What Distinguishes Compassion from Sentimentality


Archimandrite Raphael (Karelin)

Compassion is founded on love for someone: love renders the other party as it were, another “self,” one with you. Sentimentality is grounded in self-love: it makes one sad not as the result of the suffering of the other person, but rather from one’s own ruined mood; instead of striving to put an end to suffering in the world, it strives to put the images of suffering out of one’s field of vision.

Art and literature predispose the human soul toward imitation, toward emotional involvement in a given situation. One who becomes accustomed to feeling the emotional state of characters on stage, in TV series, and in novels, himself begins to function as an actor, “playing at life.” Art encourages the development of an elevated fluidity in the state of one’s mind – often to a pathological level – and to an emotional transfer to the given image one faces. Love is pained for the other person; it is pained because that person is feeling pain. Sentimentality feels pain for itself; it is pained because a negative image of someone else’s suffering has intruded upon its consciousness and evoked negative, unpleasant emotions.

Love is grounded in a desire for others’ good, while sentimentality rests on a desire for personal emotional comfort. It sees the suffering of others as an unpleasant dissonance in its personal emotional peace. A sentimental person cannot love; rather, he can fall in love, create idols for himself, serve them, and with them, fill up his soul. The flip side of sentimentality is cruelty. For a sentimental person, what lies beyond the bounds of direct experience is foreign and inconsequential. In Saint-Exupery’s “Le Petit Prince,” the author blurts out: “Should my little star go out, what care I for all Creation.” In other words, that little star with which I have fallen in love is more important to me than all Creation.

A sentimental person is ready to weep at the sight of a sick dog and at the same time remains deaf and indifferent to the suffering of millions of people, just as long as he does not have to see their suffering. Sentimentality is not love, but rather, morbid impressionability, chronic, suppressed hysterics taking the place of love.

9 thoughts on “What Distinguishes Compassion from Sentimentality

  1. There’s a chapter in Fr. Seraphim’s biography entitled “Forming Young Souls” which goes into a little more detail about his opinion on the matter if you’re interested.

  2. I remember reading once that Fr. Seraphim used to give Dickens and Dostoevsky to young people fighting drug addiction that would come to seek his help. Some of the reasons why can be found in your quote above.

    Thanks for the comment

  3. When I read this I was, in sentiment (pun intended), in agreement but I was also reminded of Fr. Seraphim Rose’s thoughts on reading classical literature and appreciating art, “The warmth of Dickens can help break through one-sided rationalism better than years of arguments, because even if you accept the truth you can still be cold and rationalistic and insensitive. Simply reading Dickens can already produce in one tears of gratitude for having the true religion of love. The earnestness and compassion of Dostoyevsky can help break through one’s self-love and complacency.” He did, however, say about the literature of which I think Archimandrite Raphael is more speaking that, “The child who has been educated in good literature…will not easily become an addict of…cheap novels that devastate the soul and take it away from the Christian path.”

  4. I think Fr. Raphael means that literature tends the soul more towards sentimentality. Particularly when he mentions “emotional involvement”. Everything is good, everything is okay, everything is acceptable because, after all, we’re all human and we’re all the same.

    I read a novel recently about a sister who finds out her brother is dying of AIDS. The family spends some time together with their brother and his friends who are, naturally, homosexual. At first, it was very strange and made the grandmother, mother and sister quite uncomfortable. But as the story moved along the idea was to make everyone seem “normal”.

    When I read “emotional involvement” in Fr. Raphael’s piece I thought of this book.

  5. “Art and literature predispose the human soul toward imitation, toward emotional involvement in a given situation. One who becomes accustomed to feeling the emotional state of characters on stage, in TV series, and in novels, himself begins to function as an actor, “playing at life.” Art encourages the development of an elevated fluidity in the state of one’s mind – often to a pathological level – and to an emotional transfer to the given image one faces.”

    I’m confused by this passage, though the post, as a whole, makes sense to me. Is the Archimandrite stating that art and literature tend the human soul toward sentimentality or toward compassion? Thank you for the clarification.

  6. Again, the link didn’t work exactly: go to the page, then click Homilies and you will find this one under Miscellaneous Homilies on the bottom of that page

  7. Thank you for your blog and especially for the above post.

    The Roman Catholic priest and psychologist Henri Nouwen writes somewhere that sentimentality (as you write about it above) is the mother of violence. Nouwen makes this point only in passing so I an grateful for the fuller discussion you offer. If I may, are the words above your own or Archimandrite Raphael’s? If Archimandrite Raphael is the author, do you have a citation?

    Again, thanks for your blog.

    In Christ,

    Fr Gregory

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