Sentimentality and Cruelty

In a post of November last year, I discussed the tendency towards and influence of sentimentality in contemporary Western society, particularly with respect to the question of why for many people, the question of truth seems to no longer be important. Today I would like to consider another aspect of our sentimental culture, and that is its tendency towards cruelty, or at the very least, indifference. Ernest Hemingway once said about his father that he was: ‘a deeply sentimental man. And like all sentimental men, he was also very cruel.’ This is a connection that I have reflected upon before; not primarily with regard to individuals, but regarding our society as a whole – we who seem to be becoming more and more sentimental, are also becoming more indifferent to the suffering of others, and also rather cruel in some of our dealings with one another.

Yet I have never really been able to hit upon a reason why this is the case. Thankfully, an article I read recently at the National Catholic Register, which discusses the media’s misinterpretation of Pope Francis’ call for greater exhibition of mercy in the Church and beyond, seems to have provided me with an answer. The article discusses the fact that mercy itself implies a sense of justice, and also the need to preserve a due sense of mercy with the recognition of truth, both of which are important points, but the key sentence for me was this:

Sentimentality begins and ends with emotion but is not in harmony with justice or the needs of others.

Therein, I believe, lies the reason that sentimental cultures tend towards cruelty. Sentimentality is not oriented towards justice, or indeed love, which in classical theological terms is to ‘will the good of the other’. Instead, it is fundamentally rooted in the emotions, and so is inevitably concerned to a great extent with the self – how I feel, what response this event/person produces in me. This leads to a response which is a.) usually short term, and b.) is often capricious or arbitrary. So the sentimental person could one minute be weeping at the death of a pet in a Hollywood movie, and yet the next moment be lashing out in anger at a loved one just because of a request that is an imposition on their time.

One of the most significant ways in which the cruelty of our culture is exhibited as a function of its sentimentality is with respect to the ‘hot-button’ life issues – abortion and euthanasia. To raise a disabled child, or nurse an elderly relative through a prolonged illness are emotionally draining experiences, and to the sentimentally inclined, the easier option (i.e.; the one which causes less distress to the sentimental subject) is also the crueller one. To kill a child in the womb, or ‘assist’ someone’s dying removes the unpleasant emotional distresses accompanied with the harder path – to take these actions is done not out of love for the other, but of love for oneself and a desire to eliminate personal feelings of grief. Also, the frequent ignoring of the homeless that one sees on a day to day basis can be seen as related to our culture’s sentimentality – to stop and offer charity (monetary or otherwise) is not only costly in terms of one’s time, but requires an engagement with the suffering of another that, again, is emotionally distressing. The easier thing therefore is to walk on by and put it out of mind.

To return to the article cited above, the author has rightly recognised the tendency of much secular media to interpret Pope Francis’ call for mercy in sentimental terms. However, what Pope Francis is really calling for is not an easy-going, let’s forget about all our differences and troubles sort of mentality; what he most emphatically is calling for though is more love. True love is forgetful of itself and concerned only with the good of the other; when a person of love sees someone suffering, though grieved to see such a thing, the emotions felt are of secondary significance – the primary thing is to aid and comfort that person. True love produces com-passion, a suffering with, which places oneself and one’s interests alongside and at the behest of the other. The perfect creaturely example of this is of course our Blessed Mother, who united herself completely with her son in His suffering.

Let us then look to Mary, and all the saints, who in their desire to unite themselves ever more closely with the divine will, offered themselves up for others in the name of love, which is the form and content of that will. Let us also look to Jesus Christ, love incarnate, in whom all the sufferings of mankind were ever united with the divine nature. If we look to such efficacious examples as these, we can but only be inspired, and respond in kind. We can only hope then, if we do respond and act likewise even just a little more, that the world may also look to us, and turn from its culture of sentimentality to instead embrace Love. This is what Pope Francis is calling us to do and be. This is what it means to be the Body of Christ.


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