One of my friend’s kids is very quiet and shy. He likes to think things through, so he is quiet while he makes sure he has thought things through properly.
He finds school hard, he finds change hard, he finds break hard, he finds talking and assembly hard, he finds going to new places like the Zoo hard. He finds them all hard. He finds it hard when a friend doesn’t want to play with him or when a friend is sad and these things play on his mind a lot. His mind is very full of fears and worries. One of the reason I think he finds them hard is that he seems to feel that there is more to process out there in the world than other children. He can also think about what might happen and as he has a very good imagination, he can come up with lots of potential worries. This makes him constantly on edge and very anxious. People don’t always notice him, so they don’t think to encourage him to have a go and support him to be successful. The way the world is they tend to notice when he hasn’t done something he should have done, hasn’t followed an instruction or hasn’t paid attention. Then people get cross and he feels they shouted at him, which makes him freeze. Let’s be honest, it is likely that they did shout at him. The shouting makes him more anxious, of course, because he can’t do the thing they want him to do and now he knows he might get into trouble for it.
It’s very easy to see that the world is not set up for people who need a bit more time, a bit more explanation and who value human connection over being busy or doing things.
There has been an offer of support and therapy and Talk. It’s one thing to say he’s got a lot of worries and fears; everyone thinks he has a lot of fears and worries. It’s one thing to think that he might find it easier to be in the world if he didn’t such strong responses, ones which floor him. It’s another thing to call this an Anxiety Disorder.
What are we habituated into as a society when sensitivity to the world around you and other’s distress is a disorder?
We seem to create social spaces which discourage sensitivity, just try using the word as a compliment when someone has asked for a change or adaptation they can cope with better. It is not supported, it is policed. It is policed by disapproval; by not giving it space; by everything being too loud, too fast, too bright; by expecting everyone to need the same thing; by mainly providing opportunities for competition and conflict rather than co-operation. Finally, it is policed by calling the sadness, or worry, or other troubles caused by not valuing sensitivity, a disorder.
Once, when we were enjoying the view at the top of a mountain, a friend observed to me that usually air had no smell. The sharp ozone and the cold had startled him into noticing something he usually didn’t notice. I thought it was probable that air did have a smell, but that as we breathed it all the time we didn’t notice unless it changed. Perhaps sensitive people are always in touch with the different ways the air smells; in tune with the emotional reasonances this has, for them and for other people; and engaged in considering what the differences in smell might mean from different perspectives. Perhaps they notice very early on when the air is bad.
I think the bigger problem with the world is that we are systematically desensitised. We have constructed a world that does not allow us to experience the full range of emotions that are part of the endowment of being human. It seems to me that central to this exclusion from the fullness of our own souls is the inherited taboo that excludes us from wonder. If we are desensitised we cannot be open to wonder. Wonder helps us live with uncertainty and the terror of the unknowable.
Without wonder, how can we experience awe? Yet it seems to me that it is awe that gives us perspective on ourselves, that gives us both the grounding and the drive to comprehend impossible things and survive. Awe allows us for a moment to hold together the shadows and the light by welcoming the dark too, rather than holding ourself back from the overwhelming experience of the world.
Without wonder, how can we experience reverence? The sense that outside ourselves, as well as inside ourselves, are experiences that we should allow to have their creative space.
Without wonder, how can we experience the sacred? An impulse, such a vital one, to attend with our whole presence and gentle attention. This hard gift has at its heart the knowledge that we have the power to violate, that we may indeed transgress, yet we have still been entrusted and we are worthy of that trust.
Wonder beckons us, invites us towards new experiences, asks us to be curious, to explore. Without wonder, where would we get our questions from? And of course, without wonder, how could we come out of our daze to even notice these things?
Our enforcement of our taboo reduces those troubling, too big experiences. They reduce the experiences, which because they transform us, show us the risk of annihilation. Instead the world becomes small, manageable, predictable- prosaic. Yet when we have a habit, we often don’t think. Like a road we have travelled down many times before, we can start out on a track, suddenly get where we are going and not know how we got there. Then when we are caught in a trance, anything can become OK and we can’t even stop to think about how not OK our everyday prosaic world is, because we barely notice it. Our inner life becomes limited and we are left with an illusion of safety, one which doesn’t protect ourself or others from extensive harms.
There is no problem that does not bring its gifts in his hands. So I want to break the taboo, I want us to allow sensitivity in, I want us to embrace it as a gift. There is no gift whose power doesn’t cause us to need to take care, to take trouble over it. I want us to develop a commitment to learning how to listen to sensitivity, how to stay connected to it’s pain while honouring the strength it brings us.
Although I believe as a society we will only really get the benefits of sensitivity when we can all embrace this capacity, I need to continue to listen to that part of myself rather than the other messages out there, which invite me to distract myself and not pay attention, because the loss of any one part of who I am is too catastrophic. I have to continue to where I am going to. Maybe I will meet some of you there.