Sensitivity vs. insensitivity

Sensitivity was one of the first things I noticed was both a strength and a weakness.

The year was 2000, and I was volunteering at Kalani, a wellness retreat center in the Puna district on the Big Island of Hawai’i. It was my first time being immersed in a culture of new age spirituality and healing. I shared meals with over forty people every day, many of whom were seeking wellness through special diets, yoga, meditation, or other nifty lifestyle practices that Western doctors didn’t often prescribe their patients.

I got to know many ultra-sensitive people. Some of them had food sensitivities, and were very selective about what they put in their bodies. Others were sensitive to their emotions, able to deeply investigate every interaction’s effect on their psyche. Others were sensitive to people, attuned to their body language, tone of voice, and what words they chose to express themselves.

At first I envied their sensitivity. They could perceive things that I couldn’t. I imagined that I might be eating things that were bad for my body, yet it would take me 30 or 40 years to ever find out, because that’s how long it would take a disease or condition to develop to be big enough for me to notice it, whereas these sensitive cats could take one bite of something and know immediately that it was bad for them because they would get hives or diarrhea or some such indication that they had better eat something else. Sure, it wasn’t fun for them to be so sensitive, because they couldn’t get away with stuff other people could get away with, yet I reckoned their bodies’ sensitivity would keep them on the straight and narrow, which would show up later on as greater health in their old age.

As time wore on, though, I saw how stern a taskmistress their sensitivity was. It seemed as though the more they catered to their sensitivities, the more sensitive they became. Maybe they’d decide they wanted to purify their diet because they were having some health issues, so they’d start out eating vegetarian, then move to being vegan, and then switch to eating only raw food, and by the end of it all their bodies couldn’t digest hardly anything served in mainstream society — fine most of the time, difficult for traveling and visiting friends.

So despite the attraction of cultivating sensitivity in myself, I went the opposite route and decided to cultivate (or at least preserve) insensitivity. I make sure to eat junk food once in awhile, and I sleep on the ground when I camp, and I work and exercise despite my aches and pains as much as possible, all in the name of not “going soft”. This may have serious repercussions for my health — I had a kidney infection for over a year once without realizing it because it didn’t hurt. I didn’t realize how odd it was that it didn’t hurt until the doctor asked me over and over, “You sure you haven’t been feeling any pain?” Insensitivity, as much as sensitivity, has its pros and cons.

It reminds me of the story about the wild child they found in the woods of France in the 19th century. When they first found him, he seemed impervious to heat and cold. He didn’t shiver outside in the winter, even though he was naked when first found, and he would grab potatoes straight from the fire with his bare hands without feeling burned. The priest that found him spent a lot of time increasing his sensitivity — giving him baths and massages, touching his skin with soft furs or fabrics. It worked; the boy became more sensitive. One of the signs he was more sensitive was that he got his first cold. The priest reported that the first time the boy sneezed, the look on his face was comical, he was so surprised.

I wish I could have either sensitivity or insensitivity at my disposal whenever I want. I could be sensitive when in nature or a plush zone, insensitive when I get caught out in the rain without an umbrella. I could be sensitive to how foods affect my health, yet retain the ability to digest everything. I could be sensitive to my friends, yet let some jerk’s comments roll off of me like water off a duck’s back. Maybe it’s possible. After all, the brain is in charge of the body, and I’m in charge of my brain (sort of). If the wild child can learn to feel hot and cold and get sick, I must have some ability to influence how sensitive I am.

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