Thursday, November 27, 2014

A scout's virtues: cheerfulness

Sentimentality is sentiment that is inappropriate for the object or situation or a sentiment that is not directed at anything at all.

Isn't "cheerfulness", then, nothing but sentimentality?

In this instance, those who turn to the 1911 Boy Scout's Handbook hoping to find an account of virtue from before the rot set in are going to be disappointed. This is the rank sentimentality:
He must always be bright and smiling, and as the humorist says, "Must always see the donut and not the hole." A bright face and a cheery word spread like sunshine from one to another, It is the scout's duty to be a sunshine-maker to the world. (p. 9)
Yes, it's a book for boys and not men but a boy is a man in the making and that sounds more like a Grade 1 teacher in the making. Once we've all finished vomiting, let's see if we can save the scouts from themselves.

The key to extracting something good from all that claptrap is to consider the placement of cheerfulness in the list immediately below duty. What is our duty to others as regards our emotions? Of course, I can be sad at a funeral but how much right do I have to impose my sadness on others outside of special occasions?

Consider the routine question, "How are you?" and the equally routine answer, "Fine!" The transaction was mocked as meaningless in the 1960s and 1970s. But what conditions justify answering that you are not fine? Because the second you do that, the other person has to stop and pay attention to you. It's not hard to imagine situations in which you might not feel fine but wouldn't bother the other person with your troubles.

It's also easy to imagine people whose job requires them to be cheerful. The server at the counter may be feeling lousy but his job requires him to be cheerful. He might be in such a tough situation that he cannot be cheerful. But what is that? If someone really close to him died, he should get leave.

There are people who, as the Lemon Girl says, "are the sort of people things happen to". Live long enough and you will end up with an employee like that. Every week he comes in with another personal problem and bogs you and everyone else, including customers, down with his sadness or anger. You shouldn't feel bad about firing him but you do because, and this is what is wrong with this sort of person, their whole life is about being the centre of attention and they don't care that this makes them a burden to others.

Here is how I'd save cheerfulness. Cheerfulness isn't an emotion. Like empathy, it is a propensity to feel a certain kind of emotion in response to others. These emotions include judgment—judgments than can be sound or unsound. An empathetic person can respond supportively to your fears or, if they think those fears silly and unwarranted, tell you to get over yourself. To show empathy is to have a habit of charitably erring on the side of thinking others negative emotions are warranted. Cheerfulness is to have the habit of charitably erring on the side of responding to life's difficulties optimism and enthusiasm.

It's not a matter of simply suppressing or hiding your emotions. In some cases that may be called for but the real challenge is much harder; it is to actually direct yourself to have the more positive emotions. How is that different from sentimentality? It's different because it has a worthy object: charity towards others.

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