You’d think that I’d be able to answer that question with a great deal of confidence at the age of 73, nearing 74. And at one level I can.
And by that I don’t mean through detailed knowledge of my ancestry. All I know already (or am likely to know in the future, for that matter) is logged on this blog either tagged as poems or autobiography.
Nor am I talking about my fundamental reality as a spiritual being, something else I have explored at length elsewhere on this blog usually tagged as spirituality.
No. What I am getting at is far more mundane.
It’s that I know I have a tendency towards introversion. I like a fair amount of my own company and devote it to reflection, reading and writing whenever I can. It was in my teens I realised that I needed to disguise this pattern if I was to get anywhere in the world. I have persuaded myself I hide it reasonably successfully now. I may have done quite well in what, in her biographical chapter, Jane Stabler (Reading Douglas Dunn – page 5) claims the poet succeeded at – cultivating ‘an extrovert public profile which deflected attention from his private book-buying self.’
I read Susan Cain’s Quiet with a quiet sense of satisfaction that I had nailed all I needed to pin down in terms of my temperament. So much of what she said fitted me so well.
But not entirely.
There was the pool of pain problem, the inescapable fact that deep inside me there has always been a hurt that does not heal. Apart from my People Not Psychiatry work over the encounter group weekend in the mid-70s, which I have blogged about, there are numerous examples of when this pain gets triggered, of the kind the 2006 diary entry illustrates (see my italics in particular):
I’ve just seen the latest Pride and Prejudice directed by Joe Wright with Keira Knightley, Donald Sutherland, Brenda Blethyn and Matthew MacFadyen. It never fails to move me as a story in a passable rendering, which this was (though not as good as Simon Langton’s with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle).
I suspect that it is not the tough-minded observation of moeurs nor the positive resolutions that does the trick each time. It’s that Jane Austen has plumbed the very depths of unfulfilment, of unrequitable passion, of thwarted intensity. She knew what yearning was. Though she uses tales of manners satirically dressed with wicked accuracy, it is the undertow of sadness and longing that gives them power to move me so profoundly. Yes, I love her needle-sharp deflation of pomposity and hypocrisy. It makes me roar with pleasure. I admire her moral sense that probes the cracks even in the endearing Mr Bennet. But it is the pain as Elizabeth believes she is watching the man she has come to love and respect walk out of her life forever that touches my soul. Always for me it is the longing that is most real. There is some longing in me that has never been assuaged. Marriage, fatherhood, literature, religion, work and nature never do more than palliate the pain for a brief moment. There is a beauty always out of reach that my heart keens after. Most people seem not to feel it. They find effective anodynes it seems or maybe never feel this pain at all, plain and simple.
I am still inventing ambitions – to think and write about spirituality and psychology for instance when I retire – to convince me that life still has some hope. But all I really see is a future of exits – valued beings and things leaving me.
When I was blogging about transliminality recently someone stopped by to comment. She wrote:
I just stumbled upon your post in looking for images on transliminality, and I think your diagram is right on. I just finished a PhD in Religion, Psychology, & Culture at Vanderbilt University and wrote my dissertation on Transliminality & Transcendence: An Exploration of the Connections among Creativity, Mystical Experience, and Psychopathology — I felt very fortunate to have found institutional support for this topic.
She offered to send me a copy. I leapt at the chance.
And now I come to what has triggered this recent burst of introspection.
As I read with keen interest through the first sections of her thesis I came across the following:
What does it mean to be an HSP, a highly sensitive person? Such persons are part of the 15-20% of (not only humans but) every animal population studied so far that is characterized by greater sensory awareness, responsiveness, and caution than the other 80-85% (Aron 1997, p. 12). Evolutionary psychologists speculate that this variation develops in all known species because its traits are advantageous in certain circumstances—like hiding from predators, or refraining from starting wars—while the majority’s less-cautious and less-reactive tendencies are better at things like adjusting to new conditions and bringing home the bacon.
In people, sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) entails four qualities that can be summarized with the acronym BEDS: Behavioral inhibition, Emotional reactivity, Depth of processing, and Sensitivity to subtle stimuli (Aron et al. 2012, p. 7-11).65 Highly sensitive persons tend to hold back and inhibit their actions until they have “paused to check” out the situation at hand; their emotions are stronger or more extreme versions (both “positive” and “negative”) of what others tend to experience; they tend to, and need to, process (think about, introspect, assimilate) their experiences, feelings, relationships, thoughts, and circumstances more thoroughly than do others; they can easily become overaroused and anxious from sensory and situational stimulation that the majority of people would find comfortable; and they pick up on subtle sensory and emotional stimuli that most people do not notice. Additionally, in Aron’s initial three- to four-hour interviews with HSPs, “persons across all categories volunteered early that their particular form of spirituality (e.g., ‘seeing God in everything,’ long meditation retreats, a religious vocation) was central to their lives” (Aron et al. 2012, p. 11).
In less academic terms and with a different acronym Sezin Koehler in an article on the Huffington Post website summarises it neatly:
‘In Sensitive: The Untold Story Dr. Aron breaks down the four major traits of a highly sensitive individual into the acronym DOES: depth of processing, overstimulation, empathy and emotional responsiveness, and sensitivity to subtleties. . . . . Because of this above-average depth of processing, the highly sensitive person is easily overstimulated — aka overwhelmed — by events going on around them, and especially chaotic, loud, or crowded situations. The highly sensitive require a great deal of downtime in order to decompress after overstimulation. . . . . . . The highly sensitive show more brain activity in the insula — also known as the brain’s seat of consciousness, which helps integrate an individual’s inner and outer experiences into usable data for survival. The highly sensitive are easier to cry than others because they are emotionally tending to everything around them in a deeper way, which is not a bad thing. Dr Aron notes, “Emotions generally lead to better thinking, because we only think thoroughly about something we care about.” . . . . . In an interview in the film highly sensitive person Alanis Morrissette says, “I spent most of my life thinking that how I was was a problem for people.” I certainly relate to that sentiment. And Dr. Aron, herself a highly sensitive person, reveals, “I think I went into clinical psychology because I didn’t know what was the matter with me.”’
What was both amusing and irritating when I read about Aron was that I immediately recollected that I had started her 1997 book on iBooks two years or more ago but had given up halfway through. My highlights and notes indicated that I had got the point that what she was saying might apply to me but had failed to register that it might matter.
So, I’ve gone back to her book and finished it. I think what put me off before was partly her tone rather than the content of what she said. There was a touch too much American hyperbole for my understating English palate.
There is clearly enough of an overlap between my perception of myself and the other aspects of this trait to make me suspect that sensitivity might be the missing piece in my jigsaw. Introverts can also display this trait it seems, so it doesn’t negate that aspect of my personality.
What this realisation might do, after I have reflected on it for a bit longer (I can’t help myself – I must be an HSP!), is convince me that I do not need to uncover some forgotten loss, above and beyond those I have already explored, to explain why I am prone to bursting into tears and feeling so deeply sad at times. It’s just how I am. I’m more intense than I thought was reasonable, and this is apparently not unusual for HSPs, who tend to see themselves as inadequate when they needn’t do.
It also possibly explains two other disquieting tendencies I have, apart from my habit of trying to read their state of mind from the faces, postures and gestures of everyone that comes within eye-shot on the street, in cafes and just about everywhere else as well.
First, I have always felt pathetic about my performance anxiety, which is also a correlate of the trait, it seems. I can remember once I was playing really well and comfortably winning a game of squash. Then I noticed that someone was watching the game from the glass window overhead and staying there, not just moving on as most people did. My game crashed and I went to a humiliating defeat.
Secondly, Aron’s research indicates that ‘hunger has an especially strong effect on HSPs.’ Maybe that’s why I have always found the Bahá’í Fast so difficult.
This was obvious right from the start.
I had been dreading the first day of my first Bahá’í Fast – no food, no drink between sunrise and sunset in March. For someone who had never missed lunch in his life, this was a daunting prospect.
I had a long two-and-a-half hour commute at that time. So, I got up at just before my usual time and prepared a bowl of porridge for myself as the most sustaining breakfast I could think of. I sat down with the porridge and a cup of tea. I had ten minutes to finish my breakfast. That was no problem as I have always been a fast eater (no paradoxical pun intended).
As I sat down I felt an agonising pain in my gut and passed out. I later speculated whether it must’ve been some form of colic, probably brought on by my extreme anxiety at the prospect of the impending fast.
When I came round it was too late to eat. The sun had risen. I paused and wondered what I should do. I made the wrong decision. I left my tea and porridge untouched, got ready for work and headed for the tube.
To cut a long story short I spent the day with a slowly rising temperature and an increasing headache, until I ended up waiting on Guilford Station to head home to Hendon. I had a sandwich and a can of Coke in my bag. The train came, I boarded and found a seat.
Still not time to break the fast!
The other passengers must have found it weird to see someone peering at their watch every few seconds with a sandwich on their lap and a drink in their hand. At last the hour struck. I wrenched at the ring on the top of the can. It didn’t budge. With my hands shaking by this stage I wrenched harder. The top came off and cut me as it did so and the blood poured out.
The final irony!
I had to fidget with a handkerchief to staunch the blood I could ill afford to spill before I was able drink my Coke.
The following two days I phased myself slowly into the fast with water and salad in the middle of the day before I attempted a full day’s fasting again.
Even now my wife comments if we’re out and I start to get irritable, ‘Let’s find a cafe and sit down. You’re hungry, I can tell.’
Now I think I know why that is too.
Time will tell whether this explanation for my well of tears, my performance anxiety, my reaction to hunger pangs, my dithering and my people-watching holds good. I hope it does.
Hold on though. I may have to contact Elaine Aron to check something out.
She doesn’t mention anything in her sensitivity profile about a tendency to start a book, abandon it halfway through to start another and so on ad nauseam. At present I’m halfway through at least thirteen books that I can remember, never mind the ones I’ve forgotten I started. I think she may have missed something here. I’m definitely not a Completer-Finisher and perhaps this is why. I’m too sensitive.
Anyway, what were you saying about that post I said I’d write about procrastination?