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The Human Condition:

Sensitivity as Vulnerability – November 5, 2017

Puppet master

When I was a child, my parents were relatively strict. They brooked little in the way of nonsense—and no sass—from me and my brother. They taught us how to be sober, industrious, capable adults. They wanted us to be strong, not so that we could terrorize the neighborhood or gain unfair advantage over our fellow men, but because life is unpredictable and sometimes hard, and you never know when you will need strength, will power, and sober attention to survive it. And they did all this without preaching or ever using words like “sober,” “capable,” or “strong.” They operated instead through setting examples and by turning common experiences into life lessons.

In our household, weakness and disability were not failings to be ashamed of but limitations to be overcome. If we were not strong in some area, then practice in order to become strong at it or find a way to compensate for the weakness. If we ever should have a disabling condition, then then we would compensate it, fix it, or cope with it in silence. If we made a mistake, then admit the error, try to correct it, and move on. Apologize as necessary, but only from a position of confidence and personal strength. As people with good standing in the community, a good education and proper upbringing, and access to family resources, we were supposed to be among those on whom others could count for assistance in emergencies or call for help in time of need.

The family ethos was to pay our way, do our duty, support the local community and the broader civilization, and stand on our own two legs. That was what it meant to be an adult in the larger world. We didn’t impose on anyone. We asked for no special favors. But we also kept what belonged to us and took care of it. And we didn’t back down from doing what was fair and right, either for ourselves and family or for others in our circle and our community.

But now I sense a change in the culture around me. It seems that people these days act—or are expected to act—as if disability and weakness were sources of strength and pride. They have become a sign that the community, the culture, the world owes you special consideration if not a bounty and some financial compensation. Maybe the world does owe you that, especially in particular cases like a civil suit, breach of contract, or class action, but my father would have suggested you’re a fool to expect that anyone else is actually going to pay it. Count the money after it’s in your hand.

The current culture also seems to suggest that a bristling sensitivity to personal sleights, to acts of disrespect based on gender, race, or ethnicity, and to loss of face or character in any situation should be appropriate to a well-balanced adult. And that these damages to the spirit must be redressed as a form of social justice and should carry the same weight as physical injury or damages to health and property. My mother would have called this attitude “wearing your heart on your sleeve” and suggested that this is not a survival trait.

For one thing, being overly sensitive and ready to take offense puts you in the crosshairs of the world’s bullies, road-ragers, and careless or thoughtless people. Your sensitivity makes you vulnerable to the hurts that life is all too ready to dish out, and it will require you—if you are consistent and conscientious in your approach to the world—to be constantly on the verge of taking offense and then being forced to take action. In the way that I was brought up, this is too much like work. Far better to develop a thick skin, ignore the offense—but mark the offender for future reference as someone to distrust or avoid—and then go on about the business that is important to you.

For another thing, wearing your hurts, your desires, and other aspects of your personal self so openly seems … insecure. In my family, what a person really thinks and feels, desires and needs, likes and dislikes are all matters for discussion only with other family members and intimate friends. An adult, a well-balanced individual with business to attend to, wears a personal face for that inner circle and a public face for everyone else. To expose those hurts and desires to the world at large is to give potentially unfriendly forces too much information. Your enemies—or those with an interest in becoming such—will know how to practice on you. The situations that can make you register offense or psychological hurt are usually related to your own insecurities and your inner sense of weakness or inadequacy. Why would you want to show the world at large any other persona than that of a self-sufficient, responsible, capable, balanced adult, someone with unknown access to personal and physical resources, and with unguessable limits as to your patience, tolerance, and goodwill, or to your capacity for animosity and rage?

Asking others to give you their pity and support and suggesting that they must act carefully and walk in circles around you to avoid giving you offense is a bad strategy. It is asking too much of the world. Living your life on those terms is putting yourself and your weaknesses at the center of others’ concern. That’s a nice situation, if you can get it. But the reality—as any well trained and well brought up child would know—is that you are just not that important. Not to the world. Not to the public space beyond your family and your intimate circle. And perhaps not even to them.1

To believe otherwise is conducive to neither spiritual nor physical strength. It is, in my view—and in the view of my parents and the generation they represented—a sign of weakness and vulnerability. What the world, that public space, and most of your family and friends expect from you as an adult is strength, capability, patience, persistence, and the ability to cope.

1. Unless, of course, you are the actual Prince of Wales and not the pauper Dauphin-in-hiding.