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Confusing Sentimentality with Love


Sentimentality and judgmentalism are "two wings of the same bird of prey".

streetguy The Late Dr. Murray McGovern was a Canadian psychiatrist who evaluated candidates for the priesthood for a nearby diocese. A component of his tests consisted in having candidates look at pictures and construct a story, rendering the pictures meaningful.  A friend of mine recalls being shown a number of such pictures during his interview, one of which depicted a woman holding a baby while looking out a window, another depicting three men sitting by a railway track consuming liquor.  He wrote something to the effect that these men are unemployed, victims of the 1929 Stock Market Crash, and so disheartened by the social conditions of the day that they have turned to alcohol.  He also wrote that the woman in the picture was alone, her abusive husband having walked out on her, leaving her to care for the child on her own, etc. 

After reading his accounts, McGovern pointed out that he tends to regard human woes far too often from the point of view of environmental conditions rather than personal choices.  He said perhaps the men in the picture ran away from their responsibilities, suggesting that it is much easier to sit by the track without cares and the responsibilities of family, society, even one's physical self.  Perhaps their free and deliberate choices led to one thing, and one thing led to another, until they find themselves in this almost irreversible predicament.  Perhaps the woman in the window is not a victim but the perpetrator.  "How come you never threw any of that into your stories?" he'd asked. 

"I guess I just presume the good will of others," my friend replied. 

"Well, you can't always do that.  You'll end up negating the reality of sin", said McGovern.  "What you fail to realize is the other side of life as it exists through sin, through the fall of human nature."

Some people, he agreed, are victims of social conditions, but many are where they are on account of bad choices made in the past, for which they are responsible.  If we forget that, he insisted, we become vulnerable to manipulation and the artful schemes of evil.

My friend hasn't forgotten that, but many people in ministry have.  Love is empathic, because love goes out beyond the self to the other.  But empathy is not sentimentality, much less is love sentimental.  Love is an act of the will, which is the rational appetite.  As such, it can be accompanied by warm sentiments, but these do not belong to the very nature of love.  To lack warm sentiments is no indication that genuine love is lacking.

When love is confused with the sentimental, one's viewpoint tends to become quixotic, that is, romantic.  Indeed, there is such a thing as knowledge rooted in the heart, as Pascal implies:  "The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing".  But connatural knowledge of God and the resulting wisdom that sees the world from God's point of view is rooted not in the emotions — which is not the heart — , but in the intimacy that is rooted in charity, which is in the will. 

The reason such distinctions are important is that confusing sentimentality with love will in the end obstruct a sense of the divine mercy.  Allow me to explain.

A sentimental love for the poor will inevitably romanticize the poor.  But to romanticize the poor is not to love them as they really are, but as we imagine them to be.  The problem, though, is genuine love is difficult; for love wills the good of the other despite one's sentiments.  In fact, it often involves willing contrary to one's sentiments.  But if a person is not able to will contrary to his feelings because he is weak willed, for example, if a person cannot will what is best for one who is morally depraved and thus emotionally repugnant, then he will choose between two alternatives, one of which is to not love at all and surrender to his feelings of repugnance, the other is to fabricate an illusion about the other that evokes the warm sentiments that he confuses with genuine love. 

A sentimental love for the poor will inevitably romanticize the poor.  But to romanticize the poor is not to love them as they really are, but as we imagine them to be. 

And so instead of seeing this poor individual or that violent criminal as he really is, he will see him or her, for the most part at least, as victims of an unjust social order.  This vision is usually accompanied by a demonization of the upper and middle class, or the economic order, a competitive capitalist society, etc.  At this point, there is someone or something to blame, and what was difficult before — namely, love — suddenly becomes easy. 

But God loved us while we were still sinners (Rom 5, 8), while we were in revolt, and thus revolting, unlovable, self-centered, and rotten.  Paul puts that forth as proof of God's love, for His love has been revealed as mercy — incomprehensible mercy.  Sentimental love is not holy, because it has no likeness to the divine love.  It refuses to love without the sweetness of the sentimental.  It refuses to love the person in his misery, because it refuses to see him as he is, that is, as one responsible for his miserable predicament — unless, of course, he really isn't responsible for it.

Moreover, when the poor are regarded universally as victims, serving the poor becomes exclusively a matter of justice, not mercy.  That is why romanticization of the poor goes hand in hand with socialism, for socialists have adopted a very neat social dualism that places the wealthy, regarded as the privileged class of oppressors, on one side, and the poor, regarded as the oppressed victims of unjust social structures, on the other.

But a less ideological and more realistic glance at how things really are reveals a messier state of affairs.  Indeed, there are wealthy people who have become rich through exploitative means.  There are, however, the wealthy who are not thieves, liars, and exploiters, but who have become what they are through hard work, sacrifice, prudent planning, and who do not forget the disadvantaged.  And there are a variety of shades between both ends of the spectrum.  The same distinctions are present within the middle class. 

And there are poor who have been given much, who have been blessed with opportunity and surrounded by caring people, but who are what they are by virtue of bad choices of which they refuse to repent or even admit, as well as stubborn character.  And there are many who have been unjustly dispossessed or are victims of oppression, or misfortune, and all shades in between.  Even scripture distinguishes between those who have been dispossessed by virtue of their own bad choices and poverty created by affliction (Cf Pr 11, 16; 21, 25).

It is not always possible to know who's who, and so it is wise not to try too hard to find out.  But it is easy to judge when one is certain that anyone who drives a Mercedes is a sinful and oppressive thief, while all those on welfare or whose brains are burnt from drug use are victims of conditions established by a class of oppressors for their own benefit.  Hence, the reason sentimentality and judgmentalism are "two wings of the same bird of prey". 

But the cunning are intuitive; they know when they've deceived you; they know who's an idealistic, quixotic sentimentalist, and so they know whose love is false.  And such love cannot touch them because it goes out not to a broken person, destroyed by his own sin, but to a sentimental construct.  The tragic result is, those who need a sense of the divine mercy to lift them are never touched, because the one who is supposed to love them refuses to behold them as they really are.



mcmanamanDeacon Douglas McManaman. "Confusing Sentimentality with Love". (June 2006).

Reprinted with permission of Deacon Douglas McManaman.

The Author

mcmanamanwbasmMcManamanaDoug McManaman is a Deacon and a Religion and Philosophy teacher at Father Michael McGivney Catholic Academy in Markham, Ontario, Canada. He is the past president of the Canadian Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. Deacon Douglas studied Philosophy at St. Jerome's College in Waterloo, and Theology at the University of Montreal. He is the author of Christ Lives!, The Logic of AngerWhy Be Afraid?, Basic Catholicism, Introduction to Philosophy for Young People, and A Treatise on the Four Cardinal Virtues. Deacon McManaman is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center. Visit his website here

Copyright © 2006 Douglas McManaman
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