Def #1: a view of or attitude toward a situation or event; an opinion. Def #2: a feeling or emotion.
I used to be quite the sentimental person. One doesn’t know exactly why certain sentiments build up in the psyche, but they do. Embracing these sentiments defines your life. Or it’s the other way around. You view your life through the lens of sentiment and all things become sentimental, even the present.
The first feelings of sentiment often come through a longing for a place where you once lived, but no longer do. That meant true sentimental feelings for a place hit me first as a 5-year old. Our family moved from Seneca Falls, New York to Lancaster, Pennsylvania when I was in the middle of kindergarten. So I missed the home where we lived and the short walk down to Cayuga Lake and the borrowed cottage with spider webs floating just above the surface of the water. It was all good in my mind, that home back in New York. So I missed it.
I was also sentimental about the farm where my mother and father grew up in Bainbridge. Our family visited those farms most often in summer when hillside pastures were verdant and the Susquehanna River ran slowly past the flats where corn and potatoes grew. The Catskill mountain on which the milk cows grazed was laced with fossils in the rocks and fresh cold springs that filled the ruts where the tractors drove and leopard frogs made their homes.
We leave these things behind by necessity as time goes by. Yet we yearn for the feelings generated by those places and the people who lived there. But when the barn on my mother’s farm burned down, and when robbers broke in and stole the Indian arrowhead collection gleaned from the soil when working the farm, it was apparent that what drew me to the place could not be held forever. So the sentiment over losing the farms to time and change slowly disappeared. The memories do remain, but they have been drained of the sense of loss that fuels sentiment.
As Warren Zevon so brilliantly stated in his song Sentimental Hygiene, there is a sense of loss to all of life that can be crippling if we let it. His lyrics capture these feelings, and the need to dispense with unhealthy sentiment:
“Everybody’s had to hurt about it
No wants to live without it
It’s so hard to find it
At some point, for some reason I thought I heard different lyrics to that song, but they never existed. This is what I must have invented on my own:
“Everybody’s signing up to fight
for the right to be wrong
They need some….
Whether Warren sang those lyrics in another version of his song I don’t know, but I love what they mean nonetheless. We are too often absorbed by sentiment and become defensive of things that we really need to release.
In 1970 our family moved from Lancaster, Pennsylvania to Elburn, Illinois. I was 13 years old, emerging from 7th grade and feeling really tragic at losing my middle school friends back “home” in Lancaster. I made new friends but kept a place in my heart especially for a particularly close relationship with a kid named David whose life, I figured out later on, was no picnic thanks to his parent’s divorce.
Yet we shared so many rites of passage from the age of 5 through the hormonal years of 7th grade that it is impossible to imagine my life without that good friend. We grew up in the 1960s and hung by the pool eating pretzels with mustard and string licorice and Coke. We bought Superballs, Ratfinks and other 60s junk. Then we played on the same baseball team that won the Lancaster New Era tournament. David had three beautiful sisters from whom I learned that girls were really just people and it was really painful to leave David behind. We sat on the elevated tee of the golf course on which his house was situated and David turned to me and said, “Why does everything I love have to leave me?”
We cried together and as our family pulled away with the Mayflower truck that day in June I thought I literally was going to die of grief. My brother leaned over and we sang a Beatles song under our breath behind the back seat of our 1965 Buick Wildcat. “One twothreefourfive six seven…all good children go to heaven…”
Taking big breaths
My brothers and I longed for our Pennsylvania home even as we adjusted to life in Illinois. When we’d leave the state after visits we’d literally take a big breath to hold the Pennsylvania air inside our lungs a little longer.
But we did the same thing with New York air. And later, when I came to love the Northeast Iowa country where I went to college, it came to pass that I loved that place more than any other. It was sentimentality for the time that passed, the events that occurred and the friends I’d made. College memories still populate my psyche, and many of those memories are tied to the running I did during those years. 4 years of college feels like one big inhalation in some respects. But when you’re training 90-100 miles a week, life gets pretty intense and you’re doing little more than eating, sleeping, shitting and running.
Then your friendships grow, forged by mutual effort. Successes come to be magnified and your college years can take on too much significance. It’s hard in some ways to keep it all on perspective as you move on. The carefree existence of college and having time to run all those miles seems like a Nirvana of sorts. It’s possible to cling to all that, or overshare, or look through life with a lens that turns all the way back to those experiences as a measure of everything you’re now experiencing. A mature person doesn’t break those ties, but they figure out how to put them in context. That was hard for me in some ways. I admit it. But one day you’re driving around and realize that you’ve known the people you work with much longer than you spent time with your college friends. Then you say to yourself, “Hey, what’s with the sentiment toward those days…”
Again, Warren Zevon nailed that feeling:
“Some nights I’d drive my car
Up and down the boulevard
It’s so hard to find it
In my late 30s it happened that my friend David moved to Illinois for his job. I tried to strike up a friendship again but his new life was truly new. His first marriage had broken up leaving 3 girls behind. Now he had another child with his new wife, who was truly a sweet person. But it wasn’t to be. David wasn’t really interested in revisiting the past in any substantial way. I longed to reminisce about some of our boyhood memories, but that wasn’t to be.
We drifted apart yet again, only to connect on Facebook another 20 years later. But my political posts offended his conservative character and he unfriended me.
But by that time it had become evident on my own volition that sentiment was not a workable solution to much of anything. Memories are just that. We make use of them sometimes but their tangible value is limited other than with people who share them. Even then they can be limiting in some respects.
“Every day I get up in the morning and go to work
And do my job-whatever
I need some
My life took some strange turns not long after that. Losing a wife to cancer and going through the job changes that came with helping her through all that was tough to take. Along the way we adopted a motto: “It is what it is.”
That’s a very liberating approach to life, if you think about it. You go out and run and ride, for example. Some days are good. Some days are bad. Once you used to kick yourself around for the bad days. Tell yourself you’re a bad or lesser person for failing at some race or training goal. And while you don’t quit trying to reach your goals these days, you learn to see that the bad can come with the good and you can still make progress. You don’t overthink and make everything into Another Tricky Day, another gentle nagging pain. In other words, you don’t oversentimentalize your running and your riding. Or your swimming. Triathloning. Marathoning or half-marathoning. The reason you work out is to escape the trap of sentiment or living in the “good old days.” You become a new you every time out the door. Add yoga to your routine. Lift weights. Go get muddy in some nutso race in the sticks. Shake it up. That’s sentimental hygiene at work.
The day I woke up fully realizing that I was indeed capable of Sentimental Hygiene, the world became a better place. It really is a strange and better new world when your life is not dependent on sentiment to define your current reality.
Admittedly, people don’t always understand your emotions, or in my case, that you can grieve in a healthy way without being dragged down into the abyss of loneliness and collapse. That’s nothing more than me actually embracing what faith has always told me: Life goes on. We believe that about the people we love, if we believe they have souls. A death is sad, but it is not final with respect to our sentiments. Those can come forward with us, and not hold us back.
With sentimental hygiene you can better handle anxieties or depression, concerns over money and relationships if you manage the sentiments that go along with all that. It’s not just “positive thinking.” That’s too simplistic. Sentimental hygiene requires real thought, and perhaps a few long runs or walks in the dark with only the stars for company, and possibly a little faith in something greater around you.
One looks at the world and sees people clinging to conservative outlooks that says the past was better in some way, that traditions and happy memories of the way things were far exceed the quality of the present. But I know that’s a load of crap. Now–– is all we have. Wishing for the past or imagining that earlier politics were better than today is dysfunctional at best, and dangerous at worst.
“Everybody’s at war these days
Let’s have a mini-surrender
I need some…Sentimental Hygiene.”
For 25 years I attended a conservative church where change was not that welcome. When we finally changed churches as a family it was a tremendously liberating feeling not to hear things preached from the pulpit that were sad, hateful and narrow-minded. All of that was founded on a fear of change and a perverse brand of sentiment for something that the Bible doesn’t truly preach. It was literal in a way that turns the past into something that never really existed.
Now when I read that the new Pope Francis actually thinks the Catholic church is caught up in petty things it makes me realize that even one of the leading religious leaders in the world is capable of sentimental hygiene. We all need it.
“Every night I come home exhausted
from trying to get along
I need some
Like I said, I used to be the one of the most sentimental guys in the world. But I might have been sentimental in ways that were not that healthy, or realistic. That was true even with my running and riding, where my personal angst found its release, but sometimes absorbed a little too much of who I was, like a cosmic Black Hole. We all need an escape, but must be careful with our personal gravity and the hold it has on our souls.
Now sentiment still plays a role in life, but not the lead role. Sentiment has its place with the loves in my life, and in sharing feelings with those you most care about. That’s a healthy place to be. Sentiment for the present is a beautiful place to be. Try it, you’ll see.