Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Sentiment vs. Sainthood

The aftermath of the recent jihad murders in Orlando, like the aftermath of every other mass shooting (and for that matter every celebrity death) has been marked by a vast tide of undirected emotion and sentiment. In addition to the inevitable debates (over gun control, for example), the world of social media is awash in calls to one another to pray for Orlando and expressions of emotion over the shooting.

There are worse things than soppy sentimentalism. Cruelty and hard-heartedness, for example. But I want to be one voice stating that sentiment for the sake of sentiment has its drawbacks and that American culture is in grave danger of thinking just the opposite--namely, that sentiment for the sake of sentiment is inherently virtuous.

It's possible that part of the confusion arises from the fact that sentimentalism can be a counterfeit of saintliness. Here's what I mean: We know that Jesus took upon himself all the sins and sorrows of the world. Catholics, in particular, have a theological idea of sharing in the sufferings of Jesus. Protestants, too, often talk about bearing one another's burdens, which is fully biblical. One imagines the old monk or nun, or the prayer warrior, praying quietly and earnestly, for hours, for strangers, for the sins of the world, for evil-doers and victims, his prayers ranging over all the world, suffering with those people, offering up prayers for "all sorts and conditions of men." It is a legitimately attractive picture.

I think that people, Christians in particular, may have the false idea that, by calling upon their friends to "Pray for _____[fill in location of most recent tragedy]," and also by encouraging in themselves a lot of emotion about whatever tragedy is big in the news cycle right now, they are imitating that saint. The idea is to be selfless, to go beyond one's own concerns, to enter into the sufferings of others, yes, even others whom one doesn't know.

But in my opinion this is an illusion. Here are some thoughts on the distinction between sentimentalism and sainthood:

1) Sainthood is self-effacing. Sentimentalism is dramatic, public, and self-indulgent. The saint who prays in his cell doesn't tell the whole world that he's praying or what he's praying for. He doesn't advertise on his Facebook status that he broke down in tears while going about his daily task when the thought of _______ came to him. He doesn't pressure other people to join any prayer bandwagon. He just quietly gets on with it.

2) Sainthood is precise. Sentimentalism is vague. A saint knows exactly what he's praying for. He isn't "sending good thoughts." He doesn't send prayers (or thoughts) to a city. (Because we actually send prayers to God. Or, if you're a Catholic or high Anglican, to God via the saints. But not to places.) A saint prays for specific, holy things. Those things might include comfort or salvation for large numbers of people, even people whose names he doesn't know. But a saint's prayers cannot be captured by slogans. How many people out there saying, "Pray for Orlando" have little or no idea what, precisely, they are supposed to be asking for, and for whom? It's a catch-phrase, meant to express a feeling of solidarity.

3) Saints never willfully drum up emotion as an end in itself, in themselves or others. Sentimentalists make a habit of it.

4) Saints have their own priorities in prayer. Sentimentalists are at the beck and call of the news cycle. That's not to say a saint would never pray about something that is big in the news cycle. Maybe he would. If so, it would be as part of a disciplined prayer life with other priorities at least equal in importance. But maybe he wouldn't. Maybe instead that day he would be praying for a child dying of cancer, for Christians being tortured for their faith, for a man struggling with doubts, for children being raised in spiritual darkness, for women (or even a particular woman) being tempted to abortion, or for any of the infinite number of other matters of eternal importance.

A sentimentalist, in contrast, weeps when social media says, "Weep!" and prays when social media says, "Pray!" It's difficult to believe that, in so doing, he is obeying the Spirit of the Lord.

One might ask what harm is done by national sentimentalism. At least it draws people together. It springs from good intentions, from a natural desire to be kind and to care about others. To be sure, there are worse harms. But I think there is enough harm that it is worth speaking out about. Here are just a few of the harms:

--National sentimentalism is closely tied to virtue signaling, bandwagoning, and social bullying. I'm on a Facebook group consisting of professing Christians. One member posted to the group a day or two after the shooting complaining angrily that there had been no "statement" posted to that particular group about the shooting. Several people quickly assured him that they had expressed the proper sentiments on their personal pages. Nobody told him to go jump in the lake. Even I didn't, because I didn't need the drama in my life, and it wasn't worth my time. But the reason that kind of bullying gets off the ground is because of the sentimentalist assumption that everybody has to say somethingeverywhere. Everybody has to express a certain feeling. The whole nation is in mourning, don't you know, and we all have to make our gesture of joining in, and if you don't, you're a bad person. This is simply not a healthy state of affairs.

I want to emphasize that I think this sort of interpersonal pressure to say something is a bad thing regardless of how sympathetic the victims are. I think this about the Sandy Hook massacre, too, or the Paris massacre. I'm making no statement just here about homosexuality. What I am saying is that sentimentalism makes people ripe to be manipulated into talking in a certain way because that's what everybody else is doing, and that is bad in and of itself.

--Nationwide sentimentalism makes it difficult to be cool-headed in judging proposed policies. Note that I'm not talking, here, about which proposed policies. I mean this generalization to apply to any proposed policies. Policy should be discussed and enacted with cool heads, not in a rush of national emotion.

--Nationwide sentimentalism encourages people to force themselves to feel certain emotions. This is always bad. I cannot think of a single exception to the rule: Never try to force yourself to feel an emotion. Emotion is not inherently virtuous and should not be forced. By treating emotion as equivalent to virtue, sentimentalism tells people in the imperative mood to feel an emotion. This is not good for either the mind or the heart.

--National sentimentalism can make it harder to see the pain and suffering of those immediately around us whose sufferings aren't national news. We each only have so much time and emotional energy, and so much time spent in prayer. We need to spend it deliberately and wisely.

I won't go so far as to say, "Don't pray for Orlando!" Of course not. But if you do pray, pray for people, not for an abstract city. Pray for definite, holy things. Pray as part of a well-rounded prayer life and relationship with God. Don't gin up emotions. Don't tell everybody on Facebook about your feelings or about how intensely you are praying. Don't tell other people that they have to pray for Orlando. Maybe they have something else at least as urgent that they are called upon to pray for instead. And don't, for goodness' sake, pray just because someone says, "Pray for Orlando!"


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