In her autobiography, Therese of Lisieux describes what she considers as one of the key moments of conversion in her life:
She was the youngest in her family and her father’s favorite. He doted on her and every year when the family came home from church on Christmas Eve, he had a little ritual he played out as he gave a gift to her, his youngest and favorite daughter.
One Christmas Eve when Therese was nine years old and still tender and sad from her mother’s death, as the family returned home from church, she overheard her father tell one of her older sisters that he hoped that, this year, he would no longer had to play that little, childish charade with Therese.
Overhearing this, Therese, a deeply sensitive child, was stung to the core, felt betrayed, and fell into a long period of silence and depression. Eventually she emerged from it and regained her resiliency and joy. Looking back on it years later, she saw her giving up of that particular hurt, and the hypersensitivity that provoked it, as one of the key moments of conversion in her whole life.
We usually wouldn’t define overcoming sensitivity as a religious conversion, but it is precisely that, a conversion with immense religious and emotional repercussions. Our happiness depends upon having the resiliency to accept the many hurts, disappointments, and injustices of life so as to live in the give- and-take that is required for family and community living. And we learn that lesson slowly.
The older I get, the more I am coming to know how sensitive people are and how easily they get hurt. It doesn’t take much for someone to ruin your day. We don’t just get hurt when we meet open hostility, insults, unfairness, or hatred. We can get deeply hurt just by overhearing a casual remark or simply by not being noticed, appreciated, or invited. The human heart is easily bruised, too easily.
And then, like Therese, the impulse is to withdraw, withhold, grow silent, nurse the wound, become depressed, grow cold. That is why we are often so cautious and paranoid inside of our families and communities. We don’t want to be cold, but we’re hurt.
Moreover that doesn’t bring out the best in us. Pettiness too often spawns pettiness. Thomas Aquinas once suggested that we have two souls inside us: an anima magna (a grand soul) and an anima pusilla (a petty soul). When we act out of our grand soul, we are generous, hospitable, big-hearted, and warm. Conversely, when we act out of our petty soul, we are paranoid, bitter, over-protective, cautious, and small-hearted. When we feel hurt it is all too easy to act out of the petty half of our souls.
We know the truth of that from everyday experience: One minute we can be feeling generous, hospitable, and big-hearted, and then an insult or a simple slight can trigger feelings of disappointment, bitterness, and pettiness. Which is really us? They both are! Everything depends, day to day, minute to minute, upon which soul we are drawing our vision and energy from at a given moment.
Of course we can always rationalize our bitterness, coldness, and pettiness by appealing to our sensitivity. We feel slights and insults deeply precisely because we are deep. There’s truth in that. The more sensitive we are, the more deeply we will feel both love and its betrayal. But, and this is the point, we need, like Therese, to see our hypersensitivity as something to be converted from so that we can be resilient enough to absorb the bumps and bruises of everyday living. Nobody can live for any length of time within a family or a community without hurting others and without getting hurt. The challenge is to have the resiliency to live with that.
Daniel Berrigan once commented that if Jesus came back today he would go into every counseling office in the world and drive out both the doctors and their clients with the words: “Take up your couch and walk! You don’t have to be this sensitive!”
Perhaps that’s strong, but it contains an important challenge to conversion. Henri Nouwen used to say that one of the key elements in spiritual conversion is to move from hostility to hospitality. All major spiritualities tell us the same thing.
In Tibetan Buddhism, the bowl is the image for resentment. In it is contained all our bitterness, disappointment, and disillusionment. We sit holding that bowl in our hands. We can either pour it forwards, so that the resentment flows away from us, or we can tip it onto ourselves, allowing all that poison to infect us. Our happiness depends upon which way we tip that bowl.
How can we let go of our hypersensitivity? A priest that I know once gave me this advice: Whenever you feel stung and hurt, pull away, sit in prayer, and stay there until the pain softens enough so that you can face others with warmth again.