What do you do when antipathy is more compelling than sentimentality?
In a 2013 commencement address at his alma mater university in western Australia, comedian and composer Tim Minchin urged the graduating students to define themselves, by what they loved, not just by what they opposed.
“I’ve found myself doing this thing a bit recently,” he said, “where, if someone asks me what sort of music I like, I say ‘well I don’t listen to the radio because pop lyrics annoy me’. Or if someone asks me what food I like, I say ‘I think truffle oil is overused and slightly obnoxious’. And I see it all the time online, people whose idea of being part of a subculture is to hate Coldplay or football or feminists or the Liberal Party. We have a tendency to define ourselves in opposition to stuff; as a comedian, I make a living out of it. But try to also express your passion for things you love. Be demonstrative and generous in your praise of those you admire. Send thank-you cards and give standing ovations. Be pro-stuff, not just anti-stuff.”
I take this to heart. This might be my hardest task in life. I find it very gratifying to rant and rave about what I dislike, mainly because I find antipathy more compelling than sentimentality. It’s much more vulnerable to talk about what we love because it opens us up to criticism and ridicule.
The sentimental is rarely comical, especially if you prefer your humor on the darker, intellectual side. More Python, less dad jokes. Sentimentality is often shallow and superficial. It all too often lacks intellectual depth. It can easily become saccharine, frivolous and unworthy. But avoiding sentimentality entirely is a mistake.
As I’ve written time and again, I’m a hopeless romantic of the existential sort. I don’t long for love, I long for meaning and hopeful triumph. I want to feel alive and emotionally connected to the world, without having to necessarily interact with the world. I long for the magic of dreams and the joy of discovery. I love to see people win, doing the right thing. I love to see justice done and integrity rewarded.
Ridicule is funnier. But sentimentality feeds the soul. The chief nemesis of sentimentality is cynicism, and it won’t shock anyone to learn that I’m deeply cynical. So I have to remind myself to seek out things that need no cynicism to enjoy.
Sentimentality originally indicated the reliance on feelings as a guide to truth, but in current usage the term commonly connotes a reliance on shallow, uncomplicated emotions at the expense of reason. Maybe it’s both.
Reason and sanity might at times be overrated. I’m never happier by knowing more, but there is no question that willful ignorance is a dangerous path to enlightenment. You can’t just sing kumbaya and expect to get through life on thoughts and prayers. But you can enjoy Thanksgiving without reliving the genocide of an indigenous culture.
Freud, the master of the subconscious symbol, said that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Well, sometimes pumpkin pie is just pumpkin pie. A roast Turkey is just a meal among family and friends. So how do we go about defining our lives by what we love versus what we oppose?
Minchin has a song he used to end concerts with called “White In The Sun” and it’s about his love of Christmas despite “all the usual objections to consumerism, the commercialization of an ancient religion, to the westernization of a dead Palestinian, press-ganged into selling PlayStations and beer. But I still really like it.”
“I don’t go in for ancient wisdom,” he says. “I don’t believe just ‘cos ideas are tenacious it means they’re worthy. I get freaked out by churches. Some of the hymns that they sing have nice chords but the lyrics are dodgy.”
“I really like Christmas,” he ends. “It’s sentimental, I know.”
There is an old story about a Cherokee Indian Chief, teaching his grandson about life.
The Chief says, “A fight is going on inside us. A fight between two wolves. The Dark Wolf is evil — he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The Light Wolf is good — he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you, and inside of every other person on the face of this earth.”
The grandson ponders this for a moment and then asks, “So, which wolf will win?”
The Chief says, “The one you feed.”