As we grow older, we grow out of our clothes, our tastes in music, even our friends, but we never grow out of our favorite books. In high school, I randomly picked up Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.” I read it, loved it, and felt the exact same way when I re-read it again last year. That’s the wonderful thing about the classics: they are so good that they only get better with age.
As I go through different experiences in life, though, I think about certain characters in books who might’ve faced the same things. Books may be timeless, but characters—their words and their decisions—are stuck in time. So, just as we grow out of friends, we can grow out of our connection or identification with certain characters. One day, you’re conversing and you realize that you no longer think and feel like they do; you’ve grown up. You can love that friend to no end, but you realize that you have to move on and move forward.
Recently, an experience with a love affair made me think of Jude Fawley and Sue Bridehead, the overly-sensitive couple in Hardy’s great “Jude the Obscure.” At eighteen, I understood those characters; they were me…I thought. (Boy, does it take the young to romanticize sensitive outcasts.) Perusing the book a few weeks ago, though, I was struck about how changed I was about them. I still loved them to, you know, no end, but: “What a pair of whiny, passive, narcissists!” I thought instead.
Hey, I get it. “I’m sensitive! The world is too hard and cruel and ugly for me! I’m meant for beautiful, soft, intelligent, fragile things only! Life is such a tragedy! Waa!…Waa!…Waa!” Cue the collective whining of Literature’s great characters.
In the real world, we grow up, though. We realize that there has to be some catharsis, some means by which we can appease both our artistic sensitivities and the realities of the world. Instead of idolizing sensitivity or condemning it, we accept it and actively use to make our worlds better.
It is not easy, though.
Recently, one of my students passed away. While the teachers handled the crisis well with the students, still, I noticed a variety of reactions. On one end, students immediately burst into tears, while others remained analytical about how it happened, with one student even asking who would get all of his stuff!
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that one version of grieving is more genuine than any other. We all have our different methods of handling loss, which are equally valid. Yet, I couldn’t help but recall a similar occurrence from my youth. While some students cried and quickly got over it or didn’t cry at all, I could not bounce back so easily. Eventually, a counselor had to pull me aside.
Remembering that episode helped me to see that I have always been a very sensitive person. Everything, from relationships to loss to physical stimuli affects me deeper and longer than most people.
We live in a hard world, where we have to build up strong defenses, cynicism, irony, and sarcasm to prevent ourselves from reacting to what happens in our lives in an emotional way. So we despise the trait as a weakness in ourselves and in others. On some level, it is necessary (or you might just go crazy). Yet, as I have grown older I have seen how important true sensitivity really is. We spend so much time trying to crush sadness fear, and anger out of our systems, but I have realized how much I need it.
Now, I let myself feel sad when I feel sad. If I’m angry, I am going to be mad; I’m not going to drive it out of myself. If I’m scared, I will let myself feel that, too. People who judge me for being easily affected by the world are probably running from the same tendency in themselves. Emotions are not something to hide; like any gauge, they help us understand ourselves, other people, and the world. When you feel, you’re alive.
Bypassing the pathological sensitivity of Hardy’s Jude and Sue (the kind that makes you incapable of functioning in the real world), those of us who can feel, sense, and think so much better because of our sensitive nature shouldn’t be ashamed of it. In fact, we should be proud.
…Remind me of that the next time my face crumples because of some “crisis” and my friends react with amusement, guilt, or annoyance…