Sensitivity Is a Virtue, collage on book cover, 2022
We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.Anaïs Nin
I sometimes think I’ve grown more sensitive as I’ve gotten older. Indeed, I seem to have reached that age at which a great deal of popular culture now offends my sensibilities, particularly when it comes to entertainment that’s excessively vulgar, profane, sexual, or violent. I find myself shaking my head in consternation and saying things like, “We didn’t watch/listen to things like that when I was young.” Much like my parents used to do.
But, alas, I am getting older. And my sensibilities have changed. My awareness of self has changed. And the kinds of images that used to be sexy, or deliver a cheap thrill, when I was in my teens and twenties are now unpleasant, even in some sense, repugnant.
I was thinking about all of this recently as I was leafing through a chapter in Maslow’s Future Visions, titled “Living in the World of Higher Values.” Here he discusses methods for reconciling the outer world (i.e., popular culture, the demands of professional life, consumerism, etc.) with our intrinsic needs for creativity, goodness, truth, beauty, justice, etc. Not surprisingly, most of the chapter is dedicated to perception. That is, the degree to which what we look at, what we listen to, the means with which we physically, sensorially engage with our environment all determine our ability to live good, beautiful, creative lives, aligned with our highest personal values, even in an increasingly depraved world.
Among my favorite of his suggestions are: “Fight familiarization. Seek fresh experiences…Try to recover a sense of the miraculous about life…Cultivate a sense of possibility…Be law-abiding in a Taoistic way: concerning the laws of nature, reality, and human nature…Avoid letting yourself become accustomed or indifferent to seeing corruption, degradation, hypocrisy, immorality, and prostitution.” If I were to summarize, I would say most of these tips constitute processes of de-familiarization, or of sensitizing (or re-sensitizing) ourselves to the world.
This is the link between perception and higher values: the process of enculturation (or, becoming “civilized”) desensitizes us to all sorts of things that go against our higher nature. To seek fresh experiences, to fight familiarization, to consistently expose ourselves to nature and to the intrinsic laws of nature, as Maslow suggests, to “slip into primary process thinking: poetical, metaphorical, out of the world” is to facilitate a kind of reclamation of innocence. I like to conceptualize this process as aligning eye, heart, and mind.
To maintain our sensitivity is a virtue. Indeed, it’s all too easy to become desensitized to the ways of civilization and lose our humanity in the process. As I’ve grown older, I have cultivated what I call a series of “non-negotiable habits,” or those habits I refuse to give up or give over to technology because I view them as being integral to my humanity. They’re my refuge. They’re where I go to find goodness, beauty, a sense of peace, of order, of the miraculous. They’re how I stay sensitive. Among the most important are reading physical books (I won’t read e-books. There’s nothing wrong with them, but physical books are somehow too much a part of who I am.), collage art, poetry, spending time in nature, watching birds and other creatures, cooking, gardening, yoga, riding a bike and taking long walks outdoors.
Sensitivity is a virtue. And Maslow is sometimes accused of being an idealist, of being too much an optimist. He believed that, if freed from the bonds of civilization, if healed from the kinds of abuses, traumas, and neglect that lie at the root of so much of our emotional suffering, we would be good. I think he’s right. The reason I know: we never stop looking for goodness. Our souls need goodness like our bodies need water. What we don’t realize: it’s being hidden in plain sight.
This is another collage that’s been scanned at home…and I do hope the quality is suitable. It is not yet available in my Etsy shop (but will be soon).