Recently I sat in a bookstore, reading a beautiful passage to my friend. When we both became teary-eyed, I laughed. Then I thought, “Thank goodness I can finally cry whenever I want. And Alleluia that I’m not alone in my tears.”
I cry at books, movies, the news. I cry more easily than most. Without a doubt, I am a sensitive person. I feel things deeply. I have not always admitted this. “You’re so sensitive,” after all, is rarely a compliment, but more of an indictment. I’ve often heard “don’t be so sensitive.” I tried for years to be tough, to harden myself, to ignore my feelings. What did I get? Headaches, depression and a talent for overeating.
Say “sensitive” and people think “touchy,” overlooking the definitions of “responsive to external conditions or stimulation” and “susceptible to the attitudes, feelings and circumstances of another.” Yes, I am affected by others, impacted by their feelings and situations. Sensitivity, as such, is an essential ingredient of compassion.
I teach English as a Second Language. I work with people who are trying to learn a difficult language, while also negotiating new jobs, a new culture, and a whole new life. As their teacher, I need not only a grasp on grammar, but also a gauge of their abilities, comfort zones and moods. A veteran teacher said it perfectly: “As teachers, we cannot be too sensitive.” I listen to and try to relate to their stories and their struggles, inside and outside the classroom. I will probably never know their troubles first-hand, but I try to feel them. As our different lives intersect, I cultivate my sensitivity to understand their experiences.
Sensitivity can be impractical. I must monitor what I expose myself to. Gory images give me nightmares, and sensationalistic news programs can leave me stressed out and weepy. I can no longer watch late-night crime shows, police dramas or network news. Sometimes I forget, and get pulled into the stories on TV. The other night, crying over the report of orphans in Iraq, I cursed my sensitivity.
Then I wondered what options I have. I could live in a self-centered bubble and never follow the news. No. I could become numb and desensitized, either through over-exposure to violent images or with the help of alcohol. No. The last option is the only option. I can accept that my sensitivity is as much a part of me as my freckles and curly hair. I can revel in the fact that it allows me tears of joy as often, if not more often, than it causes sorrow. Because of my sensitivity, I have deep reactions to nature, to music, to art, to the people around me.
Sensitivity allows me to relate to the world in both a completely human and fully humane way. So I cry at a gorgeous sunset and turn off the TV, believing that the sensitivity I tried to squelch or ignore is the wellspring of my compassion.
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