Aging into Sentimentality

category_bug_journal2.gif While clearing out my mother's home after she died, I marveled at how many videos she had of the cutesy variety of animal movies. Born Free, Harry and Tonto, Lady and the Tramp, Charlotte's Web, The Incredible Journey and some others I've forgotten.

My mother had a cat but she had never shown an interest – to me, anyway - in animals beyond her own. So I was further surprised, in sorting out her finances, to find regular contributions to a number of animal charities. Not once a year, but every couple of months over many years. Apparently, my mother never met an animal appeal she could resist.

We share that to a degree. I don't have as much disposable income as my mother had, but I make an annual donation to the local, no-kill cat shelter and would give to others if I could.

Mom and I also share at least one other trait – stoicism. She had no patience with me, as a child, when I lamented something too loudly that could not be changed. Shit happens in life; make note and move on was her attitude. No moaning allowed. And so it has been: whatever goes wrong, I deal with it and if I must whine, I do it privately. She trained me well and so did my father.

When he and I were driving in slow, heavy traffic one time, we passed two puppies playing at the edge of the road. One of us mentioned that it was dangerous for them to be there. We hadn't moved on more than a few car lengths when we heard one of the puppies squealing in pain. When I reacted with an “oh, no” and my eyes filled with tears, my dad gruffly told me to “stop it.” There was nothing we could do, he said.

I have long forgotten the conversation that caused it but many years ago, a coworker said to me, “Ronni, you are one tough broad.” It made me want to cry. I'm mush inside and was hurt that I appear otherwise to the world although with time, I've come to see how much effort I put into hiding that mush.

So here is how these threads – mothers, fathers, animals and stoicism – come together.

For several years now, I have been incapable of reading or watching news stories about injured or abused animals. Remember that sports star who organized dog fights? That's all I know about it; just that it happened, no details because I couldn't get past the headline without weeping.

Sometimes, when I'm cooking and can't shut off the television when an abused animal story comes on, I hum to myself or sing or turn on the water full force in the sink while I look away so I won't have to know.

I can't even watch stories about rescue efforts of birds and seals after oil spills. Or whales who beach themselves. I didn't want to know about that race horse who broke his leg and had to be killed.

In the past year or two, this phobia, this lost stoicism, has expanded. Aside from the banking debacle and health care reform, the big stories in Congress have been about cap-and-trade, global warming, climate change, etc. You won't read about them here because I cannot read or think about the consequences of our profligacy - the denuded mountains, poisoned rivers and streams, declining fish populations, dying bees and frogs...

If I keep writing this, I'll be weeping again – for the terrible things we humans do to our earth and its inhabitants, the ones who can't fight back be they alive or inanimate.

And what bloody good does all this maudlin sappiness do? Not that I can save the world or even a small part of it, but I should be at least tough enough to bear witness. I wasn't always like this. What could have happened?

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Herchel Newman: Tommy's Timber


I think this is something that many of us are facing, the pain of overwhelming issues in our world. I think you are not alone, and I think a lot of so-called apathy and complacency is about this, being overwhelmed by the pain and trying to hide from it. Joanna Macy writes some good stuff around this issue.

I think you are right on, if we can't solve the problems then we need to at least bear witness, but it's damn hard, painful.

Funny you should write this today. I have long been a fighter, internally, about injustices of all kinds. Yet, trying to make change overwhelms me. The frustration of what we do as a people, worldwide, that impacts on life as we know it: ecology, animals, people, is enormous.

I retreat. I watch the superfluous reality shows that do no harm (not survivor) but amazing race, project runway, top chef, iron chef and spend my time watching hgtv.

For me, lately, being off from work, annoyed that I cannot get a job, trying to get by, seeing what's happening to my colleagues and myself, has also tempered my feelings to wanting to just shut out the world.

So what happens this rainy morning? I have the today show on to watch Susan Boyle a nobody with a voice like an angel.I wanted to watch it to feel good and instead they put on about the Italian trial of the American student with all its fallacies and incompentencies, this young woman will be convicted of a crime she did not committ. I thought I would throw up. I thought of doing a blog, calling Congress, but realize, I have no emotional strength left to fight any more battles. But I cry inside or do a flight from reality. The latter is much better...for me.

No,you are certainly not alone in this, Ronni. I am exactly the same and so are most elderwomen I know. I believe that people who are aging 'consciously' rather than being in denial find that their locus of identity never stops growing. When we are kids, our world is small but it continues to expand as we grow and age and if we don't stifle that growth then by the time we are elders we are able to identify with the planet as a whole. So we weep for the mess our species has made of it. And we do whatever we can, to the best of our ability and each in our own sphere of influence, to help clean up the mess. Elders see the 'big picture'. Sometimes, when there's nothing they can do to change a situation, they are able to accept, take a deep breath and drive on by. Because they know shit happens. (But they weep anyway.)

I think the best word is "overwhelmed" because that is how I feel, as I now read the headlines only and avoid details on stories, skip discussions, try to lose myself in "mind candy" books and TV. Not that I don't care, but that my caring seems futile.

After my parents died, I found it harder and harder to keep up a good front on many issues, just like you say. Maybe I no longer needed to be strong for their sake. I've had a difficult life with numerous close calls, so it's not a surprise that I weep when something reminds me of the awful things that happened or when I see something similar happening to another person, since I didn't cry when I should have. I think that's good. It's like mourning your old self. Perhaps, as you get older, you get a better handle on what really matters. Thank goodness!

"Overwhelmed." Me too. Taking a step back, turning my back, backing out of a bad situation... have I mentioned my bad back? Sometimes I think it's okay to whine a little. Dialing in that background noise of a discontented whine can clear the channels for a roar of protest at the (injustice, ineptitude, ignorance, unfairness... you fill in the blank). This morning I who am easily overwhelmed wondered what it meant to be "whelmed." As it happens, "overwhelmed" is a redundancy. Means the same thing as whelmed, but who ever heard anybody speak of being "whelmed"?

Somehow I think that the emotional sensitivity you describe is a gift of aging, and we have to learn to dial it down in order to function.

Thanks for a good post, a post that struck a chord with me.

There's a line said by Peter Sellers in the movie, "The Wrong Box," which I've been saying for years. "I was not always as you see me now."

It is happening because you are an elder and so much wiser now.

Oh Ronni, me too!! I just can't read or watch anything about abused animals or environmental destruction. Maybe it is because pain and loss become so real to us as we age.

I hate seeing anything like that as well, Ronni. And the older I get, the worse it gets for me, especially abuse, and the killing of animals for sport.

I think that when we are young, we believe that we can change the world. Now we realize that we can only really affect those whose lives we personally touch. And the global issues we face now are so much greater than they were when we were younger. It's hard not to despair. We have learned that we only have impact over our own small worlds, and so that is where we now put our daily energies.

Oh yes, the internet has given us some collective power, but it still seems to be not enough to force the changes that the world today needs.

We survive the best we can, cherishing personal grace and goodness as buffers against the overwhelming onslaught of bad news.

Marian's comment, "Elders see the 'big picture'. Sometimes, when there's nothing they can do to change a situation, they are able to accept, take a deep breath and drive on by." makes much sense to me & fits my own beliefs.

Ronni, I know you don't care for the woo-woo stuff, and still I want to say this.
I think one of the functions of old age, especially for those of us with a spiritual focus, is to hold space for the vision of how things COULD be. I also avoid most news programs, most 'bad' news - not so much because I can't take it. But because where I put my focus and my energy just gets bigger. (and because I believe we have been/are being herded into pens by fearmongers.)

Instead, when I hear a siren, or see a headline, etc. I take a moment to imagine the best outcome possible. I don't even have to know what that is - I just say a thanks & a blessing for those who WILL be dealing directly with whatever and let it go. If emotion arises, then that is fine, too, and I let it come; knowing that compassionate tears can wash away a lot of 'stuff', both for myself and for the planet.

OK...no more woo-woo (for the moment) :)

WOW…I can relate so well to this post. Self-pity was never allowed while I was growing up. I was told this is life and if you can’t deal with it too bad. I’ve heard myself described as a cold person, a loner, and a good person, but not always nice. If that’s how I appear to some; so be it. I, too, am mush inside. I guess is my way of surviving in the ever growing madness in this world. I’ve always felt for the animals and am a member of PETA. They do a wonderful job. I feel it’s the least I can do.

Dear Ronni -- I'm distressed that you label this heightened sensitivity "sentimentality." The word has a connotation of weakness and there is nothing weak about being overwhelmed by the ugliness and brutality around us. Unhappily, those are appropriate -- "human" in our best nature -- reactions to the sight of meaningless pain and destruction.

As I age, I spend a good deal of effort trying to understand how much of the existential panic I feel at looking at a disintegrating, ugly world is just projection of my personal fear of mortality and how much is a truthful seeing of our screwed up reality. I think I retain enough of my courage to correctly assess that a great deal of my angst is appropriate. Other generations have faced terrible threats --- I am very glad not to have lived through Black Plague or the 30 Years War, both of which pretty much depopulated Europe. Or I could have belonged to one of the native peoples of the American continent when probably 90 percent of the pre-European-contact populations died of diseases and warfare after the strangers came.

But I live now. And in most of our life times, the claims of this nation to have a uniquely admirable political and moral polity have proved very empty -- while our system of anarchic greed threatens the planet's ability to carry our kind of life. I think the latter fear -- the fear that species is blowing it for ourselves and so many other forms of life -- may be new to humans.

Life does end up being about bearing witness I think -- and demonstrating courage in the face of despair. The kids need us to show courage, I think. We're leaving them a mess.

I have always been that way about animal stories. There are all these movies out there about animals but unless I know they end happily, I don't start them. A few of the tragic ones growing up convinced me of the need to avoid sadness that I didn't have to take on.

Like your mom, I love animal movies. I also love kid movies. A recent favorite of mine is Bolt, animated with John Travolta's voice for the lead character. It brings up some points about how animals are mistreated. I wondered if the children growing up will see that and become different kind of adults changing the abusive way too many humans treat their pets. Or will it make zero impact because of all the other hardening things they watch?

I have always been the kind to cry at sad movies or news stories and like you avoid reading about things I cannot fix. There is so much of it out there. Animals are so much at the mercy of human behavior which too often is a very sad place to be.

Like Ronni and many of you out there in" internet land", in my horribly mis-spent youth. I dreamed of making a difference, "changing the world".
Now, a half-century later, the world is no better, in fact, it looks a lot worse for wear from where I'm sitting and I have made no appreciable difference. So, like billions of others who have come before or will follow me, I leave my own footprints in the wet sand and dream of another who might someday make the difference I never achieved and turn things around - before we hit the point of no return (if we're not there yet)

Ronni, you sure got to a deep place in a lot of us! It's all been said above, mostly. I feel vindicated and affirmed in what I've noticed lately about myself -- avoidance of reading, viewing or listening to all the misery and stupidity -- especially the stupidity -- going on all over the world. What can I really do about it? I financially support those causes and organizations whose goals I admire. Now I'm going to make the most of the decade or two I have left with a guilt free conscience and "waste" time on TV, sudukos and the internet. Thanks to all for the thoughtful posts.

It's not sentimentality, it's empathy. And it grows as you age if you have learned anything along the way.
But you do feel the suffering in the world more and anguish over the stupidity.

Thanks to all & to you Ronni for now I know I am not alone with my feelings. I do so wish I could be hopeful once again. Dee

A couple of years ago, I made a conscious decision to forswear avoidable stress or overarousal. I noticed that, as my body's (brain's, included) resilience declined, my emotional reactivity waxed. I could not dissipate adrenalin as readily and my entire sympathetic nervous system acted more like a toggle switch than a thermostat.

These are normal physical results of aging, the perceived impression of which is heightened emotionality and a stress-meter that's always about to peg out.
"Sentimentality" has a negative connotation in our (ambivalently) stoical national mindset. With zuleme, I say let's frame it up, not down: let's call it heart, empathy, lovingkindness...or else,we elders are just one more kind of inept and foolish.

We may not choose movies or television shows that expose us to gratuitous violence or suffering, but there aren't many twenty-five year olds who voluntarily tolerate the number of hospital bedsides and funerals we choose to attend. Ours is a different strength.

Ask an expert if there is anything you could do for yourself.

I used to be fearless. Now I panic on occasion. I used to drive LA freeways at rush hour every day. Now I not only don't drive at night, I can sometimes be found off the freeway. I don't watch horror movies or screens filled with ugliness for the same reason....empathy. You now find you are not alone, and we are right here with you. Perhaps all our emotions have multiplied. I have found that writing about it is very good stuff.

There are some things keeping me focused in these not funny, wobbly times.

My husband is a gem, a great partner.

My cat knows everything and reacts accordingly. If she could talk, she'd tell me to keep taking yoga, watch funny movies, don't be glued to CNN, and dance.

Who cares how. Just dance.

The book I just read, by Pat Conroy "South of Broad."

The movie "The Blind Side."

The 6 Afghan women I teach in a community center downtown.

The AW say "ask us anything," and I do.

Seeing their smiling, motivated faces makes me feel good.

Writing on my blog.

Keeping busy works for me.

No finish line.

"And what bloody good does all this maudlin sappiness do? Not that I can save the world or even a small part of it, but I should be at least tough enough to bear witness. I wasn't always like this. What could have happened?"

Ronni, maybe you were "always like this," but never realized it because your stoic upbringing caused you to repress these feelings. You referred to this as sentimentality, but maybe it's a release of the caring and compassion you've learned to ignore because you were taught that "shit happens so get over it and move on." As aging allows you to shed many inhibitions, perhaps the real Ronni is emerging.

what they said. right there with you.
your heart is getting bigger, it is a good thing!

Everything you said, Ronni, is the reason I almost totally stopped watching any news of what President Obama has been doing ever since the inauguration. I know he'll do what he can to fix the messes Bush left. I know he'll do what he can to make things better for all of us. And I know all of the crazies will come out and attack him from every which corner; from under every rock. And I absolutely cannot BEAR to watch it happen. So for the time being, I'm being what I would consider an almost irresponsible citizen and NOT watching news of America often.

As for the animals, in particular, I guess I've taken a different approach to dealing with it. I watch hours and hours of the animal rescue shows on Animal Planet. I hate seeing the way people treat their pets and I love seeing those pets being rescued and, with any luck, the people being brought to justice.

As for crying... yes, ever since my dad died 3 years ago, I cry SO easily. I fought crying my whole life, but it's useless now. It just happens. He was the first of my close family to pass away. He and I weren't close, but -- he was my dad.

I can't even stand to look at an animal on a leash. How would any human like it if some outer space creature put one of us on a leash?

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