Sentiment vs. Conviction
What is sentiment? An internal expression of strong emotions in reaction to a realization of something profound. What is conviction? It is an acceptance of personal responsibility for newly-challenging implications that follow from a realization of something profound. Is sentiment useless, like the writing in a Hallmark card? Of course not. If there is no emotional response that accompanies conviction, conviction likely is the most useless of the two, and in fact likely isn't true conviction at all. That is to say, implications for the individual that are uniquely and personally challenging will produce strong emotions--as will the acceptance of taking action in response, action that may be difficult, difficult to maintain, and that may involve radical personal change. Sentiment and conviction ought to go hand-in-hand, and the only response is personal responsibility.
What is personal responsibility? In a previous post, I described certain characteristics, as I thought that was more applicable. But I think if I were to try to give a true definition, it would look like this:
Acceptance of individual responsibility for making decisions.
Acceptance of individual responsibility for the outcomes of those decisions.
Acceptance of individual responsibility alone in one's response to events outside one's control.
Acceptance that one cannot take responsibility for others' refusal to follow the above three principles.
In a tough situation, every one of these things would take conviction, as it was described above, and all would inevitably produce sentiment, as it was described above. However, sentiment occurring prior to conviction, rather than as its partner, needs to be questioned, and sentiment without conviction is often highly destructive. Let's talk about what happens, and let's bring it down to earth. As usual, marriage and relationships are the best metaphors.
Sentiment without conviction can be described as high tragedy. Here's a story to illustrate. Let's say that a man and a woman have a one-night stand after a powerful experience of locked eyes across the dance floor at a wedding reception. Let's say that this night together is the most powerful experience of romantic connection in their lives. This is a "challenging implication," as described above.
"After the fact," in nature's agreement with these implications, chemicals are released in the brain as they lay there together. These chemicals produce a naturally sentimental response--classically, the woman might put her head on the man's chest or shoulder, and the man will feel an equally satisfying urge to fall asleep right there with her. The sentiment is powerful and honest, the only honest reaction to what has just occurred, and nature insists. But there is no logical reason for it.
Why? Well, why would the woman feel such a deep connection to a man she doesn't know the first thing about? He could be a complete jerk entirely unworthy of this sort of adoration. However illogical, the deep sentiment of belonging is unavoidable, natural, and understandable. Likewise the man: why would he feel that the absolute right and honest thing to do is to spend the rest of the night together, now that the romantic attraction has been satisfied? Why does his biology scream that he has some sort of responsibility for her well-being now? However illogical, again, this powerful sentiment is unavoidable, natural, and understandable.
This is a tragedy because the sentiment is accidental to the situation: the sentiment indicates something new and profound, namely, that there is some sort of pre-existing, mutual ethical commitment to (and resulting trust of) another individual--an intimacy at the deepest level. But it wasn't there. What occurred--a one-night stand--was sentimental, esthetically beautiful, and no more. The only possible conviction is the challenging implication that this commitment ought to have occurred prior to the act. This might be called a conviction of sin in the largest, non-religious sense of violating some law of what their very biological nature creams "Ought To Be." Not a conviction of the sinfulness of the act, but of its ethical implications, and that is very challenging. A "conviction" of the sinfulness of the act alone is simply more sentiment, and requires no decision. Taking personal responsibility in the face of what must be perceived as a sinful--here, that an individual decision has resulted in an outcome that violates appropriate responsibility to another--can be described as repentance. Repentance means committing to a U-turn, and attempting to put things in right order, according to a conviction that one's actions produced ethical disorder. In this case, that would mean going back and trying to get the commitment right, as it ought to have been.
When she decides to take responsibility and put it to him that way, he might not want anything to do with it! That's tragic for him, but no longer tragic for her. Accepting that she can't control his refusal to take personal responsibility, she has nonetheless acted ethically. So far now, concerning the definition of personal responsibility above, she has covered 1., 2., and 4.--but we just came to 5., the thing that makes personal responsibility work, which I was saving as I indicated:
5. Taking ethical action, having accepted 1.-4. (scroll up if you don't remember).
We just defined ethical action as action that responds in a manner parallel to what conviction demands. This does not always make us happy. That is why my most popular post is, "Fake Happiness Vs. Mental Health," and you can read that by clicking here: [link to post]. What is more important than happiness? Meaning. Happiness without meaning is fake. Meaning comes through taking personal responsibility. That is frightening because personal responsibility implies commitment, which is an intention renewed each day to act in an ethical manner, and (most threatening of all), repenting when we mess up. Wishy-washy double-mindedness doesn't have a place, and that would be the most tragic outcome of all in our story above: meaninglessness--and worse, being OK with that, OK with fake happiness.
What would be the most tragic outcome in our story of love and loss? The most meaningless outcome would be for both the man and woman not to be convicted at all, because their minds have been dulled by sentimentality. However, the most tragic outcome would be conviction without ethical action, that is, without 5. above. Personal responsibility fundamentally presumes taking ethical action, or it doesn't exist at all.
No one can act for you. As a therapist, I can help you heal, but I can't make you take personal responsibility. The doctor can fix your broken leg, but he can't make you spend the 6 months in rehab that it will take for that surgery to matter. And I have to accept that I can't control that, and act ethically nonetheless.
As a conclusion, it is worth noting that commitment eventually becomes impossible and meaningless without what could be called "faith" in the broadest sense. The commitment in personal responsibility, taken to its natural extreme, becomes a horror, as it is too great to bear. Why is it a horror? We run into the ethical as an impossibility, and are faced with meaninglessness. We find that we are fundamentally incapable of perfect commitment, and that this lack is just as unethical as double-mindedness. And then death destroys it all anyway, the good with the bad, and at that moment of realization, we know that we've all got it coming. As a result, there is a multitude of ways to avoid this, and meaningless sex is one of the most ethical ways. Terribly, the worst way happens to be a belief system that sells peace on the cheap, without faith, denying the importance of the individual. For instance, communism. This line of thought ends up killing people en masse, rather than with peace.
Perfect commitment is not possible without faith, and faith is not easy. Why? Faith must face down the horror. But it does not do so alone! And this converts horror into real peace. Faith is "absolute commitment by proxy," and as a result, the imputation of a perfection that is entirely undeserved and unearned. Sometimes those who are best with commitment lean on pride and a lack of care for others to do so, and as a result cannot accept faith. That's good payback for them. If you want to study these principles, you can look at marriage and the vows inherent in that, as a covenant of faith, an imputation of perfection (i.e., "You're the only one for me," an absurd statement on the surface) and resulting acceptance of repentance, both of which are entirely undeserved.
It's sad enough that the divorce rate for first marriages is over 40% in the US, but the breakup rate for lifelong relationships that have no formal commitment is twice that. And the rate for people who marry someone they had an affair with is 90%. Faith is hard, and certainly impossible if it's not a gift from someone with the authority and perfection to give it. If faith is an internal action of the individual, commitment is twice the horror. It must be imputed by a perfect person who possesses it, with absolute authority to sustain it. Your spouse can be a good image of grace.