I was in my mid-20s when I whispered to my now-husband, literally under the covers, that I didn’t think I was going to live very long.
At this point, I was old enough to have been kicked down and shut down, but too young to know how to get back up.
Old enough to have learned that the oft-repeated mantras of “follow the rules and tell the truth” don’t get you recognition or success in this world, and young enough to still want that recognition and success.
Old enough to have earned some battle scars and wounds; too young to know how to heal them.
I didn’t confide this truth because I was sick or aware of some foreboding family medical history. I was as healthy on the outside as one could be, and as far as I knew, there was no inherited disease lurking in my body.
My husband didn’t know what to do with my comment any more than I knew how to explain it. I think I can explain it better now.
What I thought I needed back then to live a longer life was to “grow a thicker skin.”
I was often told I was too easily offended. That I took things the “wrong” way. I didn’t laugh along when I was teased, and when someone pointed out something about me—from my clothing to my hair to an expression on my face—it often made me blush in discomfort.
I believed, perhaps unconsciously, that to survive in this world, I would need to learn how to “take jokes” and “lighten up.” I believed what people told me: that I was oversensitive, and what I needed to do was stop taking everything so seriously and, apparently, so personally. People are just jokin’ around, that’s all. It’s my problem if I can’t take the joke. It’s my problem if I’m offended.
When I look back now at this 20-something version of myself, I feel both compassion and admiration. Compassion, because pain that is not understood cannot be held. And admiration, because she did eventually define success for herself. And more than that, she found a way to live in this world without needing that so-called “thicker skin.”
Instead, I learned over time to accept this part of myself and make it my superpower. The fact that I can imagine what other people might be feeling or thinking—even if I’m not always right about it—speaks to a kind of connectivity with this world that doesn’t end at my skin. It’s not just a “walk in your shoes,” kind of thing. It’s more than that.
One time, when an acquaintance and I were arguing about abortion rights, I said to him, “Imagine that men were the ones who carried and birthed babies. Do you really think there wouldn’t be abortion clinics on every block, and that there would be no argument that it was “their body, their choice?”
He shook his head and said, “I can’t imagine that. It’s not the way things are.”
So I can only extrapolate from here that he wouldn’t be able to imagine any other walk of life but his own. He couldn’t imagine growing up as a Black boy, or being the Black mother of this boy. He couldn’t imagine feeling that his gender identity didn’t match his sex. His imagination couldn’t take him any further than the experience in his own skin.
Our imagination is the tool we use to connect with others we might not normally understand. And to do this, we have to drop the barriers we put up between us. We have to feel as they feel—to the best of our ability. And for me, this has never been very difficult to do.
You can call me an empath if you like, but I don’t put that label on myself. Primarily, because I think the word empath puts people who feel things intensely in the “outside” group rather than the norm—and I believe feeling things deeply should be, could be, the norm if it weren’t so conditioned out of us.
I’m not trying to suggest to anyone else to not use this label. If it is helpful for you, then great. For me, I’m trying to live as label-free as I can—because I find them all ultimately limiting. Even the labels that originally make us feel understood or recognized eventually become vices that keep us from growing.
And if we are living an awake life, we are going to feel things along the way. We should feel things, deeply. We should all be empaths.
From this article on Medium:
We are all empaths, as are the oaks and willow, the bees and salamanders, the air we breathe and the water that breathes us. We all need learning to be in right relationship to this mix of life.”
Our nature, in other words, is empathic. To be otherwise is the deviation of the norm. We always have been, in fact, and evolutionary history shows it. From this article:
“These observations suggest that apart from emotional connectedness, apes have an appreciation of the other’s situation and show a degree of perspective-taking.”
The problem comes in here, from the same article:
“Our evolutionary background makes it hard to identify with outsiders. We’ve evolved to hate our enemies, to ignore people we barely know, and to distrust anybody who doesn’t look like us. Even if we are largely cooperative within our communities, we become almost a different animal in our treatment of strangers.”
So, perhaps if we want a better world, we needn’t point out when people are showing signs of deep connectivity, but rather when they’re showing signs of disconnection.
We should address under-sensitivity, not oversensitivity. Perhaps it should be considered an anomaly in our culture to only feel things superficially, as if the breeze upon our skin. If we human beings are truly one species all facing the common stresses of living a human life—trying to belong, to make a living, to be of service, to find love—feeling and sensing things deep in our bones should be the norm. And it shouldn’t need a special label to go with it.
Looking at how the body is depicted in chakra and aura charts, we can see that there really is no separation between us. The human body is not an entity unto itself. We are constantly exchanging energy and prana — the invisible, intangible life force. The easy spread of the Coronavirus—which cared not at all about labels or boundaries—surely reminded us of this.
There are no walls, boundaries, or boxes that prana cannot penetrate. Feelings and emotions travel on this prana from one person to the next, from one society to the next. A “thick skin” is only a blockage. A willful, if unconscious, barrier.
How can we separate or disentangle ourselves from the world when, as we breathe out, someone else is breathing in?
Being disconnected and disengaged is the real issue at hand. We should work with people on how to reconnect and re-engage. Instead, we make labels to classify people who are living the way all humans are meant to live.
We should all be so lucky as to have sensitive, feeling, thin skin.
My journey to this acceptance began when I recognized that my thin skin is an asset. As an asset, I protect it; I get enough sleep; I eat well; I consider how and where I spend my time. I know that when I engage, I’m going to feel things deeply and that I will need time to recoup. But I will not disengage. I will not separate myself and put up false boundaries between you and me.
I long ago stopped telling myself that I’m the odd one out. You can’t make me feel strange or less than for crying at the drop of a hat. If you can watch “Hamilton” without shedding a single tear, then I’m more worried about you than you should be about my mascara-streaked face. I will no longer let this part of myself be denied. It is how I move through life—porously, and open-hearted.
And because I am no longer trying to change my nature, I have no more fears about a life cut short. Instead, I plan to live a long, connected, thin-skinned, full-feeling life.
Award-Winning Author & Wholeness Advocate
Author: Embodying Soul: A Return to Wholeness — A Memoir of New Beginnings, winner of the 2020 IPA for Body, Mind and Spirit