When I first began reading Augustine’s Confessions at the age of 19, I didn’t know exactly what to make of its beginning. The idea of permanent restlessness fascinated me, but I wasn’t quite sure what Augustine was getting at with all his questions about God and existence. I certainly did not know why he moved on to talking about jealous babies.

But then he started on his days at school, and it began to make more sense. I, myself, had been a student for most of my life at that point. I knew school, and I could easily relate to his complaints about the tedium of rote memorization. I imagined that if I had been forced to learn ancient Greek (which I did not know at the time I would go on to do voluntarily in graduate school), I would be pretty grumpy about it, too.

Augustine resonated with me more deeply when he described weeping over Dido’s death when he was forced as a schoolboy to memorize the Aeneid. I may not have known much about Dido, as I was only passingly familiar with Virgil’s epic at the time, but I was a big lover of stories and had already determined to be an English literature major. I knew exactly what it felt like to be so moved by fictional characters that their sorrows and pain—no matter how sensational—brought you to tears. I had cried with my mother and sisters over Jack’s death in Titanic countless times. There are still certain films and books I can’t watch or read without crying. To be honest, there are days when I can’t even listen to certain tracks on the Lord of the Rings’ film score without getting misty-eyed.

Augustine describes several instances of weeping in the Confessions: his tears in book 4 when his unnamed friend dies, his mother’s tears in book 5 when she learns that Augustine has left for Rome without telling her, his weeping in book 8 right before he hears a voice singing “tolle legge,” and his son’s burst of tears in book 9 after the death of Monica.

Augustine does not shy away from talking about the significance of tears. He writes in The City of God that Christians should follow Christ’s example by showing emotion and weeping when the situation calls for it (CG 14.8-9). To avoid doing so is not a sign of control or achievement but rather “an entire loss of…humanity” (14.10).

Augustine can sometimes be portrayed as haughty and dour, so I like to remember that as a boy in school he cried over the death of Dido. It makes him feel more human to me, helps me feel more connected to him. It shows, I think, the strength of his empathy, as well as his weakness for what we might call today “guilty pleasures.”

Importantly, Augustine’s tears for Dido also raise deeper questions about whether when we cry we are expressing sincere emotions or are merely weeping over fancies as a way to distract ourselves from our own pain. “What indeed,” Augustine asks, “is more pitiful than a piteous person who has no pity for himself? I could weep over the death Dido brought upon herself out of love for Aeneas, yet I shed no tears over the death I brought upon myself by not loving you” (Conf. 1.13.21). Isn’t it sometimes easier to have a good cry while imagining someone else’s pain (say by turning on the last half hour of Titanic) rather than dealing with one’s own pain through the arduous work of self-reflection? But isn’t the latter far much more necessary, despite its difficulty?

As someone prone to caring perhaps a bit too much about the fate of fictional characters, I take Augustine’s insight here as an important lesson. Augustine often forces us to confront hard truths about ourselves and our world. But if he ever seems too demanding of us, it can be useful to remind ourselves that he, too, was not immune to weeping over the death of Dido.