Reflections on sensitivity
And the heart that is soonest awake to the flowers is always the first to be touch’d by the thorns. (Thomas Moore)
There is something tragic and dipped in pathos about this truth.
Sensitivity, that quality that carries a burden in a world so disparaging of its gifts, and so championing of its weakness, is so admired by women in gay men, and so despised in other men by straight men.
Sensitivity, that emotional radar, on whose screen fall the images of hurting, whether personal or merely visible in others; sensitivity, the sometimes too close to the surface (as in thin skin) frown, tear, wince or even scream….when others cannot even see or imagine what might be upsetting.
Sensitivity, that quality that isolates one from so many others, who themselves are isolated from their emotions, their hearts and the intimate connection to their imagination. It brings the first touch, sight, scent, melody to the inner heart as gift magnified for closer reflection, musing and interpretation. Whether of a rose, or from the hand of a new love over a candlelight dinner, or from the strings of the violin playing in the far corner of the dining room, or from a petal in a summer garden, or from a neck resting on a shoulder, tossing hints of perfume through the darkness….these are just some of the poignant and memorable gifts of sensitivity.
And then there are the verbal nuances in tone and choice of word, and the unfinished thoughts left hanging, the lift of the eyebrows, the turning up of the nose, and the ever so slight wave of the hand, in a dismissive shrug of insouciance…each of these also comprise the language of relational meaning, understanding, connection or the breaking of that connection….And the sensitive man or woman either sender or receiver of any of thee gestures is fully conscious of their potential impact….rarely misinterpreted by another equally sensitive.
This stuff comprises a language for which a formal school curriculum has not been deigned or delivered. It is, however, the stuff of many failed attempts to connect and to stay connected to another. We are supposed to “pick it up” from our social contacts, our family, school, churches, or even from workplaces where human encounters prevail. However, imagine growing up in a home where sensitivity is debased, disparaged, disdained and denied. I recall a conversation, following a poetry-reading of some Robert Service poetry which evoked tears in an elderly man, in his eighties. It was some of the same poetry his father had read to him many decades before, and the memory simply overwhelmed him. When the story was recounted to the man’s spouse, her comment, after sixty years of marriage was “Well, everybody knows he has always been a cry-baby!” Sadly, the wife had lived a life devoid of and dismissive of the golden gifts of both poetry and sensitivity, and her husband had merely kept his sensitivity hidden, so risky would it have been to let it out of his locked heart.
And then there is the “other” side of the quality of sensitivity; it is also always the first to notice the thorn on the rose, and this can be quite disconcerting to those who have not yet witnessed the thorn, or whose imagination had not yet brought it into “view”. So, while sensitivity enriches its possessor through a significantly enhanced experience of so many stimuli, both physical and emotional, and, if and when shared those intimate details can and will also enrich others who may not have developed their own sensitivity, it can and will also irritate, annoy, and possibly even upset both the sensor and his or her friends.
Being the first to notice the thorn on the rose (as metaphor) can generate a reputation as a negative influence, someone who can and does exaggerate the ‘thorns’ in a culture in which flowers, smiles, happy thoughts and positive attitudes generate respect, personability, likeability, and even enhance one’s reputation. However, like the canary in the coal mine, the sensitive person is also a gift to those who depend on its highly specific and very early notice of whatever might be about to appear on the horizon of a personal situation, or even an organizational conundrum, before those charged with responsibility have become conscious of the danger.
For parents, this sensitivity protects their children from the obvious poison ivies of the world, the bad parsnip weed, the literal odour of an intoxicated man, the danger of an oncoming car before a toddler wanders onto the roadway, the dog that is loose in the neighbourhood, and the unwelcome and unwanted danger in a parked suitcase in an airport or a train station.
Personal Relationship implications
When two sensitive persons mate both the rewards and the risks are elevated: the rewards come in so many situations, with both appreciating an orchestral performance, a complex movie or drama, a developing news story whose outcome holds significant impact for the local culture, and the immediate grasp of the other’s inattention, boredom, discomfort, and even the first hint of disappointment or anger. On he downside, should some of these signs be noticed and become the source of anxiety for either partner, the potential for conflict, both warranted and not so much, grows.
Sensitivity can exaggerate both a perception and an action or attitude; and so, like a fairly high-strung dog, often needs to be put into context, a shared context so that both partners can accept a common view of the signs emerging from under the emotional microscope.
And, as one learns to anticipate one’s own sensitivity, and to respect another’s sensitivity, one gains a deeper appreciation of this often maligned emotional perspicacity and emotional intelligence. Once born and established, it becomes an integral part of the hard wiring of the person.
Security and Intelligence implications
From a surveillance perspective, sensitivity is not only required; it is welcomed. And, should one anticipate entering the security and intelligence business, one’s aptitude for this quality will be tested, developed and deployed every moment of one’s engagement in this sector. Seeing, hearing, smelling, and noticing those specific indicators of behaviour that require and demand scrutiny, detention, investigation and potential legal process comprise the core of this sector.
And, then there is also the intersect of sensitivity dependent on empirical evidence and intuition when one suspects some malfeasance before the evidence emerges. And that kind of self-discipline is analogous to the early training of a downhill skier, learning to snow-plow and turn prior to descending the hill, in order to accomplish a full stop, prior to a fall or injury.
Here is where sensitivity is most admired and deployed. It is the artists eye, ear, nose and touch that bring into his conscious imagination the grist for his creative mill and the flour of his grinding…on the canvas, on the poetic manuscript, on the symphonic manuscript, and in the various three-dimension portraits in stone, wood, acrylic, and thread, as well as the highly symbolic dance moves of ballet, jazz, tap and modern. It is sensitivity to the world around the artist, and the imaginative re-interpretation, re-working, re-introducing those specific aspects of his world for his audience that keeps us walking through galleries, buying tickets for the symphony and the opera, frequenting concerts and art museums. And it is sensitivity that unites both artists and audience, in a harmony of shared and enhanced experience, parallels of which are inaccessible and often unavailable from other experiences of vocation, in fields like science, the law, medicine, politics, accounting and even journalism.
The poet’s eye (including all of his senses) both mirrors his universe and shines a new light on that universe, and depending on the period of history, expands and enhances the experience of his audience, in a way no other exposure can do.
Human civilization is so dependent on the sensitivity of the human capacity to perceive and to intuit, and the imagination to create new expressions of previously ordinary experiences that our spirit literally craves its fullest support and expression. And where the human spirit is repressed, locked up, under surveillance and even punished for its fullest and freest expression, the sensitivity of those in power is also repressed, locked up, under surveillance and facing potential punishment.
There are so many undiscovered artists and poets whose sensitivity has been smothered sometimes unconsciously by those urging them to find a real “job” and other times by those who are literally afraid of the human imagination to inspire, to enliven and even sometimes to frighten.
Suggesting to an executive that males could and should learn to accept and to name and to honour their emotional sensitivity in a rather challenging meeting, a few years back, evoked the largest cataract of male fear and anxiety I had ever seen in well over half a century. And the sad thing is, those men even today, are still likely making wide detours around their sensitivity, their imagination and the many gifts a direct route into and through those sensitivities would offer to them personally and to all of their families and colleagues. And they claimed to be operating in a spiritual context and culture.
Tragic….and yet repeated in every country and in most organizations around the world. And both the pharmacology and the cardiac businesses are reaping the fiscal plunder, while the shrinks are overwhelmed with work that the man who listened to the Robert Service poetry did not and would not need today.