Deflecting the war on sentiment

'It Is Well With My Soul', By Chris JohnstonThe vehemence with which appeals to sentiment are rejected in public life is constantly surprising. Symbolic gestures that involve the heart, like the apology to the Stolen Generations, are often seen as a substitute for practical action.

Critics also criticise people whose advocacy presents vividly the human reality of those suffering as a result of government policy. Speakers, for example, who substantiate their appeal for change in Australia's refugee policy by describing the trauma of detainees, are often described as 'bleeding hearts'. If they are educated, they face the added opprobrium of belonging to the elites.

Proponents of drastic solutions to cultural or political crises also criticise harshly those who point out the human cost of their solutions. Reflections on the suffering caused by going to war in Iraq or on the costs to fraternity caused by cleaning out the Catholic Church or the ABC, for example, are deemed weak-minded hindrances to clear-sighted action.

If you are one of those who base their case on sentiment, it is tempting to attribute your opponents' vehemence to hard-heartedness. But there is more to it. Critics may fear their defences will be taken down by a moving story and that, as a result, they will be vulnerable to self-deceit or cheap consolation. For them, sentiment is a treacherous patina on the hard rock of reality.

I have some sympathy with this position. It resonates with my experience as a Catholic priest. Nothing discredits faith as much as to have its consolations too easily offered. To be assured, for example, that our dead child has gone to a better place, will be free from the troubles of adulthood or is privileged to die young, is intolerable. We feel that we are being led up a path by someone who has never walked it and hasn't a clue into which hell it might lead. Sentiment untested by experience is sentimentality.

After attending to the unfathomable hurt and horror we find in a person's grief, we are likely simply to listen and to offer few words. We naturally grow hostile to all symbols and words that offer sentiment without weighing the reality of human life. We hunt out sentimentality, nowhere more energetically than in hymns.

Take, for example, 'It is Well with my Soul', by Horatio G. Spafford, a Chicago businessman and a friend of the prolific hymnodists Moody and Sankey. The first verse reads:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,

When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

The censorious critic asks whether the consolations of religion here don't come a little too easily. Ought we not weigh sorrows more carefully before deciding that 'It is well with my soul'? The image of sorrows rolling like sea billows is beautiful and expansive — but are not sorrows usually experienced as claustrophobic and ugly? The large view is sentimental.

But then we learn that in 1873 Spafford had sent his wife and four daughters ahead of him on a European holiday. Their ship sank. His wife was saved; his four daughters drowned. He went to his wife, saw where the ship had sunk, and afterwards wrote the hymn. To judge the hymn sentimental then seems harsh.

That led me to wonder whether we should always indulge the censorious self. Perhaps hostility to sentiment may mislead us just as much as sentimentality. The reason why sentiment is important is precisely the reason why it is criticised. It leaves us vulnerable. Vulnerable, certainly, to being misled, but vulnerable also to being led to the human reality of what we describe.

Vulnerability allows us to test our own hard-edged projects against the human reality of their implementation. It also allows us to reflect on the knotted movements of the heart that support our arguments.

It leads us finally to recognise that we share the vulnerable humanity of those for whom we plan. And if we can find symbols to enact that shared humanity, there is indeed the possibility of a new beginning.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.




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Existing comments

Indeed as in religion so too in popular culture, politics (its practice if not always its rhetoric), mass entertainment, business, marketing and most aspects of life in the West today.

Associated with this 'war on sentiment' is the 'war for consumerism'. The victim of both wars, it seems to me, is our ever weakening capacity for compassion and our passion for justice. Without sentiment - our capacity to respond to life emotionally as well as intellectually - we humans slide further into a state of alienation from each other and our own inner selves. A spiritual desert remains.

Your observation about the centrality of vulnerability to our humanity is indeed so important. How interesting that we spend so much - both politically and personally - on ever more sophisticated strategies for reducing our exposure to vulnerability: more material comforts, tighter immigration policies, increased military hardware and a burgeoning superannuation industry. The only things we won't do to reduce our vulnerability - in spite of their omminent contradictions - is to cut up our credit cards and cut down our debt.

Imagine the savings from both reinvested in global ant-poverty campaigns? Too sentimental, I guess.

Dr Frank Donovan | 08 April 2008  

Many of our problems go back to a gnostic dualism between "body" and "spirit" and a distrust of our senses and emotions. In Anglo-Celtic cultures we are still embarrassed by "weeping" especially by men with the slogan "Big boys don't cry".

john ozanne | 08 April 2008  

One of the best pieces you have written, I think, Andrew. A crucial reflection for people who skate over, or even dismiss, the sufferings of our Indigenous peoples. Andrew Bolt and Piers Ackerman are the two I'd like to see 'led to the human reality' they pontificate so complacently about.

Joe Castley | 08 April 2008  

...may each of us continue with "knotted movements of the heart" as we seek some clarity in issue difficult. Thank you for this piece.

Judy George | 08 April 2008  

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