I’ve gone back to school – again! – and am taking classes in a writing program. One assignment is to complete an in-depth analysis of a memoir written over a half-century ago: Stop-Time, by Frank Conroy. Now, I didn’t think I’d enjoy a coming-of-age story written by a white guy who would be in his eighties today. But I was wrong. The story of his sad childhood affected me deeply, as they always do. Describing himself at age eleven, he writes, “Like most children I was antisentimental and quick to hear false notes.” For whatever reason, that sentence pulled me up short.
What exactly did he mean by antisentimental? And what is the difference between sentimental and sensitive? And how does an antisemtimental constitution make it easy to “hear false notes?” Was I a sentimental child, or a sensitive one? Did this set me up for an adulthood of depression?
I remember shedding real tears during episodes of the original “Lassie” TV show when a character was threatened or hurt. My father and sisters would ridicule me, but my mom always came to my defense, telling them to leave me alone, that I was just “melancholy.” This never failed to prompt the same response from my father: “Yeah, she’s melancholy all right. She has a head like a melon and a face like a collie.”
This statement embedded itself in my psyche over the years. I still remember sitting on the living room floor after he said it, wondering if I’d wake up in the morning looking like some freakish chimera. It didn’t help that at school they called me Helen-Helen-Watermelon, or that I seemed to cry most during a show about a collie dog.
Sentimental is defined as “dealing with (or prone to) feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia.” And sensitive, as “quick to respond to slight changes, signals, or influences” as well as “a quick and delicate appreciation of others’ feelings.” Both words – as well as sentient – derive from the Latin verb sentio, which means to discern by the senses, as well as to feel, perceive, observe, or notice. Frank Conroy could hear false notes, which demonstrates his sensitivity, but his antisentimental nature precluded feelings of sadness and nostalgia which those notes might evoke in someone like me. Or so he said. I don’t believe it.
But the PIE root of sentio is *sent-, means “to go.” This gave rise to German, Irish, and Welsh words that mean “to strive after, to travel” and the noun “way.” The basic concept is about finding one’s way. Tenderness, sadness, and nostalgia do take us on a journey, if we’re brave enough to board the train. (And then there’s sensible, which jumped the tracks and headed for another destination.)
Conroy must have become more sentimental in adulthood; nostalgia had to arise as he wrote the memoir. Nostalgia’s root is the Greek algos, meaning pain, grief or distress (and is related to a suffix I used all the time in medicine – algia – as in myalgia, cephalgia, etc.), along with nostos, meaning escape, return, or reach home. Another word signifying a journey. The PIE root of nostos, *nes-, means to return safely home, and gave rise to German and Gothic words that mean to recover, and to heal.
It’s all about that universal angst, that feeling of wanting to be safely home, wherever that may be. I think we need more sentimentalizing, more productive and reflective nostalgia, given the polarizing feelings and behaviors that dominate our culture today. Although part of the healing from brain health issues like depression does involve letting go of the past, we still need to look back and take what serves us from it. We need to pack it along for the ride.
Over the weekend I heard a radio piece about the Sankofa bird, a mythical creature of the Ghanaian Akan people that represents taking what is good from the past and using it for positive progress now. The bird’s feet are moving forward, but the head faces back to pluck an egg off its back. In the Twi language, Sankofa translates as “Go back and get it,” being derived from three elements: san – to return; ko – to go; and fa – to fetch. It’s a reminder to retrieve lost or forgotten wisdom from the past to use now, and in future times.
Our ongoing addictions to the newest thing, the latest craze, make us lose track of the egg on our back – that embryo of knowledge, that kernel of sense – that can be incubated, hatched, and used for the common good. At my lowest, I was consumed by failures and losses, and that egg was totally invisible to me. Now, I look back and remember what got me through the tough times. I mine my past for eggy-gems. Then I turn my mind to the future, and try to move one foot forward again.