Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Sensitive is Strong

"Opening to Prayer" by Shirona Lurie (My Mother!)
The McCoys “Hang on Sloopy” plays on the car radio while my mother drives me to preschool. “That’s not very nice Mommy. Why are they calling him stupid?” I ask in a serious tone. My mother comforts me and laughs quietly, realizing the cute misunderstanding of the lyrics. 
This is one of her favorite stories from my childhood. It wasn’t such a dramatic incident. It was a simple moment—an otherwise forgettable one. Nevertheless, my mother continues to reference this story today as the moment she recognized one of my dominant character traits: sensitivity.
            Sensitive. This word would follow me throughout my upbringing. It followed me in my 1st grade class, when I would cry from being reprimanded by the teachers I so cared for and respected. It followed me into the playground, when I felt sad for the kids who were left out. It followed me into my young adulthood, when I first noticed tears of joy. It was most evident after the death of my older sister Anna, when I felt a bottomless sorrow—a spiritual and physical abyss of sadness I never thought I would feel at the age of 13.
            I used to envy my peers who appeared to have “thick skin.” They were sarcastic, tough, and didn’t care what others thought of them. They could laugh off a punishment, a bad grade, or an insult from a classmate. They had nerve, or chutzpa, as we say in Yiddish. But I was born with the sun in Cancer; a water sign, my emotions roll in and out like the tides, ruled by the greater force of gravity. What I control is the extent to which I dam the water or let it flow.
            I was particularly aware of this personality trait when I entered a new school for 7th grade. I began as a social floater, trying to find the right circle of girls to join. The first month I nervously ate lunch with the pretty “popular” girls, but soon realized I didn’t quite fit in. For a while I was convinced I simply wasn’t cool enough to be in the group: what am I lacking, I wondered. Only later—once I found my best friends at school—did I realize that what I “lacked” was a meanness and superiority complex that many of those 13-year-old girls boasted. And let me assure you, middle school girls are THE WORST.
            Now, upon reflection, I liken this meanness to insensitivity.  But what does it mean to be “insensitive?” I view it as the temporary inability to empathize with others, which comes from the disregard of ones own emotions.  Indeed, to be kind to others, we must first be kind to ourselves; we can start by being in tune with our own sensitivity.
            This is not to say you have to become a sob-during-sappy-movies person. Or even become a conventionally “emotional” person. It just means we’re all in need of some good introspection—both cognitive and emotional. It is crucial that we allow ourselves to feel the good, the bad, and everything in-between.
            Of course, this endeavor comes with dark side, too—or at least, the potential for darkness (a “shadow” state of being). From my own experience, I’ve seen it manifest in incessant analysis of my thoughts and actions; in analysis of others’ actions; in an awareness and concern for what others think of me. It also manifests in feeling other people’s pain, insecurity, or happiness—which can take a toll on me or uplift me at any given moment.
To avoid such feelings (for fear of being hurt), people often build emotional barriers to keep the detected “bad stuff” out. This fact is obvious. What’s less obvious is the extent to which this emotional blockade affects us physically: fibromyalgia, migraines, and fatal disease are just a few manifestations of the spiritual realm entering the realm of the physical.
In a recent conversation with my mother, she described emotions as being “the bridge between our physical bodies and the spiritual world.” Indeed, when we block our emotions, we are denying ourselves access to the beautiful world of spirituality where love, joy, fulfillment, and self-actualization exist.  

This phenomenon is paralleled in the human body. Let’s craft an analogy.

Parents: isn’t it now widely accepted that children should “eat dirt?” Biology tells us that humans (especially little ones) need bacteria to build up antibodies and develop strong immune systems. Yet, society tells us to blow the dirt off for our children and to lather ourselves in Purell. Similarly, society tells us that crying is weak; that certain emotions are “bad” (dirt); that it’s best we sterilize our emotional pores.
I’m coming out against this misguided societal standard. Yes, my emotional pores may be big—but nobody is sending me to the spiritual dermatologist for this. I say be vulnerable! Face rejection! Cry your heart out in public! Feel utter joy! Dance in the streets! Sing on the subway! Smile at strangers! Relish in the moment!  Remember that if you’re feeling it—it’s a blessing. If it’s a difficult one—it’s a lesson.
Finally, at age 21, I see my sensitivity as a positive trait. It has helped me mature through troubling times, enjoy the great ones to their fullest, and help others feel deeply too.

It’s time to champion the “sensitive is strong” campaign. Who’s with me?

“You will never be able to escape from your heart. So it's better to listen to what it has to say.” 
 Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist