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Sentiment _versus_ Sentimentality
Source: As A Matter Of Course
FREEDOM from sentimentality opens the way for true sentiment.
An immense amount of time, thought, and nervous force is wasted in
sentimentalizing about "being good." With many, the amount of talk
about their evils and their desire to overcome them is a thermometer
which indicates about five times that amount of thought Neither the
talk nor the thought is of assistance in leading to any greater
strength or to a more useful life; because the talk is all talk, and
the essence of both talk and thought is a selfish, morbid pleasure
in dwelling upon one's self. I remember the remark of a young girl
who had been several times to prayer-meeting where she heard the
same woman say every time that she "longed for the true spirit of
religion in her life." With all simplicity, this child said: "If she
longs for it, why doesn't she work and find it, instead of coming
every week and telling us that she longs?" In all probability the
woman returned from every prayer-meeting with the full conviction
that, having told her aspirations, she had reached the height
desired, and was worthy of all praise.
Prayer-meetings in the old, orthodox sense are not so numerous as
they were fifty years ago; but the same morbid love of telling one's
own experiences and expressing in words one's own desires for a
better life is as common as ever.
Many who would express horror at these public forms of
sentimentalizing do not hesitate to indulge in it privately to any
extent. Nor do they realize for a moment that it is the same morbid
spirit that moves them. It might not be so pernicious a practice if
it were not so steadily weakening.
If one has a spark of real desire for better ways of living,
sentimentalizing about it is a sure extinguisher if practised for
any length of time.
A woman will sometimes pour forth an amount of gush about wishing to
be better, broader, nobler, stronger, in a manner that would lead
you, for a moment, perhaps, to believe in her sincerity. But when,
in the next hour, you see her neglecting little duties that a woman
who was really broad, strong, and noble would attend to as a matter
of course, and not give a second thought to; when you see that
although she must realize that attention to these smaller duties
should come first, to open the way to her higher aspirations, she
continues to neglect them and continues to aspire,--you are surely
right in concluding that she is using up her nervous system in
sentimentalizing about a better life; and by that means is doing all
in her power to hinder the achievement of it.
It is curious and very sad to see what might be a really strong
nature weakening itself steadily with this philosophy and water. Of
course it reaches a maudlin state if it continues.
His Satanic Majesty must offer this dose, sweetened with the sugar
of self-love, with intense satisfaction. And if we may personify
that gentleman for the sake of illustration, what a fine sarcastic
smile must dwell upon his countenance as he sees it swallowed and
enjoyed, and knows that he did not even have to waste spice as an
ingredient! The sugar would have drowned the taste of any spice he
There is not even the appearance of strength in sentimentalizing.
Besides the sentimentalizing about ourselves in our desire to live a
better life, there is the same morbid practice in our love for
others; and this is quite as weakening. It contains, of course, no
jot of real affection. What wholesome love there is lives in spite
of the sentimentalizing, and fortunately is sometimes strong enough
on one side or the other to crowd it out and finally exterminate it.
It is curious to notice how often this sham sentiment for others is
merely a matter of nerves. As an instance we can take an example,
which is quite true, of a woman who fancied herself desperately fond
of another, when, much to her surprise, an acute attack of toothache
and dentist-fright put the "affection" quite out of her head. In
this case the "love" was a nervous irritant, and the toothache a
counter-irritant. Of course the sooner such superficial feeling is
recognized and shaken off, the nearer we are to real sentiment.
"But," some one will say, "how are we to know what is real and what
is not? I would much rather live my life and get more or less
unreality than have this everlasting analyzing." There need be no
abnormal analyzing; that is as morbid as the other state. Indulge to
your heart's content in whatever seems to you real, in what you
believe to be wholesome sentiment. But be ready to recognize it as
sham at the first hint you get to that effect, and to drop it
A perfectly healthy body will shed germs of disease without ever
feeling their presence. So a perfectly healthy mind will shed the
germs of sentimentality. Few of us are so healthy in mind but that
we have to recognize a germ or two and apply a disinfectant before
we can reach the freedom that will enable us to shed the germs
unconsciously. A good disinfectant is, to refuse to talk of our own
feelings or desires or affections, unless for some end which we know
may help us to more light and better strength. Talking, however, is
mild in its weakening effect compared with thinking. It is better to
dribble sham sentiment in words over and over than to think it, and
repress the desire to talk. The only clear way is to drop it from
our minds the moment it appears; to let go of it as we would loosen
our fingers and drop something disagreeable from our hands.
A good amount of exercise and fresh air helps one out of
sentimentalizing. This morbid mental habit is often the result of a
body ill in some way or another. Frequently it is simply the effect
of tired nerves. We help others and ourselves out of it more rapidly
by not mentioning the sentimentalizing habit, but by taking some
immediate means towards rest, fresh air, vigorous exercise, and
Mistakes are often made and ourselves or others kept an unnecessary
length of time in mental suffering because we fail to attribute a
morbid mental state to its physical cause. We blame ourselves or
others for behavior that we call wicked or silly, and increase the
suffering, when all that is required is a little thoughtful care of
the body to cause the silly wickedness to disappear entirely.
We are supposed to be indulging in sickly sentiment when we are
really suffering from sickly nerves. An open sympathy will detect
this mistake very soon, and save intense suffering by an early
Sentiment is as strengthening as sentimentality is weakening. It is
as strong, as clear, and as fine in flavor as the other is sickly
sweet. No one who has tasted the wholesome vigor of the one could
ever care again for the weakening sweetness of the other, however
much he might have to suffer in getting rid of it. True sentiment
seeks us; we do not seek it. It not only seeks us, it possesses us,
and runs in our blood like the new life which comes from fresh air
on top of a mountain. With that true sentiment we can feel a desire
to know better things and to live them. We can feel a hearty love
for others; and a love that is, in its essence, the strongest of all
human loves. We can give and receive a healthy sympathy which we
could never have known otherwise. We can enjoy talking about
ourselves and about" being good," because every word we say will be
spontaneous and direct, with more thought of law than of self. This
true sentiment seeks and finds us as we recognize the sham and shake
it off, and as we refuse to dwell upon our actions and thoughts in
the past or to look back at all except when it is a necessity to
gain a better result.
We are like Orpheus, and true sentiment is our Eurydice with her
touch on our shoulder; the spirits that follow are the
sham-sentiments, the temptations to look back and pose. The music of
our lyre is the love and thought we bring to our every-day life. Let
us keep steadily on with the music, and lead our Eurydice right
through Hades until we have her safely over the Lethe, and we know
sentimentality only as a name.