I’m a pretty emotional guy – but sometimes I find I get emotional at the oddest things. I’m feeling sad today. David Letterman’s last show is tonight. I’ve been thinking about it for a few days. I’ll miss him. I feel like I’m losing someone special.
Actually, how can I miss him? I’ve never met him. He certainly won’t miss me. Truth be told, outside of occasional Youtube clips, I haven’t watched Letterman’s show for years. So, why am I feeling sad?
This for me has been an opportunity to distinguish between the coddled tugs of sentimentality and deep, rich life of truthful emotion. Letterman’s departure has struck a sentimental chord in me and invites me to go deeper to that emotional level.
I grew up watching Letterman on Late Night. I’d stay up at night in High School when I should have been in bed to see what Dave would do. He’d throw watermelons out the window of Rockefeller Center in New York where his studio was, just to see them smash on the ground. His humor was rebellious and counter-cultural, his whole take on entertainment was ironic if not sarcastic. And it appealed to me. He was prickly rather than warm and he seemed to think the whole of entertainment was a bit silly. He certainly didn’t take himself or entertainment or the celebrities he interviewed too seriously. And he happily deflated the egos that were in need of deflating. And he was very funny doing it. At least to me.
But, why the ache in my heart? That’s right, the ache. Well, the ache’s always been there and it’s not really about Letterman and Dave’s departure invites me to ask the question “is this feeling appropriate to the situation and what’s it teaching me?” I realize my affection for Letterman is connected to my childhood and the core wound of loneliness, which I attempted to fill or distract myself from with, among other things, David Letterman. When I can see that, the sweet sadness of sentimentality gives we to true sadness. And that’s actually a good thing. When I open to that and experience it deeply, it does what all true emotions do (and sentimentality never does): it passes.
Our emotions are good. They serve a great purpose: they tell us the truth about our deepest wants, wounds and beliefs. And they are invitations to action. They are meant to move us forward.
Sentimentality is a kind of coddled emotion. There’s nothing wrong with sentimentality, unless it replaces real, healthy emotion and keeps us from growing and living in our Healthy Self. And often, that’s exactly what happens. Sentimentality belongs to the Defended Self, rather than the Healthy Self. And sentimentality is a kind of immature cousin to real, mature emotion. It’s a child’s emotion living in a adult’s body.
I have a relative who get’s very emotional when he hears or reads about heroic stories, but he’s profoundly insensitive to those around him. His wife is not a happy camper. That’s sentimentality at it’s worst. The danger of sentimentality is that it prefers fantasy to reality, the past to the present and impedes mature action. It impedes love. There can be a deceptive “sweetness” to sentimentality, which feels like laying in a shallow pool of warm memories. It can be a great source of artistic inspiration. But when we stay there, we miss the present moment and the actual people, places and things around us. We do this often with the things we “love.” “I love hiking, baseball, chocolate, California, France, Mother Earth” We reduce love to a sentimental feeling. Love involves action – action inspired and guided by our true emotions. Love reduced to sentimentality seems to be something of an epidemic in our society, but it doesn’t have to be when we’re open to more than just the sentimental shallows.
So, two good questions to ask yourself with compassionate curiosity:
1. When do I trade the gift of my emotional life for sentimentality?
2. When feeling sentimental ask “what’s the deeper issue here?”