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Time to Rethink Sentimentality's Value

As we age, recalling positive memories can lead to a more meaningful future

By Akiko Busch

Sentimentality has been called everything from “emotional promiscuity” (Norman Mailer in Cannibals/Christians) to “a form of fatigue” (Leonora Carrington in “The Happy Corpse Story”) to “a failure of feeling” (Wallace Stevens in “Adagia”). Harsh indictments to be sure, but even when we aren’t so damning, it is generally viewed as a superficial feeling or some especially banal form of recall.

When Freud suggested that “past is prologue,” he not only gave psychoanalytical weight to Shakespeare’s metaphor from The Tempest, he also persuaded us that our adult anxieties have their roots in childhood experience. Since then, it has been easy for us to look back on that landscape, if not necessarily as a source of conflict, then as the terrain of challenge and obstacle.

We are familiar with the idea that personal history is fraught with difficult emotional baggage, a burdensome psychological load that is best disassembled and unloaded with the assistance of costly professionals. And we are equally well acquainted with the notion of sentimentality as a trite idealization of the past.

But perhaps a benefit of age is the ability to consider sentimentality less a saccharine rewrite and more a manner of recollection that allows for a sense of lightness. My own hunch — one beginning to border on conviction — is that it is an increasingly necessary pleasure and indulgence.

(MORE: How Much Is Your Childhood Memorabila Worth?)

For instance, life was definitely tough when my twin sons were young. A full night of sleep came at a premium, and my husband and I, both self-employed, worried about money and where our next jobs would come from. And we knew that somewhere in the distant future, two college tuitions awaited us.

Those years were an archive of worries. But when I think back on them now, I prefer to dwell on afternoons spent dozing with the toddlers in the hammock, picnics on the lawn and the October afternoon when the sunlight hit the golden maples just so and the boys rushed indoors to tell us the lamps in the trees had been turned on.

I’m not suggesting that we refute (or deny) the difficult experiences that have given shape to our lives or sugarcoat the challenges that have made us who we are. I’m simply saying that there are times when retrospection can and should be a matter of pure frivolity; and when hindsight can be a matter of unadulterated pleasure.

The late psychiatrist and gerontologist Gene D. Cohen gave a good deal of thought to the need for reappraisal that begins in middle age, and he wrote extensively about how we reflect back, sum up and find meaning at this stage of life. He suggested that re-evaluation comes naturally to those in midlife and spoke of the natural proclivity for people between 40 and 60 to draw on experiences from the past in an effort to create a meaningful future.


I don’t know exactly what he had in mind, but I am sure that at least some of that retrospection can take on a buoyancy and bring on a sense of enjoyment. Lori Axelson, a geriatric social worker in Portland, Maine, concurs. In her work with elderly patients, she sometimes uses narrative therapy, a form of treatment that employs storytelling to find positive meaning in past experience.

“There is no single reading of your life,” she says. “We are all rewriting all the time. It helps people find a place of strength. If someone talks about their life, highlighting a lot of negative points and only mentioning one positive point, then you focus on that one thing. It leads people to a more optimistic outcome. And many people will grab on to this hope and find a way to go forward.”

(MORE: Why Today Is Better Than the Past)

Axelson relates the story of a couple in her practice whose troubled marriage was no secret. “But when the husband became his wife’s caregiver during her final illness,” she says, “he was wonderful and kind to her. Which made him feel good about himself as a husband. And then, after his wife’s death, he rewrote the marriage into one in which they had both been very happy. And that has given him great peace.” Such reassessment, I would suspect, is not only creative and necessary, but far more common than we routinely admit.

This kind of revisionism is not about emotional dishonesty, Axelson says. It is about the ability to focus on those experiences that sustain and affirm us instead of those that diminish and dishearten us.

Who could argue with that? In Oscar Wilde’s view, “A sentimentalist is one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.” I would argue almost the reverse: That after one has paid a lifetime of emotional dues, reimagining personal history — whether by narrative therapy or some other means — to find simple pleasure in a complicated past is a privilege of age. And that sentimentality as such is a dispensation of time to be treasured rather than disparaged.

Akiko Busch writes about design, culture and the natural world for a variety of publications. Her most recent book, The Incidental Steward: Reflections on Citizen Science, was published by Yale University Press in April 2013. Read More
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