G.K. Chesterton once said
that the meanest fear is the fear of sentimentality. How often it robs life of
grace and sweetness! Because we are
afraid people will think us “soft”
we hide our tenderness under a cloak of
sophistication. We say “thanks” when we mean “God bless you”, and “So long”
when we mean “I’ll be lonely without
you”. Too many of us condemn true sentiment along with sentimentality. By doing
so we live on the surface of things when we really want to speak and act from
When John Carmichael, a Scottish
minister, came to his first church, very young and frightened, he felt he was
doing badly and the people were looking at him with pity and contempt. One day
he was preparing a sermon when the stern elders of his Scottish Kirk filed
solemnly into his office. They had not come to reprove him. They had come to
tell him not to be afraid. “Next Sabbath before you begin to speak”, said the
leader, “we ask you to say to yourself: They’re all loving me. And it will be
true. From the oldest to the youngest, we will be loving very much”.
A few years ago a group of young
medical students were training in the children’s ward of a large city hospital.
One particular student seemed to be loved especially by the children. They
always greeted him with joy. The others
could not understand why. They
detailed one of their number to follow him and find out the secret of this
attraction. The observer detected nothing until night, when the young medic made his late round.
Then the mystery was solved. He kissed every child goodnight.
In the end, civilization
may be more grateful to its lovers and poets than to its statesmen, for it is
they who keep alive what is truly human. And it is this gentle, human,
individual thing which can reach out to bind people together across the wide
barriers of race and tongue and ancient resentment.
In the last years of his life, Robert Louis
Stevenson lived on the island of Samoa. When his friend Mataafa, the
Samoan chieftain, was put in prison by the European authorities, Stevenson,
though he was ill and tired, visited him
very often. Always he brought along a little gift. Deeply moved by this
kindness, the Samoans laboured long hours to build a road for Stevenson. When
he died, they buried him on a hilltop and made a rule that no firearms should ever be used on that hill,
because they wanted him to sleep in peace!
Back of every humanitarian advance is
somebody’s sentimental motivation. When Dr. Banting, discover of insulin, was a
small boy he had a beloved playmate named Janie who played hockey and baseball
with him. One summer Janie died of “sugar in the blood”. Frederick Banting
never forgot. He went into medicine.
Today millions of diabetics live because he cared about Janie.
Only little people fear to display
true sentiment. The great are at home with it as they are with the beauty and wonder of life. Ralph Waldo
Emerson lovingly visited the grave of his wife for over two years. Though he was a great intellect, ordinary folks felt at home with
him. “We are simple folk here”, a woman of Lexington said, after
attending one of his lectures, “but we understand Mr. Emerson because he
speaks directly to our hearts”.
If great people are not afraid of
sentiment, then why are we? I think it is because we have been brought up to
live our lives in compartments. Sentiment does not belong in
business, we say. It does not belong in
science, or it does not belong even in our thinking about ourselves. “No child
is born with a really cold heart”, wrote Lin Yutang. This unpleasent trait is
so throughly an adult fault that we often confuse coldness with maturity. What
a sorry comment on our wisdom that we should deliberately choke down what is
warmest and best in us! And the rewards
of our sophistication are meagre, for lack of sentiment does not make us
objective and wise but cold of heart, insensitive and fearful of life.
How can we keep sentiment alive,
especially as we grow older? How can we restore the grace of sentiment once it
seems to have field? Our first project should be one of personal inventory.
There are many hidden motivations behind our fear of sentiment. The next time
you discard a warm and generous
“sentimental impulse”, ask yourself: “From what am I protecting myself and why
was it honesty that impelled me, or the wish to pose as a sophisticate? Or the
fear of being misunderstood?”
It is the little things that
sentiment is at its best – gestures like the unexpected letter of appreciation we write to a friend whom we
saw only yesterday, the gift given to someone simply because “this reminds me
of you”. Just as they have the heart for sentiment, great
people always somehow have the time as well. Ernie Pyle, the beloved war
correspondent, was never too busy or harried with columns and deadlines to sit
down and listen to the woes of a lonely soldier, or to write letters home for
the wounded boys. Surely the time is there, it is how we use it that counts.