I have heard it said that certain people “become sentimental,” and it is rare that this suggests something positive. Rather it seems to assume a lack of ability to somehow perceive things realistically or with any degree of sophistication. Not too long ago in a discussion of movies contending for Academy Awards, I do recall saying of my mom that perhaps she was “becoming sentimental,” in response to her positive reviews of Mayor Clint’s latest film, Invictus, and the consensus that it might be too saccharine for the Academy.
The word comes from the Latin, sentire, meaning “to feel.” Seems okay. Of course, for those of you who might enjoy word roots in the same way I do you probably already know that “sentient” shares the same root. While sentimentality, which means expressive of or appealing to sentiment, especially the tender emotions and feelings, as love, pity, or nostalgia (or worse, mawkishly susceptible or tender – mawkish? slightly overstated, no?); sentient means characterized by sensation and consciousness. I dare say we would not be waxing complimentary in disregarding another person’s sentient qualities (though rest assured I have, and would kindly request proof indicating otherwise for a few choice individuals…) So, why the bad rap for being sentimental?
In consideration of this subject, the abundance of spiritual teachings throughout history that encourage the awareness of, and kindness to, all sentient creatures strikes me as particularly relevant. It is the sentient nature of a creature that we tend to honor – yet we grossly overlook this sentience when it suits us. My step-dad, in his efforts to rescue all threatened things great and small, has been known to gently call the most hideous of insects, “Poor little guys…” And rescue them he often does. I recall my mom asking me, on seeing me rashly take down a trail of ants in my bathroom, if I would do the same to a litter of kittens. I hardly thought it a fair question. But, maybe… On reading Robert Frost’s A Considerable Speck, I have to wonder if in fact they were all onto something a bit more sophisticated than I had been willing to admit. A certain delicacy in dealing with the world around us.
Could we be confusing delicacy with mawkish sentimentality?
I am reading a book right now that I am thoroughly enjoying, so much so that I am reading it for the second time in as many days. Selected reviews of this book accuse it of being overly sentimental though I respectfully disagree (further thoughts to that end later) – but perhaps, I too, am “becoming sentimental”? Then tonight, I watched the aforementioned Mayor’s movie, Invictus. It had all the trappings of the typical triumph-of-the-spirit-sports-can-heal-the-world story: beating the odds, great anthems, the perfect ‘bad guy’ (I still, and will always, love the All-Blacks…) and the becoming-buddies-in-spite-of-ourselves element.
And I thought it was great.
An Oscar winner? Unlikely. A solution to the problems that plague a nation as diverse and historically troubled as the Republic of South Africa? Uh, no. A gross oversimplification of the racial strife that has permanently associated itself with places like Pretoria, Jo’burg, Durban and Capetown? Possibly. But so what? I have long subscribed to the (likely over-simplified) attitude that sports CAN mend fences of a far more serious nature. And I do not think that I will ever outgrow that tendency. [There are several examples mentioned here including the 1995 Rugby World Cup.] Eastwood did a nice job with this movie, avoiding mawkishness, and including some very delicate moments. Yeah, I just said a movie that takes place in South Africa in the mid-nineties, about rugby, by Clint Dirty Harry Eastwood, was delicate. Certainly not the whole thing, mind you, but there were graceful, even nuanced, elements that added a lot to the story: the little boy listening to the match outside the stadium with the police, the fourth ticket for the championship being given to Eunice, the Bokkes holding rugby clinics in a township. All with definite McDisney potential, but coming off as lovely understated sentiments. Yup, that’s right, sentiments.
How deeply personal are our sentiments, our sense of right and wrong? They are so intrinsically essential to our beings they defy, time and again, the possibility of articulation. Hence, arguments, fights, wars. Far from expecting they all be understood, a better idea may be aiming for acceptance. Only a few months prior to Mandela’s historic 1994 election, I was traveling around Europe with a boy named Stephen who came from Durban. Stephen and I had the kind of relationship that one has when one is 23 and traveling around the Mediterranean until one can no longer continue traveling around the Mediterranean. He was lovely and polite (he certainly charmed my mom way before I remember anyone calling her sentimental) and he was an Afrikaner to the core. Having just graduated from Thurgood Marshall College at UCSD, I asked Stephen all sorts of questions about South Africa that in hindsight only showed my cultural arrogance. He was mostly very patient. One day he tersely responded to one question too many by saying, “Our blacks are not the same as your blacks. You will never understand.” I remember that we spent some time apart after that and I still take issue with the statement, but in fairness, I have no idea of the situation of which he spoke beyond the level that appears on to celluloid. [Okay, I have more than that, but when I think about what it was like traveling with Stephen – how everywhere we went he was stopped at the border, held back, searched, questioned, I pause. He was 23. He was a lot like me. But his country had a much more visible strike against it. (Even in 1993 I had been told to affix a Canadian flag to my backpack. No I did not.)] Did the 1995 victory in the world cup make a difference for Stephen and make him embrace the multi-lingual anthem (the only anthem in the world to incorporate five languages) and hug his black neighbor who is not like my black neighbor? I have no idea. But I would bet, that for one day, he let a lot of stuff go.
Does that make me sentimental?
The thrill of victory that comes from sport has yet to be matched for me. I cry watching the Olympics for goodness sake, even when the other guys win, and in life, maudlin I am not. The Bokkes beat the All-Blacks in 1995 and they never should have. That was an All-Black team of legend. On the same token, Mandela beat Robben Island for nearly three decades, and one wonders what the odds were on that.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
~ Invictus, by William Ernest Henley