Are We Afraid of Sentiment?

Understanding why you are afraid of people

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 the heart.

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.


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