Sensitivity is strength

I’ve just once again thought of changing the name of my blog.

For one, not living up to it. For another, kind of a pretentious title. 

Something absurd and witty perhaps. 

Then a few days ago, I bumped into an article on “being too sensitive” on everydayfeminism.com. In the context of black people’s emotional reactions to everyday racism it says:

And while numbing out is a natural reaction after centuries of oppression and daily reminders that we are “less than,” I also think it is one of the most dangerous things that can happen in movements for justice and equity.

(…)

Sensitivity is not a weakness. In fact, it is incredibly powerful and threatening. And powerful emotion is one of our greatest sources that fuels change.

Michal ‘MJ’ Jones on https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/04/too-sensitive-not-problem/

In fact, the major part of deep ecology activist Joanna Macy’s late work (e.g. in Active Hope) seems to be about driving home these points. The activist trauma specialist Laura van Dernoot Lipsky makes it in Trauma Stewardship

This wasn’t my original point with the title – it was far more personal, in the context of the human psychobiological traits of high sensitivity and neurodiversity / the autism spectrum. I started this blog on a whim of reclaiming these traits as powers, but powers mostly within the self and in personal life. 

Powers that make your life rich in unique ways that you may not be aware of, and that benefit those around you, too. In the current Western cultural climate the vulnerabilities created by these traits are clear; my point was that not valuing the human potential in them is a huge personal and social mistake (whether you’re doing that devaluing to yourself or to someone else). 

Michal MJ Jones’, Macy’s, and van Dernoot Lipsky’s points are about social justice, and about sensitivity as a state or attitude rather than a trait (mostly). They are about feeling rather than numbing; feeling in order to process and have a strong motivation for action that addresses the (social, systemic) sources of the difficult feelings. 

In this sense, every person can be more or less open – sensitive – receptive on their own scale between the two extremes of numbing and taking everything in very deeply. For some people it’s far harder to numb out (they perhaps require hard drugs or the pain of self-harm rather than being able to do it with TV and food). 

As Macy makes clear, numbing often happens because we have no idea how to process intense emotions that appear unpleasant (tho part of the unpleasantness may come from the fact that we aren’t skilled at letting them pass through us and inform us; for example sadness or anger that isn’t resisted doesn’t necessarily feel unpleasant, but can in the final round feel cleansing and empowering). 

(See my emotions bible, Karla McLaren’s The Language of Emotions. I’ve written about this before, e.g. here on anger.)

What’s the relationship between sensitivity as state vs. trait in the social justice context?

Perhaps that just goes back to the “canary in the coal mine” analogy: while it’s beneficial that everyone keeps feeling, being aware, and responding (if possible) to what is going on in society and the world, neurodiverse people will often by virtue of their constitution be more sensitive to micro-doses of problems that the general population will only notice when the problem is huge. A good example might be chemical sensitivities, or sensitivities to food additives (quite common in autistic people). Sensitivities to noise and light pollution that disrupt everyone (mostly via the neuro-endocrine axis, e.g. more artificial light is correlated with more hormonal imbalances), but most people only slightly and in the long run. In a few generations. 

The same may sometimes be the case for bad emotional vibes and private and public injustices. In my own case, landscape and ecological habitat destruction in the area where I spent my childhood would cause visceral pain and mind wreckage – because I used to talk to these plants as a child. Most people can’t hear them.

It’s wrenching to a level that for most people would require much more dramatic events to feel. Perhaps their house being destroyed; I don’t really know. 

Some people feel these things, and then they numb out because it’s unbearable; and it’s even more unbearable when the reaction is not shared. (In fact I tend to believe that the sharing of this kind of pain, grief or anger sometimes turns it into a positive bonding experience that can balance the difficulty of the feeling and over time enable a useful outlet for it.)

People for whom it’s harder to numb out often pay a price in mental and physical health. I think the only case in which they don’t is if they grow up in a healthy, supportive, coherent, emotionally literate social structure from the beginning – I know perhaps a few in person. I can count them on the fingers of a hand, but I hope to meet more. Most, however, pay. Some pay and after having paid enough make a commitment to recover (from whatever it is they used to numb out; addiction, dissociation, disease) and feel again in a way that doesn’t cost so much personal blood. 

My latest thought on autism (mostly applies to the forms that allow you to pass as near-normal) has been: since as a natural human variation it has presumably always existed (like minority sexual and gender traits, left-handedness, and the like), why is it becoming so much more visible now in Western societies? Is it because a sparser social fabric and a cultural tendency to escape from honest emotions is making autistic people far more vulnerable to becoming “dropouts”? Are we becoming more negatively visible because we’re sensitive not just to physical nutrient deficiencies (again, common), but also depend far more on external social and emotional nourishment (community in the full sense; close, sustained interaction with a broad variety of people) that has become hard to obtain?

I don’t know, perhaps the past was worse in many respects; takes more ageing or research to have an idea. 

Still, both in the personal life of our own emotions, and in the broader life of “society” (it’s hard to use the term when feeling there is hardly any such coherent whole), it is important to close the feedback loop from feeling into processing into voice or action. The action can be very quiet. The voice doesn’t have to mean verbal speaking (hard for some). It may mean mostly being, and truthfully being – staying an alive, not-numbed-out thread in the fabric. We never know when that is called upon after all. 

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