Just Call Me a Sentimental Liberal

My first reaction when reading Jonathan’s response to my response on “sentimentality” was to assure him that I, too, hold many “depressing” novels in high regard. After all, I switched from being a physics major at the University of Washington to a literature major after being swept away by Thomas Hardy’s melancholic view of the world my senior year in high school. In some weird, romantic way I felt that Hardy offered more hope of finding the ultimate truths that lay at the heart of this puzzling universe than the alchemy of modern science.
As my comment on his site began to exceed the length of his entry, I decided that my own blog was probably the most appropriate place for a reply, especially since I still haven’t finished that great romantic novel of the 20th century, Catch-22.
I must admit I’m a little surprised by my own actions in defending the word and by my reaction to be labeled a “sentimentalist” after defending the word. I have enough college to realize that being “cynical,” or at least “ objective” is cool, so one side of me doesn’t want to be classified as being overly sentimental.
However, reassured by Jeff’s analysis of the word and after giving it more thought, it seems to me that the only problem with “sentimentality” is not recognizing it as such. To me, occasionally indulging in sentimentality is a part of being a healthy person.
Personally, I worry about friends who aren’t sentimental about their childhood, their children’s childhood, or their grandchildren. You’re supposed to be sentimental about these things, for God’s sake. Does anyone really think you’re supposed to be totally objective about your children? And grandchildren? You’d have to be a real Scrooge not to occasionally indulge the temptation to spoil grandchildren, wouldn’t you?
On the other hand, I’m all too aware some people’s childhoods are so bleak that there is nothing to be sentimental about. But I worry most about friends like this for it’s difficult to ever totally recover from the damage done in those years. One of my favorite students had been sexually abused by her father, and years later she seemed incapable of finding a man who would do anything but mistreat her. It was almost as if she was doomed to forever confirm her vision of abusive men. Unfortunately, she is but one of many whose lives have been forever besmirched by a miserable childhood or abusive parents. This is, in fact, my greatest worry about all the children being indoctrinated with hatred in Israel and Palestine. I wonder if they will ever be able to transcend their hatred and find anything like a lasting peace.
I find it preferable to see the world through rosy glasses rather than condemning myself to a life of misery. Of course, it’s probably wise, and certainly necessary, to realize when you’re indulging in sentimentality. For instance, there may well be few things less dangerous than a parent who comes into a parent conference thinking her child can do no wrong. Parents who lack any objectivity are more likely to end up damaging their child than helping him when faced with unpleasant realities.
On the other hand, parents who used to come into parent conferences bad-mouthing their child’s behavior always pissed me off far more than those who mistakenly stood up for everything their child did. It often didn’t take more than a moment to realize what the child’s real problem was and to realize how difficult it was going to be for that child to overcome the negative emotions his parents instilled in him.
The real tragedy of such situations is that once a person denies the possibility that they are a good person and that they can do good things, there is little likelihood that they will do those things. Far better to error on the side of optimism and the belief that you can change the world if you try.
I don’t mind being called a romantic and a liberal, and I guess I don’t mind being called “sentimental,” because ultimately I still believe in the ability of humans to transcend their lot in life and to create a world where all people have the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” though I’m pragmatist enough to realize we haven’t yet found the means of insuring those rights here in America, much less in the world, and cynic enough to distrust those who wrap their own agenda in these words.

What do you think?