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The Art of Being Sensitive

We think we’re alone, but the largest hidden population in our society is the closet authentics.

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Illustration of woman with flying turtles

Turtle Angel by Barbara Kuhne

Sometimes, when I can let things come and go naturally, it’s possible for me to glimpse the truth that, though I’m frustrated, not everything is frustrating. Sometimes, in the midst of sadness, it’s possible to glimpse that, though I’m sad, not everything is sad. Like everyone, I struggle with finding the courage to face pain, heartache, disappointment, and betrayal, trying to face those who have hurt me and to face myself. But I remain committed to facing things, convinced it’s the only way to experience where truth and love meet. Being sensitive enough to let things in and out helps me face what is mine to face.

The art of being sensitive strengthens our resilience when we dare to love what-is. Loving what-is means accepting the truth of whatever moment we’re in. But loving what-is also means keeping our heart open long enough to feel and accept everything else that is happening at the same time, around us and beyond us. By feeling our way through what we’re given, we enter a heartfelt ring of awareness that keeps expanding. We feel the pain we’re carrying, and then we feel the light on the oak we’re sitting near, and then the laugh of a child playing across the street, and then the wind lifting the hawk gliding above us, and how the sun casts its warmth on so many lives moving through their own pain and joy in the same exact moment.

The reward for being sensitive is that we’re held by the Universe, the way the ocean in its buoyancy holds up a raft. To love what’s beyond our own particular instant of living, we’re asked not to minimize what we’re going through or to distract ourselves from the truth of what we’re going through. More deeply, we’re asked to inform what we’re going through with the vibrancy of all other life living at the same time.

The same dynamic holds for how we love each other. If while listening to you, I’m drawn to the sunlight behind you and hear birdsong above you, I’m not being distracted from loving you. Rather, I’m meant to bring these resources to you in your pain, just when you can’t access them. This is one of the gifts of being sensitive and loving each other. In an immediate way, I’m called to give my full attention to you in your distress. And in a simultaneous, eternal way, I’m called to give my attention to everything around you that is not in distress. So I can be a conduit, bringing the restorative energies of life through me to you in your pain. To be sensitive is to be a thorough conduit.

Ultimately, the art of being sensitive supports our effort to be who we are everywhere. Though everyone struggles with the urge to stay hidden, in fact, the largest hidden population in our society is the closet authentics. The irony is that we share a great kinship in this struggle to be real, though we all think we’re alone in our struggles to be here.

As such, we’re deeply restricted by the tension of sharing only with our small, private tribe while staying hidden in public. We live an either–or existence with our sensitivity, thinking we must reveal ourselves completely or not at all. We’re intimate with our small, private tribe while staying hidden in public. The great Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) said, “We’re all spies for God.” I think he means that we all experience the depth and mystery of life as a whole, but we guard our deepest sensibilities and keep them secret. And so, we live like spiritual spies.

The truth is, we don’t know how to be sensitive and authentic in public. We don’t know how to expand our tribe of intimates. We don’t know how to begin conversations about what’s true as a way to make friends. A great challenge of our age is to develop the skills to offer respectful invitations to deeper conversations and more authentic relationships. Some people will reject our invitation, which is fine, and some will say, “Thanks, let me think about this.” And some will drop their shoulders and utter, “My God, I thought I was alone.” Just how do we inhabit the vast, sweet terrain between being completely hidden and completely known? How do we have conversations that matter? No one knows how to do this. But this is our work in finding each other. This is our work in knitting the fabric of life back together wherever it is torn.


Questions to Walk With

  • In your journal, describe your history of being sensitive. Has it always been a struggle for you to be sensitive? Have you had to struggle with being too sensitive? Name one reward you’ve experienced for being sensitive and name one challenge you’ve experienced for being sensitive.
  • In conversation with a friend or loved one, describe a time you struggled with the extremes of a strong feeling. Did you shut down to this feeling or find yourself drowning in it? Where did you finally land? What has this experience taught you?

In March and April, Nepo will be teaching in New York City, Albuquerque, NM, Vancouver, BC, and at Pine Manor in Southern California. See MarkNepo.com for details.


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