Sentiment has two distinct definitions. The first is more rationally based: a view of or attitude toward a situation or event; an opinion. It’s a way of recognizing and revealing our thought process on an issue.
We all have sentimental events that we recall with either fondness or horror. A baby’s birth, a marriage, certain films and music…these often carry warm, pleasant feelings. Dishonor, betrayal, and other traumas carry feelings that we’d rather forget, but can’t because they get stored in our bodies as negative sentiments. As with pleasant feelings, such feelings can be triggered at any time and in many ways. This is the process behind post-traumatic stress.
The second definition of sentiment is more familiar and can have a more pejorative slant: exaggerated and self-indulgent feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia. I disagree that all sentiment has to be self-indulgent and sappy. Sentiment is reminds us that we are human. Yet there is always the trap that sentiment can become mere sentimentality.
Sentimentality is when we indulge in our feelings from past events, just for their own sake. Such feelings often trigger day-dreaming that gets us out of the boring present moment into a kind of fantasy world that we romanticize or idealize. We’re looking for an emotional escape in sentimentality.
Some of you may be having a very difficult time adjusting holiday celebrations with family and friends to the reality of this pandemic. You want things to be the way they were. Fair enough. Yet we all are prone to allowing sentimentality to control our rational minds and to lead us to some very imprudent decisions.
Good sentiments can thus morph into mere sentimentality. We can be so stuck in wishing for the return of an idealized past that we find it difficult to accept and adjust to present circumstances. What to do?
1. Ask yourself: “What are you really losing when external circumstances prevent you from ‘doing the big family thing?’” Covid-19 this year is stopping large gatherings in their tracks and thus seriously interfering with major family and holiday celebrations. Many may feel angry or disappointed. Why? It’s often due to sentimentality over the past and a refusal to adjust to a new, and albeit temporary, reality.
2. Going forward, why not make each celebration slightly different each year, so that you are not getting stuck in ‘we always did it this way?’
3. What if you created brand new rituals for when the usual ritual is not prudent or possible? Involve others in new ways to make them memorable. Many neighborhoods have done just that at Halloween and graduations.
4. Look seriously at your tendency toward wishful thinking, wanting the romanticized past to be relived today. It may be that you are not living in the present and need a wake-up call.
© 2020 Michael Parise