Confessions of a Sentimentalist
By Edward L. Wier
The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.
- Blaise Pascal
As creatures of category we are always trying to dissect and organize the world around us in hopes of gaining some new understanding, especially through scientific observation. Logic is bent on lording it over emotion. Intellect seems all-powerful, sentiment weak and vulnerable. Our entire planet seems to be basking in the glory of its overwhelming knowledge. We have catalogued every plant and creature. We have numbered every star. We have mapped the universe and named everything, down to the smallest sub-atomic particle. We have audited the cosmos.
Recently we turned our analytical skills to our own inner space. But the mind itself does not appear to be surrendering so easily to its own self-analysis. Despite all our progress in science, technology, medicine and psychology, we still, as evidenced by our erratic and unpredictable behavior, remain a mystery to ourselves, disobedient to the voice of resolve and logic. Objectivity in the area of the human soul, so valued by our increasingly intelligent society as the hand-maid of truth, is proving illusive. It seems, despite what the behaviorists claim, that we cannot simply lift the lid of the human spirit, tighten a few bolts, turn a few screws by therapy or behavior modification, and repair our perceived malfunctions. We are not computers, no matter how timely that model may seem. In our unexplainable humanity we possess a volatile, non-measurable essence which does not have much regard for consistency, science, or resolve.
This is no new idea. As early as the first century the apostle Paul revealed his bewilderment with his own human nature when he wrote, "For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish." He was a mystery to himself. He was inconsistent. He behaved irrationally. He was feeling when he should have been thinking.
Or consider Lord Byron when he said, "Admire, exult, despise, laugh, weep--for here there is such matter for all feelings:- Man! Thou pendulum betwixt a smile and a tear."
Or Ralph Waldo Emerson's observation: "Man is physically as well as metaphysically a thing of shreds and patches, borrowed unequally from good and bad ancestors, and a misfit from the start."
These, along with many other quotes by students of the human soul, all suggest an inherent inconsistency. Are we now trying to eradicate in the name of knowledge and truth the very qualities which make us who we are? Are we not by our very essence walking contradictions?
The modern trend is to believe that life is made up of choices. Exercising our "choice muscle" is mandatory. The strong-minded inherit the earth. The new, improved men and women of the choice age are able to cast all feeling aside and persist in whatever course of action they have set their minds on. Their wills ripple with cerebral cartilage.
A friend recently sent me what he considered an inspirational e-mail about a man who woke up every morning and said to himself: "I have two choices today. I can be in a good mood or a bad mood. I choose a good mood." The e-mail went on to describe how this man faced every crisis in his life as a matter of choice and then chose the positive alternative. But something about him disturbed me deeply (or did I merely "choose" to be disturbed deeply?). I realized that I would be very nervous around such a person. Who, after all, is the ultimate judge of whether his choices are the right ones? We all want to rise above our circumstances, but when did optimism, qua optimism, become such a sacred cow? The author of the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes today would be diagnosed as a manic depressive.
But perhaps I'm not just not thinking rationally. Perhaps I'm just a hopeless, terminal sentimentalist, a charge to which I readily plead guilty. I seem to operate according to a different chemistry from my clear-thinking neighbors. I like to watch old movies, listen to music, talk about the good old days, read poetry, imagine an afterlife, and pine away for a lost love.
All my life I've thought there must be something wrong because I have never, under any circumstances, been able to change how I feel by changing how I think. It simply does not work for me. Logic just does not hold any sway. Webster defines sentiment as: "an attitude, thought, or judgment prompted by feeling rather than reason or thought." In other words, my thoughts, attitudes and judgments are the result of my feelings and not the other way around. If you make me feel bad, I then find a reason for not liking you. And so, I suspect that those who suffer traumatic pain because of some personal loss, and then later claim that they have overcome their feelings by altering their thinking, have simply healed from within. Catch them when the wound is still fresh and watch them wince when you apply the silly salt of logic. But the notion of time being the best restorative is a prescription unfit for our impatient modern world.
We are more than will and intellect. We cannot simply make a conscious decision to feel good when we do not. We care when we shouldn't. We write useless poetry and compose useless music. We do stupid things like loan money without interest. We feel for other people when it does us no demonstrable good. We are as impractical as life itself.
Who knows a tree better? One who can tell you all the botanical facts about it or one who feels a profound sense of respect and admiration for its beauty? Who knows a symphony better? A musicologist aware of every formal development and modulation, or a naive listener who shivers with delight at the soaring strings and rumbling timpani? Who knows us better? Our doctor or our mother?
Let's face it, despite our evolutionary ascent we do not experience most of the world around us through reason, even though we certainly do not suffer from a lack of information. There remains much about our world and our lives which is beyond our ken, much less our control.
Perhaps, instead of trying to become self-determining twenty- first-century homo sapiens, we should try to rediscover what it means to be human--an inseparable mixture of good and bad, logic and passion, resolve and frustration. You can dress up monkeys and train them to operate a cash register, but they are still happier up in trees. And total, rational autonomy is for extra-terrestrials.
I feel, therefore I am.
(Ed Wier <Musing1@aol.com> makes his base in Atlanta as a musician, teacher and freelance writer. He has written music for national television specials and film. His articles and poetry have appeared in The Formalist, The Oval, Orbis, SPSM&H, Whiskey Island, 360 Degrees, The Lyric, Troubadour, The Ledge, The Door, Windhover, Acoustic Musician and Guitar Review, and his fiction in Sideshow 1997, Fine Print, The Bitter Oleander, and Reader's Break, among others.)