Earlier this year, I was speaking at a conference with a group of leaders that have years of experience in their respective fields. An older gentleman was the opening speaker, and he aptly began with this statement: “As you get older, you have to beware the dangers of cynicism and sentimentality.”
Although I felt young among these leaders, his statement struck me personally, and I understood what he meant. On the surface, cynicism and sentimentality seem totally different. Cynicism is negative—it sees the worst in things and is inherently critical. Sentimentality feels more positive—it’s nostalgic, looking back with fondness at a time that was seemingly easier, better, or more fun.
This speaker was exactly right. As we age, we all face the temptation to be cynical and/or sentimental. Depending on our personalities and personal histories, we may tend toward one more than the other, but they both are potentially problematic.
Cynicism springs from experience, and as we grow older, we see and experience more things that disappoint us. We quit taking people at their word. We stop believing things will improve. We have a broader and deeper distrust of politicians and their empty promises. Don’t misunderstand me; a healthy amount of skepticism can be helpful, but when it moves to cynicism, we become cold and callous. We begin to expect the worst, so that’s usually what happens to us. Former UCLA basketball coach John R. Wooden said, “Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.” This is bad news for the cynic.
The opposite side of this same coin is sentimentality. This looks like the individual going through the family photo album, reminiscing about the “good old days”. It’s reading a book about the 1950s and feeling like you were born in the wrong era. We look back with fondness and remember experiences in a positive light. Sometimes, our perspective is accurate, and sometimes, it’s exaggerated, but either way, sentimentality is a longing for a previous time. It’s not necessarily bad, but it can prevent us from living for the future. Although it’s different from cynicism, it’s just as dangerous because you begin to believe that what is behind is better than what’s ahead. There’s actually a biblical charge for Christians to pursue the opposite: “Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal…” (Philippians 3:13–14, ESV).
This holiday season, we will be tempted to either be cynical or sentimental about so many things. If you are looking for something to be mad about, you will find it. You’ll walk into a store and be frustrated about the commercialization of Christmas, or you’ll be annoyed with the number of gifts that kids receive these days. On the other hand, you can get lost in the way things used to be, daydreaming about times past and feeling disappointed with your present circumstances.
Personally, I lean heavily toward sentimentality. I’m a traditionalist, I enjoy reminiscing about the past, and I don’t always think it’s a bad thing. But if we focus on what’s behind instead of what’s ahead, we are not living our lives expectant of the good ahead of us in our careers, our communities, our families, and God’s plan for our lives.
This week, be present, seek to enjoy the gifts you’ve been given, and allow yourself to look ahead with excitement to the good that’s to come.