Thursday, March 29, 2007

On Sensitivity

Pretty Lady can tell that most of you are rolling your eyes already. First she posts a guest column about Equal Pay for Equal Work, and now this. "The Other Shoe has Dropped," she can hear you thinking. "Pretty Lady is, and has been all along, a Closet Socialist, just lurking in wait to entrap us, and now, here we are. Sensitivity, indeed. Hmph."

And indeed, Pretty Lady could go on to bore you with many long stories about her stint in Northern California, where Sensitivity Blackmail is a standard and accepted part of the cultural landscape. One cannot pick up a six-pack of sushi there without trampling on someone's Childhood Issue, which must be addressed at great length and drama before anybody gets dinner. And Pretty Lady can attest that if someone deprives her of dinner to whine about their vague and amorphous problems, heads will eventually roll.

So that when, once upon a time, in her capacity as Chief Skimmer of all incoming library material, she happened upon a document entitled The Highly Sensitive Person, Pretty Lady veritably snorted. "Sensitive, ugh. 'Namby-pamby blackmailing whiner,' is more like it. I am certainly Not Sensitive. This piece of new-age self-help crap has nothing to do with me."

But she took the quiz anyway, having nothing better to do, and scored in the 99th percentile.

Suddenly, many things made sense. You see, Pretty Lady had always assumed that everybody experienced the same extreme discomfort, bordering upon physical pain, at the onslaught of punk rock music, Harleys, backfiring trucks, fluorescent lights, high winds, screaming, the smell of a close friend who has given up bathing for Lent, and the incessant inane giggling of brainless, nubile females. She took it for granted that whenever someone in the room was upset about something, everyone else was so concerned about it that they could not concentrate until the problem was addressed. She thought that the reason people drink so much in night clubs is to somewhat anaesthetize the agonizing misery induced by loud music, pointless chatter, lighting designs that split the difference between murky and garish, and the odor of stale cigarette smoke blended with beery floors, with the slightest undertone of vomit. Forthwith, she assumed that just about everyone in the world was very, very brave and stoic. So she was stoic too.

Yes, it was an enormous revelation to her that most people don't even notice all of that. For Pretty Lady, learning to like the accoutrements of routine adolescent social life was akin to developing a taste for wasabi, or the late works of James Joyce. It required discipline, commitment and a willingness to suffer. Pretty Lady, for love of her fellow man, was quite ready to do so, and would never even think of whining about it, much less of asking anyone to extinguish his Camel Filterless. She grew to revel in it, and to this day the aromas of Pall Mall and unwashed male bring back some sun-drenched memories.

But she did, after some thought, finally give herself permission to Go Home Early, upon occasion.

You see, in Pretty Lady's view, acknowledging one's sensitivity is not about Weakness, nor about Control. It is simply about Resource Management. Because sensitive persons are not simply the Darwinian rejects of the herd, fit only as wolf feed; we are Specialists. In the full, disciplined power of our specialization, we have the ability to put our finger right where it hurts and gently coax the pain away.

But in order to become fully empowered specialists in misery-eradication for the larger human race, we must learn to care for and appreciate ourselves, exactly as we are. This does not mean Banning Things; our purpose is not to control the outer world. It is to create oases of peace and quiet understanding, where we occasionally invite the world in to heal itself.


Desert Cat said...

our purpose is not to control the outer world. It is to create oases of peace and quiet understanding, where we occasionally invite the world in to heal itself.

Oboi. Does *that* ring a bell.

Still, one does not 'acquire' a taste for wasabi. One *revels* in the taste of wasabi!

Nothing hurts so good as good wasabi. OH!

Now I'm salivating. I hope I have some on hand...

Chris Rywalt said...

I have a similar story to Pretty Lady's, although it's more specific.

Growing up, my mother used to say I was "mother deaf." That is, I had perfect hearing -- in fact she'd had me tested more than once and I always did very well -- but when she spoke to me, it often seemed I didn't hear her. She concluded from this that I chose not to hear her.

I'd always had trouble with loud environments. I hated going to bars and rock concerts were hard for me. Parties were chores to get through, not fun occasions. I actually did experience physical pain from Harleys, backfiring trucks, screaming, and so on.

Shortly after college I found an article on Attention Deficit Disorder. It sounded enough like me that I went to get tested. In the course of a large number of physical tests, my doctor found that I had some hearing issues. He sent me for a comprehensive hearing test.

Every hearing test I'd had up until then was one of those regular old beep tests: Can you hear this? BEEP! Can you hear this? BEEP! Not this series of tests. This tested everything from physical hearing through processing of auditory stimuli and short-term memory.

What I learned from this was astonishing. Not only did I have good hearing, I have incredible hearing. I can hear frequencies much higher than average and my hearing is much more sensitive, such that I can hear about 10 dB quieter than most people and my discomfort threshold is 80 dB rather than the usual 100 dB. In fact my hearing was so sensitive I heard echoes of the upcoming sounds on the testing tape from where the magnetic field had bled from one part of the tape onto another from being rolled up.

On top of that, I have specific problems in the filtering part of my brain, which filters out background noise to focus on a particular sound. For example, listening to one conversation in a crowded restaurant, or listening to a person talk in the same room as a TV is playing. And then I have a bit of a problem in the short-term memory storage area, where I hear the words but don't remember them. Which explains why my mother would ask me to get her cigarettes and I'd get up and stand in front of the kitchen counter and have no idea why I was there.

So it turned out after all this time, when I thought other people enjoyed these things I found physically painful, that I was just much more sensitive than they were. Me! Sensitive!

I have since tried to be more understanding of others and their subjective experience. Except vegetarians. Those people just bug me.

Anonymous said...


Sorry man, I had to. The foot, she twitches.

**winks at PL**

Pretty Lady said...

Somehow, Crom, it comes as no surprise that you are one of the 80% who are wired like a battering ram.

Chris Rywalt said...

I bet Crom doesn't even have wires.

Anonymous said...

Crom has gears, levers, a few I-beams and rivets scattered about, a steam engine chugging away somewhere with the safety wired down...

Sort of like the Gnomes in WoW--not in physical stature--but in attitude and direction.

"Daylights burning..."

Anonymous said...

"you are one of the 80% who are wired like a battering ram

A battering ram? Moi? Nay, I am a Mr. Sensitive Pony-tail Man sans ponytail.

Ok, perhaps not. Still, it is somewhat insulting to be lumped in with the 80%. I am not sure that being overly-sensitive is necessarily a virtue, although that seems to be implied in your article. I do not envy your or Chris's feeling that the world is an ear-splitting, strobe-lit constant assault on your senses, and it puzzles me that you would both choose to live in perhaps the most garish, vulgar city in the continental U.S. It is surprising that you both could not have found a more serene locale, something decidedly more pastoral than the blighted sprawl of NYC.

I do believe that the idea of eradicating misery is a worthwhile cause. I don't believe that many people truly want that, though. They want to supersize their fries, pound Red Bulls and fret over the tallies on "American Idol". They aren't numbing their pain, they are simply too stupid to feel it.

Pretty Lady said...

Still, it is somewhat insulting to be lumped in with the 80%. I am not sure that being overly-sensitive is necessarily a virtue

Oh, good heavens. You can't have it both ways.

I am not saying that sensitivity is a virtue; I am saying that it just is. It is a fact that needs to be handled somehow. Some people handle it by pretending not to be sensitive, and repeatedly thrusting themselves into untenable situations, which is a form of self-abuse which doesn't help anything, and frequently has unforeseen and distressing consequences for everyone around them.

Other people handle it by becoming controlling, neurotic whiners, which is even worse.

My contention is that the more you understand yourself without judgment, the more you can make informed decisions about how best to run your life and expend your energy. That's all.

I live in New York because I am a wildly creative person, and I believe that I need the challenge and discipline of competing in a big big pool of other wildly creative and ambitious people to properly temper and develop that creativity. I haven't lived here forever, and I don't plan on staying here forever. Furthermore, I have structured my life here so that I not only get the peace and quiet I need, but can extend that peace to other frazzled people and get paid for it.

Thus I believe I use my temperament to its best advantage, both for myself and for other people. But I could only figure out that course of action after coming to a realistic understanding of my own strengths, weaknesses and fundamental requirements.

Chris Rywalt said...

New York is not garish and vulgar. New York is big. Parts of it are loud and garish, parts of it are vulgar, parts of it are quite unpleasant. But parts of it are quiet and nice. As big as Texas is across, New York is almost as big, but vertically. There are so many nooks and crannies.

Anyway, I didn't so much choose to live here as find myself here when I was born, along with a temperament not suited to moving. Ever. I'm a rock. A lump. A lazy potato with deep roots.

Anonymous said...

"Oh, good heavens. You can't have it both ways. "

After I posted that I wondered if it would be read that way. Somehow text just doesn't have the shades of intonation and wry humor that it needed to convey my intent. It was a parody of being sensitive, albeit poorly written and executed.

So of course not. I am sitting here chuckling about it, I know that I am a warhammer to your rapier, and I am perfectly cool with that. If you were blunt, and bullish I probably wouldn't be as interested in the discourse here. It's the whole vive le difference vibe, your yin to my yang - that makes me a reader, commenter and fan.

Chris Rywalt said...

Oh, Crom, be honest. It's Pretty Lady's golden downy thighs that keep you coming back.

Anonymous said...


Chris, for once you and I are in complete agreement.

Judge Well Ye Wolves said...

Some develop an affinity, shall we say taste, for the pain.

Pretty Lady said...

Boys! How dare you! Bandying her name about like common mashers! When neither of you have so much as glimpsed her ankle!

Be ashamed.

Judge Well Ye Wolves said...

"I tried to use my imagination, but I was disturbed" - Tommy Tutone.
I assumed that "the boys" used extrapolation based on a nude back, neck, arms. I know I certainly did...

Pretty Lady said...

Oops! Forgot about that old thing. Actually, my upper body muscle tone has considerably improved since then...

Judge Well Ye Wolves said...

So we're talking about a move from near-perfection to Perfection itself?

Pretty Lady said...

Depends upon your taste, honeybun. If you are enamoured of the Petite, Fragile and Elfin, Pretty Lady is not for you. Although she is both honored and thrilled when someone else offers to carry her massage table up the stairs for her.

Judge Well Ye Wolves said...

Since you've brought up packaging, it is inferred from the photograph that PL is, as Grandpa Mackenzie would judge, a "fair-r-r formed lass". As opposed to, say, "a wee bit 'o str-r-ing". I am enamoured of the strong, smart and competent, and stand with Grandpa Mac in appreciation of the FFL.
Since Carrying Objects for Ladies is one of the Ought To's in life, should your massage table and I be in proximity, only give instruction as to where it should go, and there it shall go.