Homily for the Thin of Skin

A poet friend of mine once told me, “Poets are born without skin.”  He was quoting a famous poet–I thought Li-Young Lee–but for the life of me I can’t remember now.  I’m not a poet, but my friend recognized something of the creature without skin in me.  He was–is–a kind man with his own thin outer layers.

I always remembered that small moment of gentleness: him, turned around to face me from inside the small bay of his grade school desk, us, waiting for our graduate school professor to show for an insufferably early morning section of Creative Writing.

His voice comes to me now across time zones and years–tender, unassuming–as I have been thinking deeply about sensitivity and gentleness of late.

For many years I have suspected myself to belong to a beleaguered tribe of people for whom the world often feels too overwhelming–too noisy, too mean, too garish, too pointy-edged.  I was a sensitive child; I am a sensitive adult.  I can be exhausting for people.  At my most melancholy I can only describe myself as walking around like an exposed nerve.  Even clothing hurts, even small talk, even shadows.

Luckily for me, I had parents to toughen me up and a relatively healthy if slightly abnormal family life and childhood.  No major, major trauma.  Lots of activities to keep me busy.  A brother for a best friend who then and now faced my sensitivity to the world with an equal dose of humor and empathy.  Now, when I’m overwhelmed, he goes into a mocking British accent: do you want to get a coffee and a scone and go talk about our feelings?  You giant nipple.

I laugh, because his response is a ridiculous thing for someone to offer as comfort.  Cruel or bullying, even.  But his voice has a subtext, a tonality, layers of deep compassion.  I feel understood, fully seen, and jostled back into equanimity all at once.   I have a difficult time explaining his tonality to my husband, for example, who asks, “How does he get away with that?”  Somehow he can make fun of me and comfort me simultaneously, because the undercurrent of our relationship rings like a team of far off bells or like a whale song that travels leagues of deep sea to reach another whale’s ear in sonar, saying “I’m here.  I’m right here.”

We live in a culture that despises sensitivity, misnames it weakness or disability.  Highly Sensitive People (HSPs to psychologists–we have an actual label in that world) spend much time faking it until they make it, pretending to function well in a world that feels, some days, like a barrage of mortar shells.  This “faking it” can lead to serious depression or isolation, but those maladies result from misunderstanding, not from the sensitivity itself.  According to Dr. Elaine Aron, HSPs, while struggling with dissonant or loud sounds, people who hover over them as they work or perform, stressful social situations, and bright lights or discordant colors, have some important strengths that other people may not have: high empathy, keen imaginations, vivid dreams, focused concentration, creativity, and an ability to read complex emotional situations clearly.   We do not have a disorder, but often Western culture treats our sensitivity as a modern day leprosy, a disease that demands a speedy antidote or an abomination that requires quarantine or expulsion.  Or the culture overlooks us entirely.

For example, during our pre-marital counseling, my husband and I filled out a survey in our workbook that asked us to determine who took responsibility for a long list of “marriage tasks.”  I felt horrible filling it out and reading out the results: the exercise determined that my husband does 90% of the work.  But the list was slanted, biased–folds laundry, buys groceries, pays bills, cleans floors.  In a small voice, I said, “But I buy all our gifts for people.  I remember birthdays.  I call our friends.  I pick the morning music.  I navigate us through hard conversations.  I do the bulk of our emotional work.”

We skinless souls are not wimps.  We’re doing some hardcore work for the rest of you.

How great a world would it be that might carve out a space for our kind and think of us as vital counterbalances to industry and media buzz, like the soothsayers, witch doctors, and minstrels of ages past?  Or our priests and professors?  I’d settle for starting with artists, paying them for their gifts and offering them space, time, or just a quietness in which to grow calm and concoct their magic elixirs.

And mightn’t we all benefit from a bit more gentleness, which is not to say we must exclude ferocity, truth, and resilience?

I could use a little of my kind of gentleness: the living silence inside the Rothko chapel’s purple paintings or at the far end of a swimming lane, light dimmers, almost any shade of ultramarine, grey, or persimmon, birch trees, banjoes, worn cotton, sunlight on hardwood floors, conspiratorial laughter, coffee froth, long highways, good stories, the five minutes before mass begins, a blank page and a super-sharp pencil, well-aged Merlots, Doritos, active verbs, a dog’s sigh, Irish Spring on my husband’s skin, free-time at midday, teenage humor, mornings without words, a breeching whale in North Atlantic blue, lip balm, my brother’s voice and the voice of some friends, the long light that reaches toward nightfall’s embrace, its illusion of a forever and ever and ever peace even when I know better.

Amen. 

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