From cradle to grave, a dishonest sentimentality pervades our lives

June 27, 2007|By Gordon Livingston

As you get older, you start going to more funerals. It's impossible, listening to eulogies of those one has known, not to wonder what will be said at one's own memorial ceremony and how well attended it will be. A friend explained recently the bizarre logic behind his impulse to attend services for those he had known only in passing: "If you don't go to your friends' funerals, you can't expect them to come to yours."

At the last funeral I went to, I realized that I was listening to descriptions of the departed that were, to put it mildly, highly selective. Gone was the actual person, with his strengths and flaws. He had been replaced by a paragon of wit and virtue almost unrecognizable to those who knew him. What happens, I wondered, to stories of drunks and wife beaters when they die? Nothing, it is said, improves one's reputation more than death.

This tendency to idealize the dead is an example of a larger fact: The opposite of truth is not necessarily a lie. It is a different form of dishonesty: sentimentality. This takes the form of a mawkish oversimplification of the world, in which reality is lost. If our descent into sentimentality were confined to well-meaning words of comfort to the bereaved, we could be forgiven. Unfortunately, this particular form of distortion is much more widespread and consequential.

The shelves of our bookstores are full of self-help literature - think Chicken Soup for the Soul - based on a maudlin mythology that has little to do with how people in the real world live or change. Likewise, our whole celebrity-sated, self-help-through-consumption, advertising culture is one long appeal to a sentimental view of the world in which we are just one purchase away from having the life we want.

Then there's religion, with its divinely inspired rules for living, highlighting the eternal struggle between good and evil - another way that the world is oversimplified. Too bad that our disagreements about which set of beliefs to follow promote so much violence and death. And let's not forget the great secular religion called patriotism. In its name, we are regularly encouraged to support our troops, the unfailingly brave young men and women who sacrifice daily on freedom's behalf in the killing fields of Iraq.

The arena in which the distortions of sentimentality hold greatest sway is, of course, politics. Look whom we chose to lead us through these perilous times: someone who convinced us that we are wonderful people who are being terrorized by fanatics who, for some reason, wish to destroy or enslave us. That these evildoers rely for their moral guidance on a different ancient text than we do clinches the argument.

Now that the president's plan hasn't worked out so well (despite his moral certainty), one might imagine that we would be skeptical of politicians who promise to save us. But here comes a whole new crop of men and women willing to engage in the self-delusion that is necessary for election. We still long for the messiah who will lead us out of the wilderness of confusion and insecurity in which we find ourselves. As long as they don't ask anything from us but our money and our votes.

If you want to know whether someone is telling you a sentimental story, ask yourself, "Does this sound oversimplified? Is he talking as if there were only two alternatives to solving this problem?" If life teaches us anything, it is that it's complicated, with many possible outcomes, only a few of which we control.

Perhaps the most pervasive form of sentimentality is nostalgia. It seems that everyone is old enough to remember a better time, when the world was safer, everyone was kinder, children were more respectful and more people looked like us. What happened to that time? Where is Norman Rockwell when we need him? Can't we just get back to the values that made this country great and stop fretting about distractions like climate change and torture?

If only we could find someone with all the answers, the rest of us could just change the channel, watch a little football, and live happily ever after.

Gordon Livingston, a psychiatrist and combat veteran who lives in Columbia, is the author of "And Never Stop Dancing." His e-mail is gslcvk@aol.com.

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