Tears before paintings are no longer dependable. The youthful Mishima sobs in Paul Schrader’s Mishima as he views an Andrea Mantegna artwork that shows St. Sebastian’s martyrdom. Mishima sobs, but his tears are a mixture of sadness, resentment, unmet expectations, hysteria, and libido. Who can say for sure what they mean?

In an episode of the BBC biographical series, Mahatma Gandhi breaks down in front of a Christ artwork. Who would be willing to share his possible thoughts? Picasso’s Guernica causes the painter’s mother to cry in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat film.

She could be thinking about the oppressions of the Spanish Civil War or Picasso’s victorious art, but it doesn’t seem plausible that the young Basquiat could relate to much of what she is experiencing. (It’s also difficult to ascertain Schnabel’s opinion of Guernica.) It appears that understanding what transpires in a grieving mind is impossible. And as if all of that wasn’t enough, there are also meaningless tears.

I occasionally am startled to feel a tear on my face, which I hastily wipe away before anyone sees. It may have been brought on by weariness, a strong light, or airborne dust. Like perspiration, tears can come out of our body when we don’t want them to. Both the cold and the sulfuric acid that onions’ chemical produces cause our eyes to moisten. (In medical terminology, those are called “irritant tears” and “reflex tears” rather than “emotional tears.” Physicians are consistently certain about these kinds of things.)

Some individuals cry easily at the sound of laughter, while others need constant eye drops because they have dry eyes. Sjogren’s syndrome is a chronic dry eye disease that is frequently linked to rheumatoid arthritis. Droplets of “artificial tears” are necessary for certain syndrome sufferers every ten to fifteen minutes. Even though they may appear to be sobbing and feel like they are, these folks are actually shedding artificial tears.

Stroke victims may weep incessantly, although this is not due to emotional outbursts but rather to neurological failure. They have a disorder known as “pathological crying” or “emotional incontinence,” and medications are available to aid with the pointless tears.

Just as tears I receive when peeling onions are an indication of acids in my eye, “pathological” tears are not indicators of a mental condition but rather of a damaged state of the brain. However, the distinction between tears and sentiments is hazy. Medication designed to halt crying may also help lift the spirits of certain pathological cryers who are also depressed.

Similar to smiles, tears may also be fake. However, they are not as meaningful as smiles because they might imply nothing at all. Given that tears can have contradictory meanings, what type of object are they? It seems like tears may represent anything: known and unknown, cold and hot, important and unimportant, false and real, uncommon and common, profound and superficial, evident and concealed, sincere and unintentional.

At least one philosopher of tears was incorrect when they claimed that tears are the unique language of the eye. Unless they are all of the languages of Babel combined into one, they cannot be similar to words. They appear to communicate everything at once—thoughts we have conquered and those we have suppressed, physical cravings, hidden wants, physiological malfunctions—because they reflect so many facets of who we are.