I believe sentimentality is a sign of criminal thinking. I’ve worked in three prisons and currently have a job in the prison where Mike Tyson was held. A Department of Correction psychologist warned me about sentimentality a few months ago, and it’s changed the way I see the men around me.
My wife doesn’t agree with me or the psychologist. When I explained the concept, she said only, “You know, that’s one thing I’ve noticed –mention Auschwitz to a Nazi and they always talk about their feelings of nostalgia.”
That’s not what I mean when I say that sentimentality is linked to crime, but I do think it’s related to the way people say Hitler loved dogs. I don’t believe ALL sentimentality leads to crime, but I do believe an excess can be symptomatic of a reasoning process that encourages criminal behavior. Hitler’s affection for dogs, his overestimation of their value, allowed him, in a way, to do terrible things to people. I’m sure he told himself that if his Doberman was happy to see him, that meant he was loveable after all.
Every day I see inmates who carry around pictures of their kids in their notebooks or photo albums. “My little girl is the only thing in the world to me,” a guy will say. Or, “All I care about is getting out of here so I can be there for my kids.”
This seems like the opposite of criminal thinking, but a psychologist would say this kind of thinking allows the criminal to feel noble and innocent while ignoring the more difficult thoughts about the behaviors and desires that brought him to prison. The other day, an inmate said something about how the only thing he wanted to do was spend time with his son –and one of my co-workers, a good ol’boy from Parke County, interrupted him, “Well, if that were true, you wouldn’t have violated your parole by sitting on a barstool with a gun and an eightball of cocaine in your coat pocket. You’d have been home reading a bedtime story to your boy.” My colleague is a smart-ass, but he’s wise in the ways of the world.
Prison can be a hard place, and few people who spend time there will admit to being sentimental. On the other hand, every day I see men who have names tattooed in their skin –names of girlfriends who cheated on them, lied to them, helped them get into trouble. They have the names of dead homeboys or their tombstones tattooed on arms and chests. What is this blind loyalty, except a kind of sentimentality?
My wife disagrees that sentimentality is a sign of criminal thinking. She thinks it’s sweet I’ve kept her old letters and I cried when we watched Out of Africa. I’m happy to leave the conversation with her thinking she’s right. I know I’ll win the argument the day she catches me emailing my old girlfriend from college.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.