This post was inspired by this one.
The Book of Life defines “sentimentality” as a view of life with the dark parts erased. When we look back at the past through sentimental eyes, we long for a simpler, happier time—one so very different from our present circumstances. Yet this longing, according to The Book of Life, breeds cynicism. We get caught up in our fantasy of how things used to be and ignore the reality that things weren’t always so good. We also look for the worst in the present day.
I couldn’t help wondering if this is how many Conservatives view the world—especially those who voted for and still support Donald Trump. To them, he is a throwback to a simpler time when boys could be boys and it was easy to tell who America’s enemies were: They looked different, dressed differently, and held to a different religion. Some Conservatives (I hate to make broad, general statements) want to return to this simpler time. Certain relatives of mine, who self-identified as Conservatives or Republicans, saw the world as getting much worse as it moves forward with gay rights, lack of prayer in public schools, and apparent disrespect of the American flag. In their youth, no one questioned these matters. Now everyone questions everything. Questions are scary. Questions undermine the certainty that God is on our side, or we are on his. (God is always a “he.”) They destroy the cherished illusions we take for granted: American superiority, Christian rightness, and male dominion.
However, this post is not about Conservatives. It is about me and my own brushes with sentimentality.
One of the recurring themes and preoccupations of my life is self-improvement. I know from first-hand experience that I can be wrong and usually am. So, any faith I had in American superiority, Christian rightness, and male dominion (because I am all these things—American, Christian, and male) was destroyed long ago. “Destroyed” perhaps isn’t the right word. Those thoughts are still with me. I am a product of the culture in which I was raised, and any culture has both a positive and a negative side. (Take that, sentimentality.) I also long for a past in which things were somehow “better” than they are now. I particularly feel this way when I miss certain relatives who have died and friends who have moved on. I imagine the conversations we should have had but didn’t, conversations which we made a silent pact not to have because their Truths were not my Truth, and a steady peace was preferred to the risk of all-out war of Truths. My attempts to be understood failed. My attempts to understand failed even worse.
Sentimentality seduces. A couple of years ago, I was delighted when a local radio station began playing American Top 40 programs from the ‘70s, the era of my childhood. At last, I was able to listen to all the programs I missed because I didn’t discover AT40 until I was 15. I was able to watch the classic artists and songs of my youth move up and down the chart, and to listen to host Casey Kasem’s anecdotes and chart trivia. Every Sunday I took notes and shared them on Facebook. A few of my FB friends even commented. Sentimentality is always best when shared.
Yet a certain boredom crept in. After a while, I realized there was nothing “classic” or transcendent about listening to the countdown year after year. The same artists released new songs every year, and while some were indeed memorable hits, others were just dreck. Rock ‘n’ roll, like any business, thrives on pushing product, no matter how lame, to the public. This interpretation is subjective, of course—every song is probably someone’s favorite. But even favorite status depends on where we were, who we were, who we were with, and countless other subjective associations. Most Top 40 music was bland and formulaic in the ‘70s, just as it was in the ‘80s, when I listened faithfully every week, hoping my own favorite songs and artists would rise to the top. Instead, I had to patiently wait out the reigns of “Endless Love” and Daryl Hall and John Oates. In hindsight, I appreciate the craft that went into such songs and artists. At the time, I longed for an imagined past of the ‘70s when the likes of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Grand Funk reigned supreme.
Sentimentality runs its course—or it should. There should come a point where we realize we are learning nothing new and that the very feelings we are trying to avoid—uncertainty, anxiety, nervousness—point to impending change. The world evolves constantly, and we can either embrace those changes or turn back to an imagined past where things were better, happier. I suggest it’s not bad if we do this occasionally. Looking to the past can remind us who we are and where we came from. As is evident in some of my Conservative friends, tradition reaffirms values: what it means to be American or Christian or male (or female).
However, sentimentality becomes a trap when we refuse to see it for what it is, when we take the fantasy as real and become bitter towards a present which doesn’t live up to our expectations. The simple truth is that the past wasn’t always so great. The ‘70s I grew up in were full of personal upheavals. About a year ago, I found my old school records. I passed many of my classes only because my mother implored my teachers and principals to let me pass. I was so traumatized by being picked on and bullied that I couldn’t concentrate on school work. In the eighth grade, I stopped going to school yet somehow managed to pass. In the ninth grade, a teacher came to my house to deliver and collect assignments. Then I switched schools—to a Conservative, religious school which proclaimed rock ‘n’ roll to be the devil’s music. Of course, this was the time when I got into rock ‘n’ roll. My identity was formed in part by rebellion against what I saw as the narrow-mindedness of the people on whom I depended for life and education.
The sentimentality of my youth would have required me to be born about 20 years earlier so I could have been part of that generation which changed the music world—the Beatles, the Stones, and my go-to group, Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship. Many of these artists were still active in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They had “made it.” I, too, wanted to make it without having to go through adolescence and young adulthood and college and figuring out what I wanted to do. I imagined they lived happy lives as established artists whose records were all but guaranteed to be successful and whose every pronouncement made the news with Messianic weight. And they were all a “family”—creative and loved.
Of course, I know differently now. My curiosity about such artists led me to research them and learn their Truths: the addictions, the pressure to have hits, the tension between remaining original yet pleasing the crowds, the broken relationships, the massive egos. Yet in studying their Truths, I learned to let go of my own fantasies and to open myself to the wonder of reality: the miracle of what it is truly like to create something which impacts others. I also learned, in a roundabout way, to understand and embrace my own Truth.
The Book of Life has it right: Sentimentality can breed cynicism, but only if we let it. If we recognize sentimentality for what it is—a temporary excursion into how we want things to be—we can use it to create a better future.
This is an interesting post. I think it is tempting to become sentimental and look back towards a better (imagined) past when the present seemed confusing and uncertain.
Could this explain the popularity of costume dramas and historical fiction? I write historical fiction and I am under no illusion that although I try to be historically accurate, I am creating my own world. A world where I can make things happen as I see fit.
I never lived in the 1780s and 90s - when my books are set - and I am aware that I should create a believable world, not a sentimental one. I try to show the positive and negative aspects of this era in my story telling. To only show the positives leads to blander literature and the danger of passing on a false idea of history. (Many people only learn history through fiction. Hence why a minority believe Conan the Barbarian to have been a real person).
It is very easy to take for granted the benefits of living in the early 21st century even if they are not 'romantic' i.e. electricity, antibiotics, equality legislation etc. The present isn't perfect but who really wants to live in the past? Not me!
Ruth, thanks for your comment.
I think you touched on the appeal of writing stories set in the past: There is always (for me, at least) a romantic yearning for the past, even though we know it wasn't perfect and many things are much better now.
One appeal the past has for me is that I know how it turned out. I've noticed this whenever I watch movies set in WWII or the 1960s, for example. It's easy to forget how uncertain those times were.
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