Suffocating Sentimentality

By Joel Hess


Sentimental: adj. based on, showing, or resulting from feelings or emotions rather than reason or thought.

I hate sentimentality.  I despise it so much that last year, as I stood before the tiny casket of our 3 week old son, for a moment I asked that it be taken away! I feared that such a sight would arouse that false and fleeting feeling of sorrow due not to the nature of death but a visual play on emotions.  Who wouldn’t shed a tear at such a sight, but for what end?  A satisfactory tear?

Like the funerals of high school teenagers that amazingly draw thousands of confused teens who didn’t even know the kid, but now have invented for themselves a deep seeded brotherhood;  girls who never knew the kid, crying outside the church, peering in at the corpse in order to produce another tear.  For sure many come for good reasons, but so many confuse compassion and sorrow with gawking as well as a desperate desire to feel something, playing out the dialogues of films they had seen.

But, of course, we let the casket sit because it is reality, it is truth, and the dead shall rise no matter what you feel about it! Also, we were surrounded by those who knew why death occurs, who loved us, who know that death comes in all shapes and sizes and its pain and its cure is equal for them all.


James Baldwin considered that “sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel…the mask of cruelty.”

Sentimentality is a weed in our garden of emotions.  It looks like compassion.  It feels like love.  It masks itself as sympathy and empathy.  As weeds confuse the amateur gardener, sentimentality confuses our judgment of art, truth, politics, relationships and even death.

Humanity has frequently followed sentimentality like a siren to a grave beneath the sea. However, this pied piper of emotional appeal appears to rule our lives more than ever in these here United States where we have the luxury of thinking and doing stupid things without being afflicted by their cost.  Oscar Wild describes us well when he writes, “a sentimentalist is one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.”


Sentimentality is cheap and easy to produce, just like weeds.  Thomas Kinkade made far too much money off the peasantry than should be allowed.  Surely, if heroin is illegal so should his silliness.  Commercials sell us stuff we don’t need by placing their product in warm home with a little sunlight slipping through the kitchen window and some humorous banter between a couple. Politicians kiss babies to show they can be trusted and they walk down assembly lines to show they are just one of the guys.  With visuals, they manipulate our allegiance. Though I love how they take off their tie, as if that is the only difference between them and the guy getting dirty on the line.  Now they just look like a dweeb.

But the cost of sentimentality can be much higher than the above ridiculousness. Sentimentality can, as James Baldwin said, mask cruelty.

Sentimentality can hold a couple together despite the fact they don’t like each other, or even despite the fact there is abuse.  Every time one of them thinks to leave, he stares at old pictures or looks at the face of his lover who could never live without him.

Sentimentality increasingly rules modern man’s opinion on social issues such as abortion, same sex marriage, assisted suicide – even though, in reality, people are dying inside and out.

Sentimentality can cause poor parenting as we look at the cute and desperate face of our 5 year old who only wants another cookie; 20 years later they are still eating our cookies. And sentimentality can pervert a good pastor who has discovered his sermons are more popular when there are more tears!


This past Sunday, many of us listened to the account of Jesus trying to take a break from the people who needed him; many for sentimental reasons.  Yet as his boat approaches what he thought would be a lonely place on the shore, he is met by people with blistered feet; bringing their tears, their sick brother, their hunger and thirst.  Matthew tells us that when Jesus saw this, He had compassion on them.

Did Jesus fall for sentimentality?  Was He drawn to action simply by the lost expression on the face of a 50 year old man, or by the heart wrenching vision of a baby dying in her mother’s arms?

Did Jesus come to save for sentimental reasons?  Did He act only because of pity?


No, it is clear he didn’t simply feel sorry for us!  By His words, He even expresses His anger over our predicament; you got yourselves in to this mess!  He does not mince words about whom he was saving; sentimental fools, how easily you confuse your sympathetic tears with generosity as you walk on by the beaten man on the road.  Sentimental repenters whose tears swell on cue when caught with your hand in the cookie jar.

Jesus was not sentimental, having the luxury of emotion without paying the cost. He paid the cost, not because anyone actually thought they needed it; but because it was needed.

And because He loves us in a deep way, that began before the Fall, that continued even as we fell Him, that burst open the grave, He sent His angels ( that is, His church) to find you confused and lost in your emotional garden suffocated by sentimentalism.

Now go weed that garden.