In the Aeneid, the hero contemplates the tragedy of war. Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt: There are tears for things and mortal thoughts touch the mind. In the centuries that followed, the phrase lacrimae rerum escaped the lines of Virgil’s poem and took on a life of its own. It appears in sermons, symphonies, and epitaphs, and it has been etched into countless memorials and tombstones. The exact meaning of lacrimae rerum continues to inspire debate among linguists and classicists, for sometimes it is translated as “tears for things,” other times as “tears of things.” Although it’s only a matter of a single letter, the distinction between for and of is crucial—and instructive.

Weeping for something implies that each of us privately mourns the loss of the things we cherish—a person, a relationship, a dream—and that we grieve alone. The tears of things, however, suggests the world weeps with us. Are we alone in our heads with our personal sorrows, or is melancholia as pervasive as sunlight or air?

The tears of things. If I squint at this phrase a certain way, I catch a glimpse of how I might better relate to grief. Maybe the universe is sympathetic, after all. Perhaps the cosmos is aware of the absurdity of our flickering lives. Seen in this light, the devastation I felt after losing my parents is no longer an aberration, but an intrinsic element of the world, as necessary as gravity or air. There is powerful alchemy in this simple thought, even if it is fleeting. Lacrimae rerum reminds me that I am surrounded by compassion while I mourn. This may be a sentimental way of thinking that relies on the romantic notion that the wind, rain, and clouds can somehow mirror my state of mind, but it makes me feel less alone. This can be enough to carry someone through the dark forest of grief. And it might become an organizing principle as the world continues to heat up and unwind.

Reverberated Crying

From American Decay | 2015
Original song performed by Roy Orbison in 1962. This track appears on American Decay, a collection of loops and reverberations that I recorded between 2009 and 2014.
Further reading: the Aeneid; lacrimae rerum; the pathetic fallacy.