and speaking to you.”
My son once thought he was left behind in a store. He wasn’t but that didn’t matter to him at the time. He lost track of where I was so he panicked and frantically ran around looking for me. After turning the corner of the grocery aisle and spotting me, he ran up to me and cried. I hugged him and, having his attention, used the moment to reassure him that I would never leave him because I love him. A moment later, everything was fine, but I was reminded that our journey from fear to peace often includes tears. Such is the case for all of us who journey through life, with our fluctuating moments of tension and tranquility.
We live in a world filled with tears. Don’t just mop them up with Kleenex and move on. Pay attention to them. Listen to them. They could be God trying to get your attention.
Adam J. Rodgers is pastor of Stoneboro Presbyterian Church.