The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.
-John Steinbeck (Thanks, Wikipedia!)
That’s how I felt as a friend and I walked on the trail at a state park we drove up to. It was a moment of peace with the cool air of the forest, air so fresh you can smell it, and a silence as comforting as a fuzzy blanket. Despite the mountain lion warnings, when you’re surrounded by 1,500 year old trees, you feel safe. Just as the city seems to magnify most problems, a walk with nature seems to shrink things into perspective.
The trees have seen it all. Seen us all. All of us human beings – tiny, impetuous, presumptuous, self-aggrandizing, afraid, lonely, and cynical. Surrounded by trees that are centuries old you finally whisper aloud some thoughts that you have been carrying around in your head long enough to be a burden. These thoughts have been festering, multiplying, feeding on each other. It’s ok, the trees will say. You are not the first to have these thoughts nor will you be the last. You are just another random point of chaos in a world that you have no control over. Do as we do, the trees say. Set down roots and fight your battles alone.
But suppose, just suppose, you are not alone. Just suppose you walk down the same path not in companionable silence but in conversation. Suppose you forget for a moment everything in the past that’s made you cynical and closed and you say say out loud what you’ve been carrying around in your head. Suppose, surrounded by the trees that have witnessed countless friendships over their millennia of existence you feel reassured?
We are not trees (or ents). Our lives are short and moments of happiness are shorter still. We sensitive folks who live in our heads tend to forget that. Each of us at some point has been so deeply hurt that we chose to cut ourselves off from reality and live in our own cocoon instead. It’s perfectly understandable*.
For most of my life I’ve been told that my sensitivity is a my weakness and that is partially the truth. Look how I’m hurt even when no hurt was intended! See how I sense what you want to say before you say it! Behold how I detect the minutest ripples in The Force! My sensitivity can even detect gravitational waves**! Sometimes it’s nice to meet a fellow gravitational wave detector***. We all just need to hang out with our own kind sometimes, don’t we?
It can be quite a party when two sensitive introverts spend a day together. We open our conversation with a discussion of Trump’s racism versus the popular media narrative of caste in India. He explains how self-driving cars are proven to be impossible. We talk about the carefully constructed class profiles in Business Schools. When we walk on the trail we look up at the redwoods and discuss the rainfall patterns in temperate and tropical forests and how it influences the size of the tree canopy. He talks about forest fires and the cycles of nature. I talk about Krishnamacharya’s school of yoga. This is our idea of small talk.
As we reach an incline, I am compelled to point out that he walks like a giant. I need to take three steps for every two he takes just to keep up. I make him stop and measure. Of course we measure. We are nothing if not precise. We have a brief discussion comparing his stride with The Hero’s. The Hero is taller than the friend. How am I able to keep up with The Hero but not with the friend? We conclude it’s because he’s never adjusted his stride for anyone else. This leads us deeper into the woods – both literally and metaphorically. Why is he still single? Why is he working insane hours? More importantly, is he happy?
It is left as an exercise to the reader to imagine the conversation that follows. I cannot give out any details without compromising on the privacy of a person who spoofs his IP address to keep Google from tracking him. There are brief moments of lightness – a girl on the trail compliments him on the sound his shoes make, he chases after the model steam train (his giant stride coming handy) to take pictures of it for Chotu. But for most part the tone has shifted.
We’re in borderline therapy territory now. Each of us playing Devil’s Advocate, therapist, sympathetic confidant, and rational analyst for the other. We can observe at the patterns in our own lives, talk about the people closest to us, reveal our darkest moments and yet be so detached and clinical. In the company of someone so similar, I will not shed the tears that come so easily otherwise (I might have cried watching Zootopia on my flight). They’re not needed because we are so methodical, so brutal, so thorough, and so analytical. Dissecting emotions is the only way we know of to deal with things that overwhelm us.
Then suddenly, we have enough. Dig deep enough anywhere, he says, and you will find water. I agree. We are both masters of the art of knowing just how far to dig and how deep to probe. We’ve learned well in our twenties. There’s an unspoken agreement then to veer back into the “real” world.
We leave the cafe where we have spent half an hour eating eating and three hours talking. On the way back to his car I stop to look at some shoes on sale. Dr Giant Steps takes a while to notice I’m not keeping up. He looks back in disapproval. “Those shoes are $15, they’re not even worth stopping to look at”, he says. I jog behind him and meekly agree.
We ease back into light banter, or our version of it anyway. I figure he’s had enough of me. I’m an introvert, I know we both need some down time to recharge. But a true gentleman, he sees things through to their logical conclusion. He takes me on the promised drive around Silicon Valley (something we planned to do when he picked me up in the morning). I expect him to take me back after we’ve seen the highlights but he takes me shopping for food. He remembers my complaint about how hard it is to find good food without a car. We first go to an Indian store and then, sensing my reluctance to eat Indian food here, he drives me to his favorite bakery where he selects some very nice things for me to take back. He’s still not done. As he drops be back off at my hotel. he offers to take me out to dinner any time I need to go out.
That defines the way sensitives approach a human connection. We see everything through to the very end. Down to the last shred of energy we have to give – even to someone we don’t really need to. Dr Giant Steps is actually The Hero’s friend but I couldn’t help but get involved in his problems and he in mine (albeit his being more serious and mine mostly revolving around boredom and food). Given he’s so much more introverted than I am, he’s probably exceeded his weekly or even monthly quota for socializing. But he’s still willing to take me out to dinner if I need it. Why? No real reason except that’s who he is.
If I did not have a similar temperament, I would not know that he needs his week of peace and solitude to recharge. An extrovert would feel sorry for the workaholic who lives all alone and ask him out to dinner every night. “My treat!”, the extrovert would exclaim. An extrovert would feel sorry for me, all alone in my hotel room, and try to keep me occupied every single evening. It just wouldn’t occur to either him or me to refuse. We wouldn’t want to do it, but we would go anyway. At least I would. The extroverts mean well, they don’t intend to hurt us but we get hurt anyway.
This is the reason sensitive people try to stay guarded with their emotions. We don’t know how to do things half way emotionally. We’re either all in or all out. You give us a little, we give you back a hundred times more. We see someone who needs help, we go all in. We’re the kind of people who obsess over other people’s problems. We are, in short, perfect suckers. We attract people who love to take advantage of us. As a result, we can either be detached, cold, and cynical and go against every instinct we possess. Or we can learn to deal with the constant heartache that comes with being a sensitive. Either a redwood or a banyan. With all the sensitive people I’ve encountered in my life, there’s rarely been an in-between.
As Dr GIant Steps perfectly puts it – you live by the sword, you die by the sword. Your biggest strength is also your greatest weakness.
* Let me throw in some numbers for perspective. Introverts account for about 30% of the population although estimates range between 16-50% with the Myers Briggs scale evenly dividing people into E’s and I’s. The population of sensitives (Highly Sensitive Persons or High Reactives) is estimated to be about 20%. About 70% of all sensitives are introverts but that still makes highly sensitive introverts quite a minority in the overall population. This is one of the reasons sensitivity, as I prefer it reactivity, is not well understood.
** That is a lie.
*** He cannot detect gravitational waves either