Being tough, being sensitive – no other option, really?

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Source: Flickr

I just listened to BBC Four Thought “Sensitive Souls” (and I have recently read Auf die leise Weise, i.e. the quiet way) and my mind wandered in several directions, like a wild animal walking around a part of forest and exploring it attentively, one corner after the other, following scents and interesting plants.

It seemed to me that the most common behavioural model is a line, with “tough” and “sensitive” at the extremes. That would be OK for me, in theory – but not when these words actually mean “bully” and “bullied”. I therefore tested the following translation, from:

  • “Toughen up! Don’t be so sensitive! You’ll never reach any goal while being sensitive!”

into

  • “Be the bully sometimes! Don’t always be the bullied one! You’ll never reach your goals if you keep letting others bully you!”

… and I realised that this translation awakened the horror I felt anytime someone urged me to toughen up. I didn’t want to swap sides. I didn’t want to be rude to others, just because these are (or appear to be) the rules of The Game. If these were the rules, I couldn’t force myself to play – even if that meant that I would automatically lose.

I don’t know what people telling me those words actually meant. What I know for myself is that I have been very close to shut down my sensitive side, because it made me hurt a lot and the only choice seemed to move along the line, away from the sensitive corner and right into toughness. I am thankful to my closest friends, that offered me (and still do!) a safe space where I could be as sensitive as I needed, and investigated with me new ways to protect myself without hurting others. They took me away from that line, showed me other paths, that we walk as a group.

I hope that readers who find themselves sensitive can count on such friendships and safe spaces, and can see a way for growth that doesn’t sacrifice any of their skills.

Stereoscopic vision (lack thereof)

I am reading Oliver Sacks’ “The Mind’s Eye” and I first want to say that I am fascinated and soothed by how Sacks talks about some of his patients – with humanity and empathy. It is difficult for me to explain how reassuring it feels to always be treated as a human being, who deserves respect and consideration: physical and mental issues can bend your life in unbearable ways, but the person, the “you”, should remain out of their reach.

(It sounds easy to say, and I feel I am not entitled to talk about it because on so many levels I am healthy and functioning; but as I have experienced how temporary malfunctions have hit me hard, I feel guilty for having been so weak, ungrateful and doubtful about my recovering potential, when others face permanent changes in their bodily abilities and fight so bravely.)

Back to the book. I started Chapter 5 “Stereo Sue” with expectation and curiosity. Sue (Susan R. Barry) grew up stereoblind without relevant difficulties, but at the age of forty her sight process worsened in a way that she seeked professional help, started vision therapy and surprisingly acquired stereo vision at 48 years of age – against all odds, because it was (is still?) commonly considered that stereo vision must be acquired within the first 3 years of life.

I was so touched by her story that I kept reading page after page, speechless, breathless. I cried when she described her old way of seeing the world and her former issues, because I recognised my daily life. Stereo blindness is not a rare condition: many people (5 to 10% of the population, according to Sacks) have grown up without acquiring stereo vision but developed a bunch of alternative ways of estimating depth and distance of the people and objects around them, and most live normal lives.

I am unsure of what to do. I must say that my stereo blindness interferes with several activities (driving a car, playing ball games are extremely difficult for me, among other things) but enhances others (drawing from real life is easier: I see it flat already, and I even guess how hard it is to draw for people who see in 3D!). However, I would hate to see myself as “in need to be fixed” and that stereo vision would bring me “closer to normal”. I am aware that I am missing a piece of functionality that most have, and that most make good use of, but I also feel that it’s not that crucial for me to get it too. I would hate to get stereo vision to get a step closer to how others perceive the world, just because my way of seeing the world couldn’t be understood.

Sacks himself lost stereo vision  after an operation to his right eye, and considered it a net loss of functionality – that his perception of the world was changed for the bad and the false – I understand his conclusions, but they are not mine; I have always functioned differently, and that should have equal dignity. I was grateful to Sacks for his admiration for all the clever workarounds that Sue was putting in place – he admired her ability to use other senses and ways to compensate for an ability that most people give for granted.

I want to let these thoughts simmer for a while. I am for sure excited to discover that it’s possible for me to gain stereo vision, but I want to think well about the motivations that would lead me on that path. In the meanwhile I keep sketching.

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When the hippo swims

Today I lead a reflection about hippos. When I think about these huge animals, I visualise them when they walk around on the ground, feeding, trotting on their short legs, their big, round bodies wobbling gently around. They are commonly seen as clumsy, ugly, inelegant and even ridiculous. I drew one, trying to render its mass, its roundness, its disproportions, its sheer force.

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When hippos enter water, they transform. Water is able to support their bodies so that the small legs don’t bend anymore under the weight, and become small flippers. Their round bellies appear even rounder, and are gently kneaded by waves as if they were grey, breathing bread dough. Swimming hippos appear more like whales. I imagine how a hippo could find time and fun just playing in water, swirling around, enjoying these moments and bubbling from his big nostrils.

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I don’t know if there is any positive thinking lesson around it. I am not able to tell myself: no matter how clumsy you feel in some situations, you can be a wonderful mermaid in others; but if this helps you, that makes me smile 🙂

( Higher resolution pictures are available on my Flickr – and if you would like me to further work on these sketches, just drop me a note! )